Could quantum computing be the upcoming focus of regulation in the EU?

The possible security menaces from the quantum field are evident but there seems to be little push in Brussels to regulate the technology – for the moment.

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Declaring its new Manifesto on Quantum Technologies in the last weeks of 2023, the European Commission strove to put the advanced technology solidly on the bloc’s agenda.

Thierry Breton, the EU’s Commissioner for the Internal Market, noted that it was a step toward creating a “Quantum Valley” in Europe.

According to a tweet by Breton, the joint declaration has thus far been supported by 11 member states, but only eight member states have actually signed it: Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Slovenia, and Sweden.

In recent years, the EU has enacted several landmark pieces of legislation to address Big Tech and regulate rapidly evolving technologies, specifically artificial intelligence (AI).

Quantum technology is on the minds of at least some EU policymakers but as the European Parliament elections loom in June and the European Commission enters the final months of its mandate, will it be a priority in 2024?

Europe’s Quantum Endeavors

Quantum computing could have far-reaching consequences; there have been decades of research with tech giants like IBM and Google leading the way, but the commercial deployments of quantum computing remain in their infancy.

The potential advancements of the technology have served to underline a need for preparing the ground for the future.

Computers as we know them now process bits of information, ones and zeros, while quantum computers on the other hand calculate qubits, which can be both 1 and 0 at the same time.

In simplest terms, that means quantum computers can carry out multiple calculations simultaneously rather than individually. This means faster computations.

The benefits could mean the rapid development of new drugs while on the flipside, there are dangers. Existing encryption protocols on the Internet could be cracked much quicker with a quantum computer.

The Declaration on Quantum Technologies isn’t the first effort of its kind.

In 2018, both the Quantum Technologies Flagship and the European High Performance Computing Joint Undertaking were established to support quantum computing developments in Europe.

These efforts haven’t been lost on industry.

Dr Joe Fitzsimons heads up Horizon Quantum Computing, based in Singapore, and recently established an EU base for the company in Dublin to expand its presence in Europe.

“There’s definitely been a reasonable amount of support. There’s this Quantum Flagship programme, which has been a big driver in Europe. At the same time, you have Germany investing additional capital in the space, which is certainly giving rise to a wave of spin-offs in Germany”.

Looking across Europe, there is a mixed bag of initiatives in member states.

The Netherlands launched its national quantum strategy in 2019 with Quantum Delta NL, established to help quantum research in universities and commercialize it.

Meanwhile, Ireland announced a national quantum strategy last November. However, neither of these countries have signed up to the new declaration.

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An Irish government spokesperson told Euronews Next it would consider signing the declaration “following consultations with the quantum community”.

Enhanced Europe-wide coordination

Herbert Mangesius is a general partner at investment firm Vsquared Ventures, which has backed European quantum computing start-ups like IQM. He said that there needs to be more coordination in Europe when it comes to quantum tech.

“I wish on a European level we’d really think of what have, where are the strengths in the regions and then really concentrate and not do the same thing in every country,” he said.

Each member state pursuing their own strategy won’t yield significant results, he said, but rather the efforts “need to be more clustered into regions” based on specialities.

Europe ought to consider how it can contribute to building hardware and quantum computing chips, Mangesius added.

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The EU already has the Chips Act to stimulate the semiconductor industry more generally, but these types of efforts need to focus on quantum too, he said.

Ish Dhand leads QC Design, a German start-up developing design software for quantum computers, which is a Vsquared portfolio company. He agrees that partnerships are to Europe’s advantage if it is to keep up with the US and China in the quantum race.

“In North America and China, there are full stack companies focusing on moonshots, trying to build everything in-house. An [example] here is Intel. They would want to make their own chips and sell full processors in the end,” he said.

“Things are different in Europe in that there are much more partnerships and there are many more smaller companies”.

Changing political priorities

While Breton stood front and centre at the announcement of the European Declaration of Quantum Technologies, it remains hazy how quantum will be addressed at a policy level.

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“The Commission does not envisage new legislative proposals in quantum technologies before the end of the current mandate,” a spokesperson for the Commission told Euronews Next.

In the world of politics, priorities can shift at any moment, especially after an election.

The Dutch quantum strategy, for instance, has secured €615 million in funding from the Dutch government but following the victory of far-right candidate Geert Wilders in the Netherlands’ general election, future funding becomes uncertain.

“The negotiations to form a new government, after the recent elections, started after the Christmas break, the direction and outcome of these negotiations are unclear for now. We expect changes of funding forms and routings coming from the Dutch Government, but it’s all unclear for now,” a spokesperson for Quantum Delta NL said.

For Horizon’s Fitzsimons, there are no immediate challenges posed by quantum computing – unlike AI – that lawmakers in Europe need to quickly address but the time will come eventually.

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The chief concern is cybersecurity. While quantum computing promises great breakthroughs in the speed of computation, it presents risks to security.

Existing encryption protocols on the Internet, which guard the likes of encrypted messaging or online banking services, could be broken by superfast quantum computers.

“You need a much more sophisticated quantum computer than we currently have but they’re not 100 years away; they’re maybe five or 10 years away,” Fitzsimons said.

“It’s in the foreseeable future, it’s something that we need to plan for”.

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