Quantum Standardization Risks from Geopolitics to Commercial Interests
By Andre Sariva, Diraq
Quantum Computing event on April 3 (see the recording here) marked the release of the first two whitepapers on Quantum Technologies commissioned by Australian Standard, a non-profit non-governmental organization, similar to the American ANSI or the European IEC. They are on topic Quantum Computing (which is available in complete form) and Quantum Communication (only executive summary available at this time). This is a fantastic and authoritative read, and two more reports are planned for release at a later date.
At the launch event, a number of very interesting points were raised regarding the continuity of quantum computing research and the role of standardization.
To set the context, it’s important to visualize what the state of quantum technology will be like in 2023. Australia has been making commercial efforts in quantum communications and quantum sensing now for decades. In addition, it is home to some of the world’s leading quantum computing hardware developers, such as Silicon Quantum Computing, Quantum Brilliance, and Diraq. Standards play a very different role in this scenario – the concept of quantum superiority in sensing and communication is well understood and testable with today’s technology, while remaining elusive and theoretical in quantum computing.
A natural question is then posed to the panel of experts invited to the event (including you actually): could it be too soon to set standards in a nascent field with such a distant horizon for practical commercial applications?
The unanimous view of experts in the room, both quantum scientists and policy makers alike, is that the standardization of terminology in quantum technologies should have happened much earlier. Standards are instruments to support governments and companies to guarantee that their investments are protected by conventions that eliminate technical ambiguity, an urgent need in the case of quantum markets. For example, it will be one of the main tools for surviving a potential quantum winter.
The world is becoming more and more aware that a quick quantum gain with a small NISQ algorithm may not be forthcoming. The only mathematically provably profitable algorithms developed so far rely on millions of qubit processors that can operate fault-tolerantly, or at least with qubits that can tolerate deeper circuits and perform calculations much faster than current ones. Trying to build such a machine is a scientific as well as a financial challenge. Disillusioned investors expecting quicker returns are leaving the scene, raising the bar for quantum companies to tap into investments needed from either the government or private investors with deep enough pockets and flexible investment mandates.
In a world less abundant, serious companies can only differentiate themselves if well-defined quality standards are in place. In addition, taxpayer money needs to be invested with serious attention to verification of claims and validation of quantum operating standards. Finally, investors will need metrics to measure progress in the long valley between the initial blueprint they submit and the actual final product.
The problem can be as simple as defining the word “qubit”. For most scientists, there is no controversy about what the world means. However, there are a number of technologies that circumvent the standard paradigm of a two-tier system with a calibrated set of operations, initializations, and readouts. Examples include adiabatic/annealing quantum computing, continuous variables, and quantum simulation. In these cases, use (and, in some cases, misuse) of the term “qubit” can lead to differences between what is offered by different vendors. If a government agency begins the bidding process for a 100-qubit quantum computer, it’s critical that those 100 qubits actually do what they’re meant to do with minimum certified fidelity.
Early efforts to define such standards were self-administered by academics. Field of Quantum Computing Verification and Validation (QCVV) constitutes a vibrant crowd at any scientific conference. However, relying on individuals to do this work is bound to be a problem in the long run. These volunteers are only efficient gatekeepers if they remain impartial and agnostic to particular commercial explorations. But in a world where there is a huge talent gap, the economic pressure to enroll scientists in quantum startups is slowly emptying the room for truly independent QCVV experts.
Several attempts at self-certification as a service have been made. Quantum Benchmark is a former Canadian startup (which is now part of the Keysight portfolio) doing just that. But so far it’s been largely a spontaneous initiative by hardware makers to get their “seal of approval,” rather than a public policy requiring independent certification. Ultimately, this problem is only meaningful if national standardizing bodies, such as Standards Australia, have a framework for governing what metrics should be used when discussing performance targets for quantum processors.
Global standardization efforts
There is one draft International Standard currently under the Information Technology family of standards chaired by a joint technical committee (JTC 1) of International Organization for Standardization (ISOs) and International Electronics Commission (IEC). The ongoing draft is accept comments at this time. This document has only scratched the surface trying to simply define the vocabulary and terminology in the field. This very simple example has highlighted the commercial difficulties and friction posed by simple terms like qubit, quantum processor and others.
Most standards organizations are still in the very early stages of roadmap/white paper. Here are some examples:
Criticism of current standardization efforts
Independence / Impartiality
With the explosion in the quantum industry, finding an impartial expert with enough influence in the field to write a widely respected and adopted set of standards has become increasingly difficult. Governments should put some money into their quantum initiatives to maintain an independent pool of academics, who can consult industry, but are ultimately economically self-sufficient and able to provide standardization driven by science, and not by commercial interests.
There is geopolitical pressure for countries to take the lead in standard setting. However, this field is nascent and the quantum market is only sustainable when viewed on a global scale. We therefore had to ensure that standardization efforts did their best to consult across countries, including countries with less developed quantum industries but with the potential to mediate impartial discussions and ultimately with the ability to represent future consumer views of the technology.
In addition, it is important that in each country, input on standards is drawn from a balanced representative of industry, academia, stakeholders and the general public.
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges in assembling a pool of experts who have respected opinion, remain impartial to commercial interests, have the power to set bold standards that may not benefit some commercial entities (especially those with “loose” scientific standards) and are willing to spend significant effort necessary to produce such a document. A quick scan of the worldwide list of names involved in quantum standardization reveals very few household names, raising concerns about the community’s willingness to accept such standards in the long term. This creates a vulnerability to efforts to create a truly impartial set of international standards.
So, what’s next?
The follow-up is upon all of us, the people who care about quantum computing.
First, we need a strong understanding among providers and consumers about the value of standardization. Standardization efforts backed by experts and representatives of any serious quantum endeavor is key. Standards are only useful if they are adopted between companies and users. Perhaps this could be an initial target for the newly founded International Council of Quantum Industry Associations. It is clear that the level of international awareness of the need for urgent action is not sufficient.
Another important step is ensuring that the people responsible for provisioning the quantum computing hardware and services are aware of these intricacies and are able to find appropriate support. Most tenders do not involve the technical complexities of quantum computing, so it will be rare to find a procurement system that is ready for this type of complexity.
Finally, governments need to step in and fund independent bodies that can ensure that some experts remain impartial and are able to provide the oversight necessary to ensure that narrative does not dominate scientific facts.
Dr. Saraiva has been working for more than a decade providing theoretical solutions to problems in silicon spin quantum computing, as well as other quantum technologies. He is currently Head of Solid-State Theory for Diraq, an Australian start-up developing scalable quantum processors.
April 21, 2023