Australia needs a strategy for critical technologies and the quantum revolution

The world has embarked on another massive technological and social surge—the quantum revolution. The countries that master quantum technology will dominate the information-processing space for decades and perhaps centuries to come, giving them control and influence over sectors such as advanced manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, the digital economy, logistics, national security and intelligence.

Our new report, An Australian strategy for the quantum revolution, published by ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre argues that Australia needs a clear quantum strategy with strong political leadership and an organised drive with policy focus and public investment.

Without this coordinated effort, Australia will be left behind.

Our report focuses on analysis and building policy recommendations to help Australia better leverage the quantum revolution. The report also recognises that quantum is just one among a number of critical technologies.

A step change is needed in Australia’s policy settings related to critical and emerging technologies generally.

Quantum computing, quantum communications and other quantum-enabled technologies will change the world, reshaping geopolitics, international cooperation and strategic competition.

The new administration in the United States is well aware of this. In his first weeks in office, President Joe Biden signalled a major new policy focus on science and technology, including quantum technologies. The Covid-19 crisis has also seen quantum emerge as a vector for post-pandemic recovery: large capital investments have been made over the past year by nations including China, Japan, Germany, France, South Korea and India.

While Australia benefited from the digital revolution, we missed our opportunity to play a major role in the computing and communications technology sector. A similar fate doesn’t have to befall us in the quantum revolution. We have a long history of leadership in quantum technology and we’re highly influential relative to our size.

As geopolitical competition over critical technologies escalates, we’re also well placed to leverage our quantum capabilities thanks to our geostrategic location, alliances with other technologically, economically and militarily dominant powers (most notably the Five Eyes countries) and key partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, including with Japan and India.

While Australia is well placed to take full advantage of the quantum revolution, maintaining the status quo is not enough. We must build and capitalise on the immense potential of quantum technologies.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison should appoint a dedicated and ongoing minister for critical and emerging technologies, including cyber. This minister’s focus should be technology, rather than ‘technology’ being added to a longer list of portfolio responsibilities. This should be a whole-of-government role with the minister working across the relevant economic, national security, industry, research, defence and science agencies in the public service.

The government should also immediately lay the groundwork for a $15 billion post-Covid-19 technology stimulus that should include a $3–4 billion investment in quantum technologies. The stimulus would be a game-changer for the nation and help diversify and deepen its technological and research and development base. It would also exploit our disproportionate concentration of world-class quantum expertise, ensuring the long-term growth and maintenance of this vital technological sector.

The government should move quickly in 2021 to develop and articulate a national technology strategy, of which quantum should form a key part.

The relatively new but small Critical Technologies Policy Coordination Office in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) should be expanded and elevated to become the ‘National Coordinator for Technology’.

Critical and emerging technologies present a myriad of opportunities, challenges and threats, and PM&C is the only department with the whole-of-government perspective to balance them across our economy, society and national security.

PM&C should work closely with other parts of government, including the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, Office of the Chief Scientist, Defence, Home Affairs, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, CSIRO, the Office of National Intelligence and the Australian Signals Directorate, as well as the research community, civil society and the private sector.

Within this elevated division, offices should be created to focus on a small number of key critical technology areas deemed most important to Australia and our place in the world. The first such office should be developed for quantum technology, while other offices could focus on, biotechnology and artificial intelligence, for example. A useful model for such appointments is the position of assistant director for quantum information science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the US.

At the same time, the federal government should lead a national quantum initiative in consultation with the states and territories and the private sector. A goal of this initiative should be to form an ‘Australian distributed quantum zone’—a large collaboration of universities, corporations and Australian-based quantum start-ups tasked with laying the foundations of a dedicated domestic industry for quantum technology prototyping, development and manufacturing.

Significant government investment should be used to help stimulate an economy emerging from the most severe crisis in decades. Australia’s favourable handling of Covid-19 presents a unique opportunity to attract new talent as well as to lure back Australians currently running foreign quantum programs, and further expansions to the government’s talent visa options should be considered.

Once this groundwork is laid, Australia will be in a strong position to assume a quantum technology leadership role in the Indo-Pacific region.