The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Freeke Heijman, special advisor to the Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy on quantum technologies, and director of strategic development at QuTech Delft, an advanced research center for quantum computing and quantum Internet. Heijman discussed quantum technology, its current applications, its challenges, and its opportunities.
Eline Chivot: What has led you to work in quantum? What is the idea at the heart of QuTech?
Freeke Heijman: I’ve been working at the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs for a while, in the field of innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship policies. My background is in engineering—specifically in policy analysis, system engineering, and management, at the interaction of society, management, and technology. That is also where my heart is. I have a passion for technology, but I always look at it in a broader context, for instance in terms of its impact on society. I came into quantum by chance: I was working at the Ministry as head of strategy in the innovation department. In 2012, our new minister was interested in making visits to universities in the country, just around the time when some of our lead scientists at the Technical University of Delft had found evidence of Majonara fermions—a scientific breakthrough in the field of physics and quantum mechanics: These fermions’ special characteristics can add value in quantum computing. We visited that university and met these professors, to learn more about their discovery. We started conversations about quantum technology, the state of that science, the position of the Netherlands in this field, and how we should move the country’s academic ecosystems with purely scientific groups towards more consolidated engineering ecosystems. We combined the forces of the university and of TNO (the Dutch organization for applied scientific research, which is our national lab) to scale up ongoing efforts in this space.
I fell in love with the technology: Quantum combines everything, the science behind it is itself mind-boggling—superposition, entanglement, and what that means for how reality works on the smallest of scales. What I find fascinating is the combination of this science with real-life technological applications that can have an impact, and the relations with industry and governments. It’s such an exciting and challenging field.
Before we founded QuTech in 2013, the field in the Netherlands was more or less limited to scientists, including principal investigators who each had their own academic groups of students. They would grow knowledge, experiment, publish a paper in a scientific journal, and then move on. In order to move from science to engineering, which is the idea behind QuTech, you need additional, different expertise to come in: You don’t just want to do an experiment only once and publish a paper, you want to repeat it and optimize it, you want to develop technology that is scalable, cost-efficient, documented, and patented. That is a different mindset. That involves milestones and not just academic freedom. Being in QuTech means you’re working as part of a bigger roadmap of a broader mission. It’s also about combining disciplines. We started with quantum physicists, and now also have teams of scientists in electrical engineering, computer science, and mathematics, but also social scientists working on user interfaces and societal impacts, people working on stakeholder management, people like me with a policy background, people with a communication background, and people with a background in philosophy. I even have a colleague working in the venture capital space, connecting venture capitalists and investors to startups’ ideas. As the ecosystem grows, we’re expanding to more various disciplines, which is fun.
Chivot: An oft-cited challenge is the lack of digital skills on the labor market to support digital transformation and fully harness the potential of emerging technologies such as AI. To what extent is that an issue in quantum, and how are you trying to address this at QuTech?
Heijman: The availability of talent is also one of biggest challenges for quantum, especially as a field which is scaling up so fast. And this holds true for AI and data science as well—for all of these innovations, there is a big need for a pool of people with a technology background. To keep up with the digital economy, we need to train individuals to equip them with the right skills, but we also need to attract talent and retain it in Europe.
That is another reason why we are based within a university, where there’s a continuous flow of students, and where we’re able to set up dedicated programs. For instance, we are building curricula for quantum information science and quantum engineering, so that we get new and more talent on board. The good news is that the interest in technology in general is growing: There are now many more students in computer science, data science, and in quantum physics.
Up until now quantum has been a very academic field, rather exclusive, gathering only the top five percent max—but that’s too small of a group. As quantum grows as an industry, it will also require other types of talents, and not just people who write papers in scientific journals. For us the challenge is therefore to train people on other levels while making them familiar with the technology, so as not to keep it only for the happy few that have the brains to grasp quantum physics. This is about opening up to other expertise and to people who may not have studied quantum mechanics early on.
Chivot: QuTech has developed a national quantum agenda for the Netherlands. What is its ambition at the national and European levels?
Heijman: Things developed bottom-up in the Netherlands, first with the initiative at the university in Delft, and later, the universities of Amsterdam and Eindhoven which also came up with their own quantum centers. We then saw there was an urgency to combine all these efforts, to avoid diverging views and fragmented resources across institutions where it would make sense to pool resources, as well as to avoid a lack of national coherence, or competing goals and agendas. We thought it particularly made sense to develop a national strategy for quantum, for these reasons. It was successful in the sense that we had a very condensed, short process, with clear milestones to get to the result. In the academic environment, you can talk about issues for years in comparison! I think we are reaping the benefits of this process, because now we form one team, we are one initiative, there is no more competition, so we find ourselves in a stronger position in Europe and nationally. That really helps moving things ahead.
This is important because in Europe, what EU leadership and the Commission do never really is a substitute for national policy. If there’s a European flagship program for scientific research, for instance, it doesn’t mean that nothing should be done at the national level. Germany, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark, all have their own national quantum programs. Then there’s European coordination that comes on top of it, and some additional priorities are set. The stronger you are nationally, the better your role and position at EU level. At the same time, no country can do this alone, and it’s key to work together.
At QuTech, our ambition is to scale up quantum research in Europe. The community had been working for years to get a European flagship program and more funding for quantum. In 2016, the flagship European program for quantum was launched during a high-level conference in Amsterdam, when the Netherlands held the presidency of the EU. We had spearheaded the push to put quantum on the national, and then European agenda. It was a whole process, from talking to the government, to the European Commission, and to the Council, to connecting with the European scientific community. We wanted to get everyone on the same page and on board.
Chivot: Quantum computers, simulators, communication systems and sensors can help to solve societal challenges and provide opportunities for all sectors of the economy. Can you give a few examples of current or near-term applications and exciting developments in the field? And what does a quantum lab look like?
Heijman: A very concrete example has to do with fertilizers used in agriculture to grow crops. The ones we use today are based on ammonia, produced through an industrial procedure called Haber Bosch which is very energy-intensive and isn’t completely efficient. We don’t have a better process just yet. But within five to ten years or so, when quantum computers will be a bit further developed and have more qubit power, an algorithm could help us come up with a better alternative, for a cleaner agriculture.
Other examples that I like are those that are about coming up with new materials, new batteries, or new molecules. Currently, we can’t simulate the behavior of certain materials because it’s just too complex for a classical computer, but that’s the most appealing promise of quantum because that could add concrete value to society and the economy.
There are other examples in the field of information security that are just as interesting. For instance, if you look at the Internet of Things and its risks, such as the way data is secured and the vulnerability to hacking, it would be enormously beneficial to secure that via quantum mechanical links.
Regarding quantum more broadly, what makes me particularly enthusiastic at the moment is that I see more and more new companies being founded around the world and in Europe in this field. My hope and expectation are that some of these startups will become new unicorns, just like the ones we have seen emerging during the ICT revolution and grow as the tech giants we know now. It would be exciting to see a new series of such companies. I hope they will have more of a sustainable position and take responsibility for the planet and the people.
The most surprising thing is the big fridge that you’ll find in a lab: The quantum chip needs to be cooled down to very low temperatures so there’s this big refrigerator for it, and it makes a lot of noise as a result of the pumps to compress helium to cool it down. There’s a lot of cables going into this machine as well. And then you will find scientists sitting behind their computers and other electrical apparatus to measure, monitor things, and work on their data. There are other parts next to the lab, for instance in the clean rooms you will find the machines that make the materials, a microscope to observe the material and process it, etc.
Chivot: In your view, are some of the expectations for quantum overblown? Regarding the upcoming milestones of quantum supremacy and quantum’s near-term applications, and given you are aiming to bridge the gap between academia and “the market,” how can you identify where it is worth investing in R&D?
Heijman: I think quantum mechanics’ place and role should be demystified, and quantum shouldn’t be portrayed as this whole new thing that will suddenly, at a certain moment, shake up everything. I think demystifying will also support the acceptance of the technology by the general public. Quantum theory itself is almost a century old and technologies such as a laser also make use of quantum mechanical phenomena. So in a way, it is already there, and it will grow further overtime as we are getting better in manipulating quantum systems. Just like with other technologies, the general public will use it without necessarily being aware of the complexity underneath. It is a bit the same when you think of algorithms used in AI or with big data, or in a car for that matter—people who use technology don’t necessarily need to understand every detail of it. For example, a smartphone has lots of technology in it that I don’t know or cannot understand. For quantum that will be the case as well: Quantum is in that sense just another complex digital new technology.
We won’t have a quantum computer at home within the next five years, including because of this temperature challenge I mentioned. Rather, my expectation is that quantum will be used via the cloud and via high performance computing (HPC) centers, as an add-on in classical IT cloud services, in a way that supercomputers are used. It will be used in business-to-business and the back-end of cloud users or providers.