Novo Nordisk Foundation donates DKK 1.5 billion for the development of the world’s best quantum computer
The Novo Nordisk Foundation has set an ambitious goal: Denmark is to develop its very own quantum computer.
Lene Oddershede says it quite clearly and precisely.
“It has to be the best in the world.”
She worked as a professor of physics and is today Senior Vice President for Natural & Technical Sciences at the wealthy Novo Nordisk Foundation, where she has been at the forefront of the new quantum mission.
In recent years, there have been big advancements in quantum computing. It is a race primarily driven by tech giants such as Amazon, Google, IBM, and others. They are the ones that Denmark, as a nation, will be competing with.
A few years ago, it was an achievement to build a 10–20-qubit quantum computer. Google rejoiced three years ago when, with a 53-qubit quantum computer, they were able to solve a mathematical problem that could not be solved by even the largest conventional supercomputer in the world.
The fact that the problem had no practical relevance was less important. A significant milestone had been reached. Quantum supremacy was demonstrated.
More qubits are needed
This year, the number of qubits in a quantum computer has exceeded 100. IBM and others have made concrete plans for how to increase that number in the coming years.
This is interesting because the number of qubits is the decisive factor for which problems a quantum computer can tackle.
If there are enough of them—and here we are talking about two to three hundred—it is possible to solve a wide range of practical problems that would be completely impossible to solve with even the largest conventional supercomputers. These problems could be within chemistry, biochemistry, logistics (route optimization), risk assessments in the financial sector, etc.
The jump from 100 to 300 may not seem very big, but it is not that simple after all.
The problem is that all current and future quantum computers are of the so-called NISQ type, which in the quantum world stands for noisy intermediate-scale quantum.
That is a nice way of saying that they are of rather poor quality, and if we slightly exaggerate, we could say that they are sort of advanced quantum toys.
A higher number of qubits is not enough in itself; they must also be of a good quality, so that their quantum properties are not affected and, in the worst case, completely destroyed by the environment in the form of noise. This is far from the case today.
Errors can be corrected with error correction, but this means that in some cases one needs to have several hundred—perhaps thousand—physical qubits for each logical qubit, which can be utilised through quantum algorithms. If we cannot improve the quality of qubits by e.g., using new materials, a quantum computer might need to have a million physical qubits or more—and then the task gets on a whole different level.
It is only once we have a quantum computer with built-in error correction and a sufficient number of stable qubits that we will have a quantum computer which can truly solve practical problems in biochemistry, logistics, finance, etc.
This has not yet been done anywhere in the world. And it is exactly what the Novo Nordisk Foundation aims to do in Denmark.
The project will last 12 years
It is—as the American physicist Richard Feynman described it already in 1981, when he presented the idea of quantum computing—not an easy task. Therefore, in his eyes, it was a wonderful problem.
There are still problems, but they are no longer insurmountable. Where Feynman outlined a vision, Lene Oddershede is now launching a mission-driven project with a very specific goal.
“In the same way as it happened in the Apollo program in the 1960s,” she says.
For the time being, the Foundation is putting DKK 1.5 billion on the table over the next seven years to achieve the goal.
It is the largest grant ever within natural sciences and engineering in Denmark. It is expected that the project will run for another five years, which will also be financed by the foundation. And it is only after the full 12 years that the quantum computer in all its glory is expected to be ready.
It is worth noting that it is a long-term project. These days, there is a lot of talk about “quantum hype”, where individual researchers, companies, or institutions promise very fast and overwhelming results in the development of quantum computers. But the technical challenges are enormous, so the fully ready-to-use quantum computer is still something that belongs to the future.
Grant covers both research and manufacturing
The program contains both an academic part, which will be based at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen and include participation of quantum computing researchers from other Danish universities, and a manufacturing part—Quantum Foundry, which will employ primarily engineers and technicians.
The fact that the development of quantum computers is characterized as a mission also means that researchers are not free to research all imaginable topics, but that they are free to test different techniques and ideas within the framework of the mission.
“We have set a firm goal, but we have not firmly established how to get there,” Lene Oddershede says.
Therefore, the project will initially examine three different types of hardware technology on which a quantum computer can be based, before deciding on a specific technology.
Professor Peter Krogstrup from the Niels Bohr Institute will be at the head of the programme. He tells us more about the technical challenges in a separate article.
“There is no quick fix,” he explains.
Quantum computing software is also needed
Hardware alone will not cut it. A quantum computer makes use of special algorithms—quantum algorithms—to solve problems, and they cannot be compared to the algorithms that run on conventional computers.
If you have no quantum algorithm, a quantum computer is of no use.
There is already a large number of quantum algorithms that can run on future quantum computers.
There are also problems that even a quantum computer cannot tackle, so a quantum computer is not able to solve all the problems the world is facing.
However, computer scientists are sure that there is a large number of important problems that should be able to be solved with quantum algorithms which are not yet known. Developing the software is also part of the mission.
The government has a quantum strategy in the works
The new quantum computer mission will not stand alone.
In connection with the Finance Act negotiations last year, it was agreed that this year, the government is to prepare a quantum strategy, which will be used as the basis for increased financing in the field of quantum technology.
This strategy is expected to be published as soon as possible and before the Finance Act 2023 negotiations.
Other countries already have similar quantum strategies and programs, but the grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation is also so large in an international context that it is something that will draw attention and that can help draw experts to Denmark for the benefit of the whole the Danish quantum computing community.
Microsoft already has a quantum material lab in Lyngby, which stems from a long-term collaboration with the Niels Bohr Institute.
Until a few months ago, Peter Krogstrup was head of this laboratory. Other Danish quantum computing companies have emerged as spin-offs from university research.
The Novo Nordisk Foundation has already supported several other quantum computing programs at Danish universities with grants in double-digit millions. The new mission will be a kind of overarching framework for these programs.
Lene Oddershede emphasizes that the mission must contribute to strengthening an overall Danish quantum technology ecosystem, including contributing to the teaching and training of more experts within quantum technology.
Ready for quantum race
The head of the Niels Bohr Institute, Professor Jan W. Thomsen, has been one of the people behind the initiative to bring together the Danish quantum computing actors in the association Danish Quantum Community, of which he is also the chairman.
“The program is on par with what we see in other countries and the big tech companies. It could really help put us on the world map,” he says.
He adds that the Danish program perhaps stands out in one area.
“We will combine the theoretical and experimental activities to a greater extent than others. We will utilize our existing strengths, but we will also generate new fundamental knowledge,” he says.
Preparations have been going on for almost a year and a half, but Denmark is now finally truly throwing itself into the quantum race.