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March 26, 2021 4:00 pm

Israel Steps up Quantum Tech Race Amid Threat of Exclusion From European Research Projects

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

A handout picture from October 2019 shows a component of Google’s Quantum Computer in the Santa Barbara lab, California, U.S. Picture taken in October 2019. Google/Handout via REUTERS

Israel is leveling up to join the race for quantum proficiency as leading countries, including in the European Union, seek to block multi-billion dollar opportunities for collaboration on the pivotal emerging technology.

Israel has embarked on a $375 million national initiative to invest in quantum technology — which promises to exponentially increase the processing speed of computers — and to build up its proficiency by 2025. As part of the initiative, the Israel Innovation Authority together with the Defense Ministry have begun to take requests from multinational companies, Israeli businesses and universities to participate in a $60 million project to build the country’s first quantum computer with 30 to 40 “qubits,” a unit used to encode information.

“We see the window of opportunity for international collaboration in this field getting narrower and narrower. For example, in the US, there are already certain quantum sensors that are export-controlled. It is not a defense thing, it is commercial. From China we see declarations that they will limit exports on quantum technology, which is pretty unique,” Dr. Tal David, Head of the Israel National Quantum Initiative (INQI) told The Algemeiner in an interview. “Even in the European Union, right now there is a strong movement to maintain European independence in technology. They are pushing to maintain only the members of the EU and kick out all the associated countries [like Israel].”

“We are fighting this very strongly. For us this is something which is very much unwanted because we have a lot of existing ties with Europe about this. Israel has a lot of excellence with Europe in general and quantum specifically, so this is something at the back of our heads that collaboration is getting more difficult in this field,” David added.

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The US and allies, and the European Union, are now competing with China to lead the world in quantum technology, with the EU seeking to make its first quantum computer in five years.

“Israel can not be behind. We are trying to build our own independence for the Israeli ecosystem without being dependent on foreign governments, foreign companies, multinational companies, which are using mostly using economic reasoning on their decision where to build specific infrastructure,” said Dr. Aviv Zeevi Balasiano, VP of the Technology Infrastructure Division at the Israel Innovation Authority. “We have to get to a minimum level in which let’s say 10 years from now we will have the quantum ability of computing that will allow the development of other supporting technologies such as adaptors, censors to data computers, algorithm.”

Quantum computers, while not a substitute for classical computers, have the promise to crunch in seconds vast amounts of data that would take even the most powerful conventional machines hours or days to process. They are hoped to be extraordinarily powerful at solving some problems in chemistry, physics and other areas, by quickly performing certain simulations, optimizations, and machine learning tasks. They would operate millions of times faster than the current advanced supercomputers, making possible potential tasks such as mapping complex molecular structures and chemical reactions.

“Despite the COVID-19 situation over past year, Israel is investing in this type of growth channel as a way of generating jobs, pushing the economy forward to allow it to exit from the economic crisis the world is facing now and it sees quantum technology as the growth mechanism,” David said. “People are getting organized to build the Israel quantum capabilities from the hardware level of the qubits to the software level in a full-stack approach to build the capability for R&D for the needs of the Israeli industry for the years to come.”

Traditional computing stores information using the binary system, a digital language made up of strings of 0s and 1s. Quantum computing, however, is a non-binary system that employs the qubit, which has the ability to exist as both 1 and 0 simultaneously — giving it a near-infinite number of positions and combinations.

“It’s not like we’re all going to have a quantum computer in our home anytime soon forget about it. But basically what’s happened in quantum is that we’re going back to the infancy, of the era of computing when people like Bill Gates were working on DOS,” said Jon Medved, the CEO of OurCrowd, Israel’s most active venture capital firm. “I’m a little bit positively surprised at the momentum that we’re seeing in this area. I thought we might make an investment once a year, I think we’ve made now three investments in about six months.”

“My guess is that over the next 12 to 18 months literally dozens of Israeli quantum startups will be coming to market or will be trying to raise money,” Medved added.

Meanwhile, Israel’s public-private quantum initiative focuses on the development of three different areas, bringing academia and industry together: quantum sensing, including the development of atomic locks by AccuBeat, and magnetic sensing; quantum communication or cryptography, with the involvement of Mellanox-Nvidia as well as startups including QuantLR; and quantum computing.

“What is unique about Israel is that it is a very small country with very little resources except for what we have in our minds,” David explained. “We turn that into an advantage because the cycles from a researcher working in his lab on a cool scientific idea and transitioning that into an applied R&D and implementation in the field is a very short cycle with very few agencies [and] bodies involved in the process, and all them working very tightly together in this initiative.”

“The idea of tech transfer and building joint academic and industry projects is quite unique to us, and people come to us and learn from our experience how to build their own initiatives,” he continued.

However, Israel does not see itself directly competing on quantum with the large tech companies such as IBM and Google, but rather as a partner on the journey.

“We can cooperate with them in a way — meaning that for example, we will not maybe produce the core chip but we can develop the adaptor, the algorithm, or the sensor itself,” said Zeevi Balasiano.

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