In Canada and internationally, many stakeholders have been working hard for years to develop quantum technologies because of their potential to have significant impacts in many sectors. Furthermore, on 13 January 2023, the Government of Canada launched its National Quantum Strategy.
Quantum Technology 101
Quantum physics – the science that underpins quantum technologies – is the study of the behaviour of subatomic particles. This behaviour is more easily observed when these particles are grouped together in a coherent set known as a “quantum system.” Because of properties resulting from the behaviour of matter at the atomic and subatomic scale, quantum systems can be very powerful. While classical computer systems use binary information signals (0 or 1) measured in bits, quantum systems use information measured in quantum bits, or qubits, which can have a value of 0 and 1 simultaneously or any combination of 0 and 1 in superposition.
Qubit superposition enables quantum computers [in French] to process information so as to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, which explains why they have exponentially more computing power (as shown in Figure 1) than classical computers, for example.
Figure 1 – Comparison of Processing Power of a Classical Computer and a Quantum Computer
Sources: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from Catherine Florès, “Les constructeurs de l’avenir quantique,” Magazine Poly, Polytechnique Montréal, 1 March 2019 [in French]; and IBM Canada, Driving Canada’s Industrial & Academic Eminence towards a National Quantum Strategy, 2021.
Quantum computers will be particularly useful for solving combinatorics problems, which involve finding the optimal way to arrange a set of items. While a classical computer must try every possible permutation to find the solution, a quantum computer can perform these tasks simultaneously.
Figure 2 provides examples of combinatorics problems that quantum computers could solve.
Figure 2 – Examples of Solutions to Combinatorics Problems That Quantum Computers Could Provide in Various Sectors
Sources: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using information obtained from Francesco Bova, Avi Goldfarb and Roger Melko, “Commercial applications of quantum computing,” EPJ Quantum Technology, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2021; Francesco Bova, Avi Goldfarb and Roger Melko, “Quantum Computing Is Coming. What Can It Do?” Harvard Business Review, 16 July 2021 [subscription required]; and Marc Haddad et al., Quantum Computing: A technology of the future already present, PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2019.
Quantum technology is used to secure communications, including through quantum key distribution (QKD), a set of protocols that enable the creation of private encryption keys. In QKD, two parties wishing to exchange information can use quantum systems to generate private encryption keys, ensuring that information the parties exchange remains confidential. Given the sensitivity and complexity of quantum systems, quantum keys cannot be copied or cloned because the parties sharing the secure data could detect any attempt to intercept the keys.
Quantum sensors exploit quantum properties to produce more sensitive, precise measurements than conventional sensors, potentially leading to such technical advances as navigation systems resistant to GPS hacking, among others.
Quantum computers could break existing cryptography systems. Cryptography is based on the exchange of security keys that decrypt secure data. Classical computers are not powerful enough to decrypt these keys within a reasonable time frame, but quantum computers could become that powerful. As a result, they could break any public encryption key and give access to data secured with current technologies. According to some experts, these quantum systems could be available by 2030.
Accordingly, researchers are working to strengthen existing data security systems. It is worth noting that some experts believe that quantum systems could result in changes to current codes. As a result, researchers are also using methods such as QKD to develop quantum systems for securing data transmission. In late 2022, the United States government adopted the Quantum Computing Cybersecurity Preparedness Act, which recognizes the risks that quantum computing poses to current codes and requires measures to be put in place to secure computing systems in the United States.
Economy and Employment
Canadian quantum technology initiatives, including in quantum computing, will contribute significantly to Canada’s economy. Figure 3 shows projections of the economic impact (including indirect and induced effects) of quantum technology development in Canada over the coming decades.
Figure 3 – Projections of the Economic Impact of the Quantum Technology Industry in Canada
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, National Quantum Strategy Consultations: What We Heard Report.
Talent management is an issue for the development of the quantum technology industry, both domestically and internationally. In a document published for public consultation on the development of a national quantum strategy, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada noted that persistent efforts are needed to build the necessary talent pool for this industry.
The lack of diversity in the natural and applied sciences workforce, particularly in sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, is also an issue in Canada. As shown by Figure 4, women hold a minority of jobs in STEM fields.
Figure 4 – Selected Groups in STEM and STEM-Related Occupations Compared to the Overall Canadian Workforce, 2021
Note: STEM stands for sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from Statistics Canada, “Occupation (STEM and non-STEM) by visible minority, generation status, age and gender: Canada, provinces and territories, census metropolitan areas and census agglomerations with parts,” Database, accessed 30 January 2023.
Another related issue is that, as shown by Figure 5, visible minorities and Indigenous people in the natural and applied sciences – especially visible minority women and Indigenous women – have lower average employment incomes than the Canadian population overall.
Figure 5 – Average Employment Income in the Natural and Applied Sciences – Selected Groups Compared to the Overall Canadian Workforce, 2015
Sources: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from Statistics Canada, “Occupation – National Occupational Classification (NOC) 2016 (691), Employment Income Statistics (3), Highest Certificate, Diploma or Degree (7), Visible Minority (15), Work Activity During the Reference Year (4), Age (4D) and Sex (3) for the Population Aged 15 Years and Over Who Worked in 2015 and Reported Employment Income in 2015, in Private Households of Canada, Provinces and Territories and Census Metropolitan Areas, 2016 Census – 25% Sample Data,” Data table, 2016 Census, Database, accessed 30 January 2023; and Statistics Canada, “Occupation – National Occupational Classification (NOC) 2016 (691), Employment Income Statistics (3), Highest Certificate, Diploma or Degree (7), Aboriginal Identity (9), Work Activity During the Reference Year (4), Age (4D) and Sex (3) for the Population Aged 15 Years and Over Who Worked in 2015 and Reported Employment Income in 2015, in Private Households of Canada, Provinces and Territories and Census Metropolitan Areas, 2016 Census – 25% Sample Data,” Data table, 2016 Census, Database, accessed 30 January 2023.
Government Initiatives in Canada and Internationally
A number of countries are investing in quantum technologies. Figure 6 provides an overview of these investments in certain countries.
Figure 6 – Quantum Research in Selected Countries
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from Johnny Kung and Muriam Fancy, Quantum Revolution: Report on Global Policies for Quantum Technology, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, April 2021.
In addition to the initiatives shown in Figure 6, a number of quantum research projects have been launched in Canada in recent years, including the following:
- Several Canadian universities have quantum research institutes whose work is recognized globally, including the University of Calgary, University of Alberta, University of Toronto, University of Waterloo and Université de Sherbrooke.
- Several pioneering quantum computing businesses have set up in Canada, including D-Wave, 1QBit, Agnostiq, Anyon, IBM, Intel, Multiverse Computing and Xanadu.
- Since 2017, the Canadian Space Agency has been working with the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing and with Honeywell on the Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite mission to demonstrate the use of QKD in space. In 2019, the agency awarded $23.5 million to Honeywell for this project.
- The National Research Council Canada, Defence Research and Development Canada and the Communications Security Establishment have formed the Quantum Security Technology Access Centre to coordinate and strengthen internal government efforts on quantum research.
- In September 2022, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry and Technology presented a report on quantum computing, which includes 11 recommendations to keep Canada in the lead in this field.
Quantum technology development is flourishing, and Canada is already a leader in this area. Given the potential benefits and challenges associated with the development of these technologies, the Parliament of Canada will most likely want to keep a close eye on the progress of this industry, both in Canada and abroad.
By Sarah Lemelin-Bellerose, Library of Parliament