What’s the Deal? Australia’s Future Quantum Computer

It seems the 2032 Olympics aren’t the only exciting project Brisbane is set to host in the next decade, after a recent deal announced the Queensland capital will be the new headquarters for PsiQuantum. The Silicon Valley startup is working on developing the world’s first fault-proof quantum computer – and with this new deal, that computer will be built on Australian shores.

Still, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows; the deal has garnered some disapproval over its lack of transparency and perceived hypocrisy.

What’s in a Deal?

PsiQuantum will receive just under $1 billion of investment, split equally between the federal and Queensland governments. This funding comprises grants, loans and share purchases.

In return, PsiQuantum will move their headquarters to Brisbane, where they have promised to build a fault-proof quantum computer. A ‘fault-proof’ computer would be free from the errors and inconsistencies quantum computers often run into.

PsiQuantum hopes their approach – known as ‘fusion-based’ in the quantum world – will help their computer resist these faults. More specifically, their method involves a technology whereby photons are patterned onto silicon chips, which they claim “is uniquely suited to address a number of key technical hurdles specific to scale  and error correction”.

The announcement of the deal comes a year after the launch of Australia’s inaugural National Quantum Strategy.

“It’s going to be the most complex machine ever built by humanity,” said Dr Cathy Foley, Australia’s Chief Scientist, speaking to the ABC. Prime Minister Albanese said the move “shows we are serious about building a strong quantum ecosystem here in Australia.”

Quantum Controversies

The PsiQuantum agreement hasn’t been accepted uncritically. Many in the industry have criticised the government’s decision to give such a formidable sum to an American firm, rather than supporting the local Australian industry. Especially given that the deal has been broadcast by Labor as part of their ‘A Future Made in Australia’ campaign.

The process leading up to the agreement has also raised some eyebrows. The deal is the culmination of an Expression of Interest process the government initiated in August last year. This EOI was shrouded in secrecy, with all participants made to sign very strict NDAs. The government had not advertised its intention to seek a quantum computer prior to the EOI.

Furthermore, Aussie quantum companies who spoke with the independent tech policy observer InnovationAus.com claimed the feeling was that PsiQuantum had already been selected as the successful recipient, before the decision was ‘reverse-engineered’ through the EOI process. These sources said that the wording of the EOI was geared towards PsiQuantum’s photonic approach.

Some have criticised the secrecy the government has maintained around the PsiQuantum deal.

More than a month before the EOI was opened, PsiQuantum was allegedly telling stakeholders they were in advanced negotiations with the Australian government, and hinting at securing the investment. The Shadow Minister for Science Paul Fletcher, called the situation a “very poor process facilitated in a secretive manner and lacking in competitive rigour”.

Some observers – like Crikey – have also questioned PsiQuantum’s engagement of multiple Labor-aligned lobbying firms ahead of the deal. Brookline Advisory and Mandala employ former Labor staffers and have connections to former or current Labor politicians. The Department of Industry and Science has declined freedom of information requests regarding the EOI process, and details of any meetings with Brookline or Mandala.

CEO Professor Jeremy O’Brien said the firm was “thrilled to partner with the Australian and Queensland governments as our team at PsiQuantum takes a massive step forward in our mission to help deliver on the promise of quantum computing.”

Cover image licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

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