Ideas in Exile: Canada and Quantum Computing

21 11 2013

In the last few days, we’ve seen a number of stories in the media about recent breakthroughs in quantum computing. See here, here, and here. The commercialization of quantum computing is important because computers are the General Purpose Technology that have done the most of generate economic growth in advanced economies in recent decades. Moreover, economists have recently worried that Moore’s Law will soon cease to be true, as computer engineers hit hard limits imposed by the laws of physics. (Stupid economic policies may also hasten the end of Moore’s Law). The end of Moore’s Law could reduce the rate of  productivity growth in advanced countries to plateau and would help to prove the Tyler Cowen thesis that we are entering the a period of technological stagnation.  So quantum computing is important for overall social welfare. It’s also important as countries and companies stand to make a lot of money out of the commercialization of this technology.

As Jeff Beer of Canadian Business reported last month, a lot of the basic research into quantum computing has taken place in and around the University of Waterloo, which is at the heart of Canada’s high tech cluster. Some of the funding has been provided by the founders of RIM, who have bankrolled a project called Quantum Valley.

According to Beer, Mike Lazaridis is determined that Canada should take a leadership role in quantum technology. The Research In Motion founder has emerged as one of quantum’s most enthusiastic evangelists, and he’s wagered a considerable chunk of his personal fortune on its future. In March, just a few weeks before this appearance in Waterloo, he and his BlackBerry co-founder Doug Fregin launched the $100-million Quantum Valley Investment Fund to commercialize spinoff technologies in quantum science.

This all sounds very promising. But then Jeff Beer reminds us that

Canada has long had success building prototypes and early-stage businesses, only to lose them to foreign acquisition or investment. As the country struggles to find its innovation mojo outside the resource-based economy, there needs to be a strategy among all levels of government and investors to help leaders like Lazaridis and Rose, and the entrepreneurs who grow as a result of their efforts.

Bingo!

For those of us who care about research intensive industries and Canada’s national innovation system, this is the crucial issue. Beer is right. Canada has a long track-record in doing the basic R&D or coming up with a cool idea and then having companies in another country, typically the US, do the commercialisation and collect the profits. I recommend that policymakers take a look at J.J. Brown’s classic work Ideas in Exile: a History of Canadian Invention. See more here.

Of course, that would probably require having a political class in Canada that a) knows what Moore’s Law is b) isn’t on drugs c) reads books.  Don’t hold your breath.

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