Quantum Matters: Fundamental Interactions – Getting it Right in The Era of Quantum

“You think you are the messiahs!” cries out Lily, the super-hero of BBC series Devs, to the bosses in charge of the secretive quantum unit.

That slur can just as easily be applied to the Big Tech chiefs, who started out with missions encapsulated in Google’s motto “Do no evil,” yet proceeded to abuse their monopolistic powers, promote addictive behaviours and allow hate speech to flourish.

Can a different culture be created in the newly emerging quantum ecosphere?

This matters to the world. The Quantum Computing market is forecast to be worth $50bn by 2030, only nine years away. The pace of funds into the sector has already accelerated. Data platform The Quantum Insider (TQI) notes that total disclosed capital flows into the sector were $1.9bn in the first half of 2021, compared to $1bn in all of 2020.

And quantum computing’s capacity to change the world for good can best be harnessed through a diverse workforce working in an inclusive culture that supports stakeholder capitalism.

The key challenge – a decent culture – also matters to quantum companies themselves for three reasons: innovation, recruitment and funding.

Innovation

Similar to all nascent sectors, innovation is key to the development of profitable companies producing jobs and goods.

More inclusive companies are 1.7 times more likely to be innovation leaders in their field, according to a Deloitte report. Gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their peers, while ethnically diverse ones are 35% more likely, according to a McKinsey report.

Even without citing hosts of corroborating studies, common sense dictates that the wider the range of opinions, the more chances of new ideas arising. The most productive meetings for transformative ideas are often those where disagreements flourish. The flame of innovation is often created out of friction; group think is the result of bonhomie.

Given that human beings have around 188 cognitive biases, ranging from the self-explanatory Familiarity Bias to the Just World Hypothesis, recruiting in one’s own image is difficult to resist. It behoves quantum company CEOs and their colleagues to diversify the mix, adding to the mainly white and male university PhDs and tech executives in order to bolster innovation.

Recruitment

There is a global war for talent in many sectors. Goldman Sachs, an erstwhile golden destination, is seeing some problems in recruitment. And those it does recruit are now surprisingly vocal. Young bankers complained to senior management about their workload earlier this year, a story avidly picked up by the media.

The UK’s mission to attract the best global talent is not helped by its expensive, time-consuming new immigration regime. One well known quantum start-up was forced to set up two subsidiaries in Continental Europe due to Brexit. On the plus side, the company was pleasantly surprised by the response to a recruitment ad there. Unfortunately, this stood in sharp contrast to its UK job advertisement, which received far fewer responses.

Employees and future employees are empowered, and they are demanding workplace cultures that align with their values. Over 85% of Gen Z believe companies should stand for more than just making a profit. Note that at Apple there was a successful petition to dismiss a well-known new hire with a sexist reputation, as well as a public letter demanding flexible return-to-work policies.

And yet, basic prejudice persists. A female student working on her quantum PhD at an Oxbridge university was asked by her professor: “How do you expect to progress if you keep smiling all the time?!”

Oxford Quantum Circuits (OQC) is doing all the right things and reaping the fruits: over 40% of its job applicants are women. One of its latest ads used these phrases: “We aspire to thrive…thanks to your diversity of thoughts and background…We are building quantum computers to enable life changing discoveries.” The company, led by Ilana Wisby, anonymises all the CVs it receives, posts roles on diversity-focused job boards (LBGT+, black engineers and others) and celebrates its new arrivals with photos on social media that highlight its diverse workforce.

Although helpful, a female CEO is not essential to enable a wider recruitment strategy. Cambridge-based Riverlane, for instance, headed by Steve Brierley, lists its first two values as being “supportive” and “collaborative” and posts a friendly group image of its relatively diverse company.

Denise Ruffner and Andre König of Women in Quantum (WIQ) and OneQuantum are the two major protagonists of the move to shake up the look of the industry and widen access. Their fast-growing mentoring schemes, online recruitment fairs and the setting up of free-to-use country chapters – from Zimbabwe to Nepal to Argentina – are inspiring a new generation.

TQD has been highlighting the issue, while The City Quantum Summit in November will host a special panel on the subject.

To create an inclusive culture, the Good Finance Framework is a good place to start. Designed by The Inclusion Initiative’s Director, Associate Professor Grace Lordan at the London School of Economics*, its 10 steps will also help boost staff loyalty and enthusiasm. This is crucial when quantum companies are competing for the best talent against other industries, as well as between themselves.

What is relevant for talent, is just as relevant for funding.

Funding

Political guru Frank Lunz predicts that how you treat your employees will be the single most important issue for companies over the coming years – above sustainability and shareholder returns.

It is an issue institutional investors are grappling with as part of their Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria.  Regulation will drive it. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) this year approved a proposal from Nasdaq, the stock market for tech, requiring its listed companies to publish, comply or explain on board diversity. They must have “two diverse directors, one identifying as female and another as an underrepresented minority or LBGTQ+.”

The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has proposals out for consultation on how it can accelerate the pace of meaningful change on Diversity & Inclusion, noting that it is relevant for risk management, good conduct, healthy working cultures and innovation (my italics).

The writing is on the wall: whether public or private, investors are going to be leading a push for the right cultures. Getting ahead of the game is the best bet for any quantum company.

Build back better is a much over-used phrase. But it encapsulates the desire to avoid the mistakes of the past. In the case of the quantum ecosphere, steering clear of Big Tech’s grave errors to create a better world, both within quantum companies and through quantum computing, is key.

*To note, the author is Co-Director of LSE’s The Inclusion Initiative for the City.

The City Quantum Summit at the Mansion House on November 10th is hosted by the Lord Mayor of the City of London and Robinson Hambro, and supported by the National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC) with TQD as media partner. Register here.




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