Mon, 06 May 2024 - 18:32



Shadow Minister for Science and the Arts

Shadow Minister for Government Services and the Digital Economy

Manager of Opposition Business in the House




6 MAY 2024

STEVE AUSTIN: As you know, last week there was an announcement that Queensland is to be home to a quantum computer. It was hailed by the treasurer, Cameron Dick, uh, announced by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and excitedly supported by Australia's chief scientist. But the federal opposition has some concerns. And the man to answer those concerns is the science spokesman for the opposition, Paul Fletcher. I spoke with him and said, look, what is the opposition concerned about this apparently important scientific moment for Queensland and Australia? 

PAUL FLETCHER: The coalition believes that there's been a very poor process to arrive at this decision to allocate $940 million of Commonwealth and Queensland Government money to an American based company, PSI Quantum, to build what's described as a fault tolerant, error corrected quantum computer. There was an expression of interest process which was not announced publicly. A smaller number of Australian firms were invited to participate. They were required to sign non-disclosure agreements. So it wasn't an open and transparent process. This is a very large amount of money to be placing as a bet on one particular technology to be developed by one particular company. Now, nobody disputes that quantum computing is a technology with very considerable promise, and Australia has many leading companies in this field. Silicon quantum computing, DIRAC Quantum Brilliance, Q control. These are companies associated with universities like University of New South Wales, University of Sydney, Australian National University, Queensland University has a presence, Melbourne University and others. So the question is not whether quantum computing is a field that holds significant promise. The question is whether it makes sense to allocate so much taxpayers money to one particular technology. One particular pathway towards commercialising quantum computing research. Whether the process by which this was allocated was appropriate, whether in fact, it will generate significant numbers of jobs, how much is being spent to generate those jobs. It's over $2 million per job. If you take the 400 promised jobs and the 940 million that's being spent and so there are reasons to be very concerned about this process and whether it makes sense to make such a big bet on a technology which on any view is several years away at best, from being able to be commercialised and deployed. 

STEVE AUSTIN: When I spoke with Queensland's Treasurer, Cameron Dick who put in half the money, so half the money is federal taxpayer money or national, half the money is from Queensland taxpayers. When I spoke with Cameron Dick, he said the two scientists behind, PsiQuantum are Australians. One of them is from University of Queensland. It's an Australian deal, although yes, it's based in Palo Alto and California now, but it's about supporting Australian science research and our top line scientific researchers. 

PAUL FLETCHER: Nobody's disputing that. PsiQuantum is one of a number of companies around the world that are doing advanced research into quantum computing, and that at least two of its four founders did undergraduate degrees and in one case, a PhD in Australia. But what is also true is that this company has raised some 650 million USD in funding rounds from a whole range of US venture capital businesses and a small number of Australian funding organisations as well. But in the main, its funding has come from overseas. Its centre of gravity is overseas. It has a contract to manufacture its, uh, silicon chips once they're ready to be built. Its semiconductors are with a company called Global Foundry, and it's been announced that manufacturing will occur in New York and in Germany. At the same time, what we know is that there's a lot of Australian scientists and researchers who've been working away for many years at leading Australian universities. Um, but the question is not just whether this is a company that is doing quality research and has a good reputation, it clearly is and clearly does. The question is whether it makes sense to place such a big bet on one particular technology. All of these different companies are trying out different methods of trying to turn quantum computing from something that's in the lab to something that is able to be commercialised and this is but one of many different approaches that are being tried. It's a choice by the current government to spend a very large amount of money on one particular company, one particular technology that on any view is several years away from being able to be commercialised. It may never be commercialised. 

STEVE AUSTIN: One of the questions that came up here was, would Australia retain the intellectual property rights or ownership of the quantum computer? Are you able to answer that Paul Fletcher? 

PAUL FLETCHER: I think that's a very important question. And the government has been very cagey on that. What rights will Australia get? What equity ownership does the Australian government and the Queensland Government get in the company for the $940 million it's being spent recognising that all of those companies and there's over 20 that have already invested, uh, they already have equity ownership in PsiQuantum. Now that's perfectly normal. They've had a series of funding rounds A, series B series, C series and D series. Uh, all of those funding rounds give those companies that have already invested, which is some 20 companies equity rights in the company. What we don't know is to what extent the Australian government has equity rights. And included within that whether -

STEVE AUSTIN: So, $1 billion doesn't get US ownership of the quantum computer, and it may not get US ownership of any of the intellectual property that comes from it either? 

PAUL FLETCHER: We don't know the answer to that. Those questions have been asked, and Minister Husic and Queensland Treasurer Dick and others have been very cagey in not giving those answers. But Australian taxpayers would reasonably want to know what do we get for the $940 million? We're told there'll be jobs, but there's reason to be sceptical as to how soon the jobs will arrive, and there's reason to be sceptical as well as to whether it's good value for money. But we know from what the company has already publicly disclosed that the manufacture of the chips, the, you know, one of the essential components of the computer will be done by Global Foundry, which is a well-respected, uh, international business. And it that work will be done in New York and in Germany. What certainty can we have that it will be done in Australia? And as you rightly point out, what intellectual property rights does the Australian Government or the Queensland Government get in exchange for this very significant investment? We haven't had clarity on that. And the Coalition certainly believes that we should have clarity. 

STEVE AUSTIN: My guest is the federal opposition science spokesperson, Paul Fletcher. This is 612 ABC Brisbane. Steve Austin's my name, Paul Fletcher. I spoke with Australia's chief scientist, Dr Kathy Foley. She was very excited about the news. 

“Australia has been a leader, one of the leading countries in developing quantum capability in the last 20 years. It's a huge compliment to our research community, who have been focused on delivering great science here and internationally. And we've started a quantum industry, which last year the, uh, first national quantum strategy was, uh, announced by the government. And it was one which identified some steps to make an Australian quantum industry here to build on that research investment and make a whole new industry”

That is Dr Kathy Foley, Australia's chief scientist, Paul Fletcher. Given that Australia is one of the leaders in this area of research, isn't it worth the risk? Isn't this mean this the potential payoff for all the research Australian scientists have been doing for a couple of decades or a decade and a half now? 

PAUL FLETCHER: We should be clear that quantum is a field that holds high potential, and that Australia has world class researchers and excellent work being done at a number of Australian universities - 

STEVE AUSTIN: So let's back them. with our money. Let's put our money down and say, okay, we back you. 

PAUL FLETCHER: And so why would we choose to back of those? A company based in Silicon Valley, an American company owned by a range of global venture capital companies, many of them based in the US as well as, of course, the interests that the founders no doubt continue to hold in the company - 

STEVE AUSTIN: So your line is that we're actually subsidising American companies. 

PAUL FLETCHER: We need to know the answer to that. And the government has been very cagey. But what we also need to know or recognise is that the process to arrive at this decision has been a very poor process. So the leading Australian researchers who are doing work in Australia right now, um, some of them were invited to participate. There was no public call for expressions of interest. I have heard it said that it looked like the terms of reference for the process were written in a way that was designed to allow PsiQuantum to win the process. We know that PsiQuantum was represented by a Labor aligned lobbying firm and there's been media coverage about the extent to which that firm and others have been working to persuade both the Commonwealth Labor government and a Queensland Labor government in the lead up to an election in Queensland, to put a lot of money into this and to pitch it as a story about jobs and being at the forefront of technology.