Boris Johnson wants UK quantum leap in global computing race

British Prime Minister says country can become a 'science superpower' and harness tech to solve climate change

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined his ambition for the UK to become the pre-eminent force in the global quantum computing market by 2040, in his Lord Mayor's Banquet speech on Monday.

After the UN climate conference Cop26 in Glasgow, Mr Johnson also called on allies to work together to harness technological innovations and private finance in pursuit of a greener and more stable and prosperous world.

Addressing an audience of business leaders, international diplomats and dignitaries at the London Guildhall event, he advocated for international public-private partnerships to help drive global green growth.

Mr Johnson said Cop26 had marked a crossroads for politics.

"I have been watching politics a long time now and I know when a tipping point is reached," he said.

"The language does matter but whether you are talking about phasing down or phasing out, the day is now not far off when it will be as politically unacceptable, anywhere in the world, to open a new coal-fired power station as it now is to get on an aeroplane and light a cigar."

The need for multilateralism was a thread running throughout Mr Johnson's speech as he sought to put flesh on the somewhat nebulous Global Britain project.

“I believe this concept of coalitions coalescing around science, and security, and values and finance and diplomacy, and above all people, should be at the heart of what Global Britain is doing," he said.

Despite the inherent collegiality of Cop26, the people who attended struggled to find a consensus or a sufficiently robust final agreement, with coal proving to be a particularly awkward obstacle.

Science can provide quantum of climate solace

Mr Johnson propounded a futuristic solution to mitigate the limits of human thought.

“Having talked to Demis Hassabis and to Eric Schmidt, formerly of Google, it is clear that we need to go big on quantum computing," he said.

"If AI can mimic the intuitive flair of the human brain, then quantum computing will enable us to process information so fast that we can process an almost infinite number of solutions at once.

“And if we could perfect it there are so many problems we could solve, including how to turn nitrogen into fertiliser and feed the world without creating so much C0²."

We know that [science] the way to create 100,000s of jobs in the green industries of the future
Boris Johnson

To this end, Mr Johnson committed the UK to building a "general-purpose quantum computer" and securing the "single biggest share of a global quantum computing market by 2040".

“And that is why this country is determined to become, once again, a science superpower," he said.

"We know that is the way to create 100,000s of jobs in the green industries of the future."

In an unveiled sideswipe at China, whose technological tendrils enmesh Britain, he said this was the way to ensure the UK was "not dependent on the technology of others in a way that could ultimately compromise our national security".

To Russia with (tough) love

Mr Johnson was less oblique when addressing the other global superpower with whom the UK does not see eye to eye: Russia. However, while direct, his language was that of diplomacy rather than conflict.

"So when we say that we support the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, that is not because we want to be adversarial to Russia, or that we want in some way strategically to encircle or undermine that great country," he said.

“And never let it be forgotten, in this season of remembrance, that it was Russian blood that enabled us to defeat Nazism.

“It is because we have a commitment to democracy and freedom that is shared now across the vast mass of the European continent."

Critics of the Johnson government would argue it exemplified insularity and nationalism, as evidenced by Brexit, its unwelcoming stance on migrants, and its cutting of the foreign aid budget.

Mr Johnson was trying to shift this perception, reshaping his administration as one quick and eager to come to the aid of allies.

“When our Polish friends asked for our help to deal with a contrived crisis on their border with Belarus, we were quick to respond," he said.

“And we hope that our friends may recognise that a choice is shortly coming between mainlining ever more Russian hydrocarbons in giant new pipelines, and sticking up for Ukraine and championing the cause of peace and stability, let me put it that way."

Updated: November 15th 2021, 11:14 PM