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Superseding Supercomputers: The Rise of Quantum Computing

Quantum computing represents the next great leap forward for mankind – Chancellor Philip Hammond recently committed £80m to support the work of four quantum technology hubs in the UK. But if trying to grasp what it all means leaves you puzzled, then wonder no more.

Dr Graeme Malcolm OBE is a laser physicist and CEO and founder of M Squared, a developer of photonics and quantum technology. The company’s tools are used in collaboration with Nobel Prize-winning scientists, some of the world’s top universities and cutting-edge corporations.

Malcolm explains how we’re on the verge of a major breakthrough in quantum computing, how it’s set to change the world and why industries such as finance, aerospace, energy and automotive are set to benefit.

Quantum computing explained…
The best way to look at this is in a historical context. We had mechanical computers, then we had analogue electronics, followed by digital electronics such as cell phones and computers. Quantum is the next generation. It’s the next step forward in technology.

You could say some of that progress has come with unintended consequences. In the last year, mankind has produced half the data it has ever produced – next year it will produce twice as much. We’re on this path of exponential growth of big data.

“We’re on the cusp of a real breakthrough. We’ve seen early indicators that quantum computation is real.”

With quantum computing, we have the opportunity to scale up and match this growth. The way we do that is by using ions to produce quantum bits – or ‘qubits’. For every qubit that we add, we double the power of the system.

How it’s already being applied…
Time is often something that mankind uses as a metric. Think about all the different trades that happen on the stock market – global commercial transactions and the timekeeping required to regulate that. You need very accurate timestamping to record all the transactions that happen across global financial systems.

Quantum clocks were one of the first things that were developed, which use lasers to create clocks that keep time to a mind-bogglingly accurate level. They keep time to one second of accuracy in 10 million, million, million seconds. That’s roughly one second within the entire history of the universe. That’s how accurate these clocks are.

With the EU introducing new rules in January that require high-frequency traders, exchanges and investment banks to record trades within 100 milliseconds, the need for speed and accuracy in finance has never been greater. Using quantum clocks, we can check if a transaction that happened in Chicago took place before one in Frankfurt.

Now we’re making sensors and quantum information processing equipment, which is really starting this journey towards quantum computing.

An early working example of a quantum computer. Credit: Jin Liwang/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

Students at the University of Science and Technology of China check the status of a quantum computing machine. Credit: Jin Liwang/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

What it means for society…
Where it starts to get really interesting is when quantum allows us to solve problems that are too computationally difficult for a traditional digital approach. Take degenerative brain diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, which are caused by the misfolding of proteins in our brains. With quantum computers, we’ll be able to start to look at how these proteins misfold and what causes them to misfold. You can then work on prevention and cures.

Or take, for example, the ‘travelling salesman problem’: if somebody wants to travel around the world and sell things, how can they optimise their route so they make maximum use of their time and resources? There is an almost infinite number of ways that you could solve that problem, but quantum computers are good at speeding up the answer to find the best solution.

If we look at the ways our cities are run, the optimisation of our processes could make it possible to improve traffic flows or improve our waste product cycles for sustainability. Or maybe we could optimise the resources used by the NHS. So many of our processes will become much easier when you have computational power at that level.

Over time, I think we’ll find financial services, online economies and governments using it to optimise things like international trade or to improve delivery of services to their citizens. Those industries that have the biggest piles of data and have the greatest need to process that data will be among the first to benefit.

“Quantum allows us to start to solve problems that are too computationally difficult for a traditional approach.”

That could be anything from finance to aerospace to automotive as well as energy. In agriculture, it could answer the question of how to design new fertilisers that are easier to produce, at less cost and with less environmental impact.

The opportunity for the UK…
The success of the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme has been to engage the academic world, industries and the government with a common view on the way forward.

We’ve been able to get to this point over the past five years, but there is a recognition that we need to continue this progress – and there has therefore been more funding commitment from the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

So the importance has been recognised in terms of how we approach that within the UK, but we also must think in terms of approaching things in the right way globally. At M Squared, 30% of our staff is from outside of the UK. We have to make sure that the international reach we have within our team can continue.

The UK has arguably the second-best science base in the world but, in isolation, it can’t achieve its potential. It needs to work with international partners.

‘We’re on the cusp of a real breakthrough’
I think it’s a case of not ‘if’ but of ‘when’. It’s foreseeable that in the next two to three years we’ll start to see midscale-level 50- to 100-qubit quantum computers that will outperform classical computers. It definitely won’t be 30 years, which is what everyone thought five or 10 years ago. The next step is seeing these machines applied to big data and problems around the complexity of computation.

That will be the start of the era of quantum computing. We’ll then see an exponential acceleration at that point, because quantum computers will be able to help the development of future quantum computers.

We’re on the cusp of a real breakthrough. What we’ve seen already is research machines starting to do complex quantum mechanical calculations: answering questions like how two hydrogen atoms join together to form a hydrogen molecule. These are really difficult science questions that so far nobody has been able to answer.

It’s an early indicator that quantum computation is real.

Dr Graeme Malcolm OBE is chief executive officer and co-founder of M Squared, which specialises in laser and photonics systems for use in academic and commercial applications.