“In the next 5-10 years a quantum computer will do a calculation that a supercomputer can’t do,” Rupesh Srivastava told around 65 invited attendees at the OxLEP led Quantum Technologies briefing at the UK’s House of Commons. No-one can predict the future, but as a Technology Associate at Oxford University’s Clarendon Laboratory working for Networked Quantum Information Technologies (NQIT) Srivistava is well placed for an educated guess, and there is increasing confidence that in the not so distant future, quantum phenomena will descend from the lofty realms of the wacky and inscrutable to be harnessed in technologies that are useful and eventually indispensable for human activities. However as to what those activities are and who should care, it seems the jury is still out.
As an example of the progress made in quantum hardware research, Srivastava pointed out that the latest commercial machine already has 20 qubits. While that may seem modest compared with the gigabytes handled by conventional digital technologies, where the data these machines manage scales linearly with the number of bits, the quantities quantum computers handle scales exponentially, essentially making 20 qubits equivalent to 220conventional bits. Quantum computers can exploit “entanglement” between qubits, which means as Srivastava put it – if you tickle one the other laughs, and this opens up a whole new way of processing data in calculations. While this leads to enormous efficiencies it also makes quantum algorithms quite alien from their classical counterparts.
Srivastava stressed that the current challenge was less about increasing the quantity of qubits and more about improving their quality and “coherence”. He described the qubits in use today as “noisy primadonnas – everything destabilizes them”. However here too progress has been made with the current record for coherence at 50 seconds – “long enough to make a coffee, so long as it’s instant”. The current pace of progress is enough for some, Srivastava among them, to strongly advocate investing in quantum technologies now. “Get involved now because you need to learn about it,” advised Srivastava. “If you show a [conventional] software engineer a quantum algorithm they will think it is from Mars.”
There are a multitude of fields where there is at least an outside chance that quantum calculations could be useful, from optimizing personal medicine to organizing complex production lines in manufacturing. However, in all these proposed areas there is a lot of work to do to make a commercial success of the technology’s potential. As Andrew Macintosh, Chairman of Oxford Quantum Circuits (OQC) highlighted during the briefing’s discussion, making practical use of quantum technologies will likely progress faster by focusing on specific applications and collaborating with interested industry partners who understand the issues the application can address.
There still seems to be a range of opinion as to whether quantum technologies can add value in all sectors or whether cryptography is the only real industry with an urgent need to heed advances in the field. As is often the case, a lot of people sit somewhere in the middle. Marco Paini, quantum computing program manager at the Washington DC and London based QxBranch, works on the software side designing the algorithms that quantum computers can exploit. Like many he flags up the financial services as a key sector to gain from quantum algorithms on account of the largely mathematical nature of for instance portfolio optimization. However, he also highlights the fields of research it could benefit, not just in chemistry but also physics, such as superconductivity, which can be described by a “Hubbard model” that quantum algorithms could tackle well. In this way quantum computers may have an interesting role to play in providing insights into their own working.
Oxfordshire has some unique advantages for quantum technology businesses and it was these that OxLEP hoped to highlight in putting the briefing together. According to Srivastava the UK already counts among the world leaders in quantum technology, although the challenge remains to maintain this position. The UK has four cross-institution quantum hubs in imaging, sensing, communication and computation, and Oxford University leads the quantum computation hub. As Macintosh points out, the expertise and commercial potential in quantum technologies that Oxfordshire boasts was already sufficiently enticing to OQC’s founder Peter Leek to lure him from his then home in Switzerland before he founded the company, and OQC continues to attract employees skilled up to a level that could open doors for them in almost any competing institution of their choosing across the rest of the world.
While Oxfordshire may already be home to globally competitive pioneering start ups like OQC, the region has a history of similarly promising commercial outfits that have led the field with groundbreaking technology only to be swallowed up by other larger companies from abroad, such as Oxford Instruments’ pioneering NMR technology, which Siemens bought. If companies continue to invest in their foreign branches when they buy these smaller enterprises, it may be debateable whether this matters – the local job market and economy is still benefiting from the business. However, when the bottomline starts to squeeze the tendency is to cut resources in branches overseas rather than those closer to home. There was a lot of hope voiced at the briefing that Oxfordshire could establish itself as a “Quantum Valley” analogous to Silicon Valley in the US, but how the area’s potential ultimately unfolds remains to be seen.