Oxford Quantum Circuits has launched a commercially available cloud service for enterprises to access a UK-based quantum computer to solve complex business tasks.

The startup said it is the UK’s first quantum computing as-a-service (QCaaS) platform, which involves companies paying to remotely run programs on quantum computer hardware.

OQC told Verdict that its platform is “capable of connecting many customers simultaneously” but the number will “depend on their computation needs”.

OQC partner Cambridge Quantum, which develops software for quantum computation and recently launched a joint venture with quantum computer hardware company Honeywell, will be the first to gain access to the private cloud. It will use the quantum computer to demonstrate and test its cryptographic keys, which are designed to withstand the superior firepower of quantum computers.

OQC said it has opened a beta list for companies in sectors ranging from finance to pharmaceutical. “Our focus right now is on building relationships, gathering customer feedback and future needs rather than large volumes of users,” a spokesperson said.

“We know quantum computing has the power to be revolutionary but for decades this power and potential has been relatively untested and unverified in the real world,” said Ilana Wisby, CEO of OQC. “By making our QCaaS platform more widely available to strategic partners and customers, we are offering the world’s leading enterprises the chance to demonstrate just how far-reaching quantum will be for their companies and their industries.”

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It is the latest sign of the nascent quantum computer industry looking to apply the technology commercially. Experts say quantum computers will be able to help identify new drugs, identify new molecules and advance artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms.

Sam Holt, GlobalData thematic analyst, told Verdict that it is “definitely significant” for the UK quantum computing sector and that OQC was looking to benefit from a “first-mover advantage”.

Classic computers store information in a series of 0s or 1s – binary – with each unit known as a bit. However, quantum computers store information as 1s, 0s or both. These are known as qubits and it allows quantum computers to perform calculations in parallel and so significantly reduce the time it takes to solve complex problems.

OQC did not disclose how many qubits its machine contains, but in 2017 the company was working on a 9-qubit system.

The startup told Verdict that users would have “competitive computing power comparable to most existing quantum processers”.

However, Holt said it is “really difficult” to be sure of the technical capabilities of the platform because OQC’s announcement is “so sparse in detail”.

Holt added: “We don’t know the quantum volume, qubit count, the gate fidelity or any other technical specifications of its machine.”

What we do know is that OQC uses a novel approach to its hardware that uses three-dimensional superconducting circuits.

The architectural approach, called “Coaxmon” and described by Holt as “potentially revolutionary”, can reduce interference from the wiring on circuits and as such reduce the error rate as the number of qubits is increased.

“It’s really complex engineering and fiendishly difficult to do,” added Holt.

Contrastingly, Honeywell uses trapped ion architecture. Holt said the partnerships could be the companies wanting to “diversify the technology stack”.

Simulating quantum computers in the cloud

Google’s quantum computer used 53 qubits when the company claimed to achieve quantum supremacy – when a quantum computer solves a problem that a classical computer cannot.

Despite recent advancements, the technology remains immature and machines are often error-prone.

Quantum computers must be kept in controlled conditions that involve sub-zero temperatures, making them impractical to run outside of laboratories.

These logistical challenges have seen a rise in quantum simulators, where a classical computer simulates the running of programs on a quantum system. The current limit for simulation is 48 qubits because the number of classical bits required per qubit increases exponentially.

Given OQC will not disclose the number of qubits in its quantum computer, it is unclear whether it can offer much – if any – superior processing power over a simulated quantum computer.

But Holt said that there are some tasks, such as generating truly random numbers for quantum cryptographic keys, that cannot be done by simulating a quantum computer.

A handful of other companies are already offering access to quantum computer hardware via the cloud.

IBM, for example, rents out access to its quantum computers through IBM Q Network, while Microsoft’s Azure Quantum provides full-stack remote access to quantum computers.

Google offers a service to run programs written in an open-source quantum computing language on its quantum computers located in Santa Barbara, California.

Meanwhile, cloud computing giant Amazon Web Services (AWS) offers services that allow businesses and researchers to access quantum hardware operated by manufacturers D-Wave, IonQ and Rigetti.

OQC told Verdict that its machine will have “an equivalent power to the devices publicly available on AWS Braket within six months”.

Founded in 2017, OQC built its first superconducting computer in 2018 and has received £2m of UK government funding.

While OQC’s platform – much like existing QCaaS platforms – can be accessed anywhere in the world, the company told Verdict being based in the UK meant it could schedule uptime around European and Asian users.

Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman said: “The UK boasts some of the world’s top innovators and research institutions and this partnership helps reinforce our position as a global leader in quantum computing.

“Quantum computing can help tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges such as climate change, and UK firms can use this cutting-edge service to boost growth and innovation, and build back better from the pandemic.”