May 19, 2020

How the UK can lead the quantum revolution

By Dr Graeme Malcolm

They say technology moves in dog years and it’s not hard to see why. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles every two years through ever-smaller circuitry, producing greater performance and energy efficiency.

The first computers were entirely mechanical, constructed from cogs and wheels, and took up most of a room and originally entire buildings. Software as we now know it would come decades later. The team behind the equipment that took man to the moon using punch cards to code programmes, inadvertently further developing software as a discipline in the process.

After this very analogue world came a digital revolution that paved the way for computers and smartphones becoming commonplace. If we treat Moore’s Law as the existing gospel or at least a very true long-term guide – following the claims by IBM and Google we have arrived at a pivotal moment where all eyes are now falling upon the technology that will spark the next leap forward – quantum computing.

Computing and the quantum revolution

Last week, the global science community marked International Day of Light, in recognition of the fundamental role it plays in humanity’s most advanced technology that will transform industry and society alike. One such monumental event is the coming quantum revolution, of which light is a critical enabler.

At the moment, digital computing functions through units of information as bits – binary code written as 0 or 1, signalling off or on. Quantum technology is completely different. At its heart, it’s about going beyond binary and manipulating particles in their quantum state, where they can be on or off and every other combination all at the same time – in the terminology of quantum physics this is named superposition.

It’s these quantum bits, known as qubits, that create near limitless potential and will form the structure for the next age of computing.

To put that into perspective, the processing abilities of a quantum computer made up of more than just 50 qubits could surpass the capabilities of the most powerful supercomputer on Earth right now. Or, as Nobel Laureate Bill Phillips said, quantum computing is as big of a departure as the first computer is from the abacus.

Contrary to popular belief, lasers are not all lightsabers and Bond weaponry. It’s by using the world’s purest light that scientists have been able to supercool atoms to temperatures below those found in deep space. It’s in this state that we can use their pure quantum nature to power computers, clocks, compasses and the most accurate devices humanity has ever built.

In practice, this could well mean solving equations and creating models of the universe, our climate, the physical world at a level of complexity that humans simply cannot even comprehend. The greatest challenges that humanity is facing in the 21st century, require new science – quantum computing, sensing and time keeping will dramatically revolutionise many of today’s industries but also create new ones.

This is about much more than having faster processing power; quantum technology has the potential to fundamentally reinvent the way we tackle computing and interact the world around us.

How the UK could be a quantum technology leader

Science and technology are having their shining moment once more – the public and government’s appreciation of the importance and power of science is renewed due to Covid-19. We are recognising the benefit of science and technology not only for tackling the immediate and long-term effects of the virus, but also a means for the nation’s economic recovery from this crisis.

And there are many that believe Britain could be a real crucible for the quantum leap – myself included.

For starters, the UK has already been behind some of the first commercial applications of quantum technology. My company has worked with Imperial College London to develop a quantum compass – a device that could re-invent the world of global navigation.

For the most part, GPS provides a reliable and effective form of navigation using satellites. But it’s far from perfect: it is open to spoof-signaling from pirates and reliant on signals that bounce off buildings and GPS is not accessible everywhere. The quantum compass removes these challenges by using sensors to measure the properties of supercool atoms, without the need to receive communications from satellites.

Last year, the UK government announced a $194m investment, part of a $1bn program, to commercialise quantum technology to take it out of the laboratory and deploy it in real-world applications. This sees the UK alongside the likes of the US and China leading the way.

Beyond fresh investment, the UK uniquely benefits from the presence of several of the world’s best universities focusing on Quantum Technology and close proximity to a burgeoning community of commercial partners. As much as the right policies are needed, taking frontier science out of the laboratory and into the real world requires a critical mass of the right partnerships.

The UK has a major role to play in the coming quantum age and to stand at the frontier. With the Covid-19 crisis turning our eyes to the radical solutions for the world’s problems and ‘what’s next’ for technology, we should focus on the immense potential of a quantum future and take full advantage of the excellence that resides within these shores.


Read more: UK quantum computing investment to triple over next five years