In 1943 IBM’s CEO Thomas J Watson proclaimed: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”. Predictions don’t go much worse than that. Although, to be fair, the computers he was referring to were pretty far removed from those we know today.

Is the fabled quantum computer about to undergo a similar transformation and evolve from the few prototype devices we have at present? After two significant breakthroughs in 2015, we have taken big strides towards producing commercially viable machines that could completely revolutionise computing power as we know it.

The UK government is taking it seriously. They have a £270 million fund for co-ordinating and promoting quantum technology research within the UK, and recognise it as an exciting opportunity for UK industry with huge potential. And with research and development tax credits available for UK companies working in this cutting-edge field, there is plenty of financial support around. So we take a look at what quantum computing is, the technical challenges that are faced in this developing field and the fascinating possibilities that it could realise.

What are quantum computers?

Regular computers process information in ‘bits’ coded as ones and zeros. Quantum computers exploit a key quantum principle called ‘superposition’ that allows particles to exist in more than one state at once. So instead of ‘bits’ they use ‘qubits’ and these can process information as ones, zeros and both at the same time. This allows quantum computers to handle exponentially more information, as they can process data simultaneously instead of sequentially. Problems that it would take a supercomputer of today decades to solve, could be worked-out by a quantum computer in a matter of seconds.

Where is the R&D in quantum computing?

Everywhere! [Does that count as a superposition joke?] Fully viable quantum computers don’t exist yet and there are some huge technical challenges to overcome. This means that any serious work in this field by UK based companies is likely to automatically tick a lot of the boxes that HMRC are looking for in a valid research and development (R&D) tax credit claim, in particular:

  • Uncertainty of outcome
  • The pursuit of technical advancement

If these two factors are present, then all kinds of expenditure can qualify including staff costs (gross salary, employers NIC, pension contributions etc.), subcontractors and freelancers, consumables like heat, light and power and costs associated with working with universities on Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs).

The technical challenges of quantum computing

One of the biggest problems is that quantum computing technology is extremely unstable. Noise, movement and even the operation of the component parts of a quantum computer can cause the functionality to fail in a phenomenon called quantum decoherence. This is the breakdown from a quantum state to a classical state. So processing is a race against time before decoherence happens and the margins can be measured in seconds down to nanoseconds. Successful research in combatting decoherence will be a key breakthrough in the development of quantum computing.

One solution that helps for some types of quantum computer model is operating at super cool temperatures – near absolute zero. This in itself though presents obvious challenges as it requires a highly controlled environment in which to operate.

Other challenges include:

  • Identifying and correcting computational errors
  • Connecting qubits into larger arrays (groups of qubits)
  • Developing quantum logic gates – that allow qubits to talk to each other
  • Creating a scalable way to produce high volume qubit machines.

Quantum computing technological breakthroughs

There is clearly a lot of work to be done, but owing to extensive R&D activity around the world significant progress is being made.

In March 2015, Google and the University of California, Santa Barbara announced that they had stabilised an array of nine qubits. This meant that they could identify and correct processing errors so that they did not impact upon later computation. Whilst the errors could not be prevented from happening in the first place and they were classical computer errors, not quantum computing errors, this is still considered a major milestone. Experts are hailing it has step 3.5 out of 7 in building a fully working quantum computer.

Later in 2015 a second major breakthrough came – this time from researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia. A research team led by Andrew Dzurak announced that they had developed the first two-qubit logic gate in silicon. The logic gate allows two qubits to talk to each other so is an important component in scaling up quantum computing. The fact that the team developed the logic gate in silicon is significant. It means that the existing computing infrastructure which is built around silicon can be leveraged to potentially mass produce silicon quantum chips in the same way that it does now for regular computers. The team described the advance as completing “the physical components needed to realise super-powerful silicon quantum computers.”

Quantum computing in Bristol

These two breakthroughs may not have been in the UK, but a study by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs in 2015 suggested the UK is a significant country for quantum research. Unsurprisingly given their resources, the USA and China are far ahead of everyone else with between one and two thousand researchers each, but the UK was around the top of a chasing pack with 453 researchers and €105 million being spent on research.

And Bristol is very much a hub for the research, with Bristol University’s Centre for Quantum Photonics running a number of fascinating research projects. Perhaps the most eye-catching is their Quantum in the Cloud. For this, they have allowed open access to their very own two-qubit quantum processor chip, allowing anyone to run their own quantum experiments via cloud computing access. Other areas of research for the group include: optical quantum computing, integrated quantum photonics and quantum information with photonic crystal fibres.

How will quantum computers be a game changer?

First up, let’s stress again not much is going to happen today or tomorrow. Quantum computers are still very much in the R&D stage. But experts seem confident that there will be more significant breakthroughs over the next decade. And when true quantum computers are finally here it is predicted that their impact will be huge.

Turning the world of cyber security and encryption on its head

Just the thought of quantum computers is likely to be sending a shiver down the spines of cyber security companies. Many of today’s standard methods of cyber security and encryption use techniques like large integer factorisation, which, whilst virtually impossible for classical computers to crack, would be relatively easy for quantum computers. Indeed, among the documents leaked by Edward Snowden were descriptions of how the NSA was interested in quantum computers for these purposes. It’s worth saying too, that quantum computers are likely to present improved security solutions too. As our lives turn ever more digital, this is one industry that will turned on its head by quantum computers.

How quantum computing could speed up medical breakthroughs

One of the great powers of quantum computing is its ability to run simulations. And no industry may benefit more from this than pharmaceuticals and healthcare in general. The possibilities that quantum computers can offer are massive. For instance, it currently takes years upon years and millions of pounds to develop new drugs. In the future, the awesome processing power of quantum computers could run simulations of countless different chemical compounds far more quickly than current technology, before highlighting the most promising ones for further development. At the other end of the development process, they are likely to be far more efficient at biometric profiling of patients to better match drugs to people who won’t have adverse reactions to them. These kind of developments could bring effective drugs to market years’ quicker than they arrive now, with huge cost saving implications.

Improved traffic and weather forecasting

We all like to have a laugh at how useless our weather forecasts are, but quantum computers could make such inaccuracy a thing of the past. Again it comes down to their simulation ability that is far superior to any classical computer. And while most of the time an incorrect weather forecast can be treated light-heartedly, occasionally, as with the famous 1987 storm it can have serious consequences. Having the ability to predict storms and other severe weather more accurately will save lives.

Other simulation models that could be useful in civilian life include traffic modelling. It is estimated that traffic congestion will cost the UK economy over £300 billion between 2013 and 2030 according to one report. Setting quantum computers to work on managing traffic flow in congested areas could yield huge cost savings by optimising routes in real time for travellers.

Taking space exploration to a new level

The way that quantum computers work means that they will be ideally placed to analyse data collected by telescopes looking, for instance, for habitable planets. Current computer technology simply can’t do this efficiently so when quantum computers are finally with us they can interrogate historical data collected by space telescopes for information that was missed the first time round, and make future space data analysis far more efficient. NASA also has a quantum computing laboratory known as Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (QuAIL), in which it hopes quantum computers will one day help it solve optimisation problems on its aeronautical missions.

Image processing for intelligence services

Just as quantum computers can help our eyes in the sky looking out to space, they can also help the intelligence services in analysing imagery collected by satellites looking back at earth. Perhaps controversial in a world of WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden and the Snooper’s Charter, there is no doubt that the military and intelligence services would love new ways in which to sort through the reams of data that is collected daily. Indeed, in December 2015 it was announced that IBM had been awarded a five-year grant by the United States’ Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) to try to overcome all volatility issues in quantum computing hardware.

Even smarter artificial intelligence

Quantum computers have far more potential to learn as they go along than classical computers and could even write their own code. In other words: Artificial Intelligence (AI). With some incredible breakthroughs made in the field of AI already with classical computers, quantum computers look set to take machine learning to the next level. It was reported in 2014 that physicists in China had carried out the first demonstration of quantum artificial intelligence. The test, modest in nature due to the current limitations of quantum computers, revolved around the computer being able to read hand written 6’s and 9’s which it did successfully. As quantum computers develop the principles used in this test will be able to be scaled to produce far more complex AI.

Making quantum computing pay

If you are a limited company developing components, algorithms or equipment for quantum computing there is high probability that you could be eligible for government support through R&D tax credits. Whether you are profit or loss making, these can help fund your expenditure in this technically challenging, cutting-edge field. To find out more information contact us.


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