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The race for quantum computers - Quantum Computing R&D

Tom Jones senior tax manager
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Close up of a Quantum computer chip graphic, lit in blue and pink Quantum computer

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.

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 undergoing a similar transformation? In recent years big strides have been taken towards producing commercially viable machines that could completely revolutionise computing power as we know it.

 In 2021 IBM released their “Eagle” Quantum processor with over 100 Qubits and “Osprey” with over 400 Qubits in 2022. IBM plans to develop a Quantum Computer system with over 4000 Qubits by 2025, demonstrating that we are currently witnessing exponential progress in quantum computing. 

In 2023, researchers from The University of Sussex and Universal Quantum made a huge breakthrough, proving that Qubits can directly transfer between quantum computer chips. This promises to solve the major challenge of building quantum computers that are large enough to solve much more complex problems 

The UK government is clearly taking it seriously too.In their National Quantum Strategy, the government cited Quantum technologies as being at the very core of their mission to become a science and technology superpower. In fact, over £1 billion has been invested into the research and development of quantum technologies, since 2014. 

And with research and development tax relief available for UK companies working in this cutting-edge field, there is plenty of financial support around.

Stable quantum computing is a truly exciting prospect, having a seemingly endless list of applications. Some believe it has the potential to generate between $450 – $850 billion worth of benefit to the world in the next fifteen to thirty years.  

In this article, 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 would take a supercomputer of today decades to solve, could be worked-out by a quantum computer in a matter of seconds.

What qualifies as R&D in quantum computing?

Fully operational quantum computers don’t exist yet with some huge technical challenges still to overcome. This means that any serious work in this field by UK-based companies is likely to tick a lot of the boxes that HMRC are looking for in a valid quantum computing R&D) tax credit claim, in particular:

  • Uncertainty of outcome
  • The pursuit of technical advancement

If these two factors are present, then certain 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).

For many businesses in the quantum computing space, cloud computing costs represent a significant overhead. Recent changes to R&D tax relief mean that you can now claim some of these costs back through the incentive. Similarly, the inclusion of some qualifying costs around pure mathematics and datasets may further help those claiming R&D relief for quantum computing innovation.Read more in our overview of R&D tax relief changes in 2023.

The technical challenges around the development 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 combating 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.

Back 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 wass a major milestone. 

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.”

In 2019, Google claimed that they achieved Quantum Supremacy, with their quantum computer – Sycamore, allegedly able to carry out a task in three minutes that would usually take the most powerful supercomputer around 10,000 years to complete. IBM downplayed this ‘breakthrough’. Their reasoning was that quantum supremacy may wrongly imply that quantum computers can effectively outperform classical computers in every way, whereas supremacy is said to be achieved once a Quantum computer outperforms a classical computer in even one task. 

In 2022, Google’s Quantum Supremacy claim was further challenged by a team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences led by Pan Zhang. They claimed that they could complete the same task in 15 hours, and possibly even in 15 seconds, if given access to the Summit Supercomputer. 

Quantum computing is already an incredibly competitive industry, tech giants like IBM and Google already butting heads. Countries across the world are making every effort to not get left behind too, with China committing $15.3 billion to quantum computing R&D which is more than double the investment of the EU as a whole ($7.2 billion) 

Quantum computing innovation in Bristol

These breakthroughs may not have been in the UK, but the UK is undeniably a significant country for quantum research. The USA and China are far ahead of everyone else, unsurprisingly given their resources.

As of 2022, China announced $15 billion governmental funding with the US announcing $1.3 billion and funding ahead of the UK’s $1.2 Billion. It is clear that the UK is making every effort to ensure they keep pace.

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. These projects include Quantum music, which shows how quantum technology can be used to generate sounds. Their quantum computing cloud also allows students open access to their two qubit quantum processor. Research at Bristol university has also led to advancements in the field of quantum computing, such as the integrated quantum chip.   

Bristol start-up Phasecraft have even begun using quantum computing to better understand the electronic properties of various materials in order to develop more efficient batteries and photocells. This is a huge breakthrough that shows the potential for quantum computing. The research carried out is also scalable, ensuring that they can leverage the full potential of quantum computing systems as they evolve. 

How will quantum computers be a game changer?

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.

Quantum Motion, a British company, aims to make and sell quantum computers by 2030. Unlike IBM or Google, they are utilising existing microchip manufacturing technology in order to create quantum chips, rather than electromagnetic fields or light signals. This will hopefully keep the price of manufacturing relatively low. 

In 2022, Quantum Motion made a breakthrough, placing thousands of quantum devices on a single microchip. With £42 million raised in funds so far, they hope to sell quantum computers to cloud computing providers by the end of the decade. 

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 become ever more digital, this is one industry that will be 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 £5.1bn a year  or £1,211 per driver. Based on the average value of earnings or leisure time they would be wasting in traffic. 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. Fujitsu & Volkswagen have also echoed this sentiment, noting the importance of quantum computing in an effort to reduce congestion.

Taking space exploration to a new level with quantum computing

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. 

Quantum Computing and AI

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, especially considering the rapid adoption of language-based models such as Chat GPT and Google Bard,  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 6s and 9s which it did successfully. As quantum computers develop, the principles used in this test will be scaled to produce far more complex AI.

Today, AI is trained on huge datasets in order to provide more relevant and accurate information. By utilising a Quantum Computer’s full potential, it would allow AI to be trained on increasingly large sets of data in a much shorter amount of time. This could also be the key to allowing AI to be trained in every language, sharing the benefits of AI across the world. 

R&D tax relief for Quantum Computing

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