The UK moves to second phase of quantum initiative, programme links universities to industries at tech hubs, ‘Ion traps’ alternative to superconductors are a key focus
“What an unprecedented year it has been,” said Amanda Solloway, the UK’s Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, opening the national quantum tech showcase in November.
It has been six years since the UK started its National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP), and it is now embarking on the second phase of its initiative, which aligns universities to industries at four national quantum tech hubs focused around computing; sensors and timing; communications; and enhanced imaging.
NQTP will feel it is in good shape to monetise parts of the quantum supply chain in the UK’s economic interest, having committed $1.3bn to industry and universities until 2024, including $124m recently allocated to upgrade the four research centres.
The UK also launched its National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC) earlier this year in a bid to stimulate and support businesses intrigued by quantum computing, but unsure how best to explore further.
NQCC’s industry work will benefit the UK’s quantum computing startups, of which there are currently 19 or so, according to the centre’s interim director, Michael Cuthbert.
These companies need to scale up beyond research and development activities towards early-revenue generation, and that means they need to identify new markets for their product and services.
Cuthbert explained: “Where we have a remit is to engage with industry sectors to understand their technology problems, and then figure out whether quantum computing is a technology they should be investing as part of their high-performance computing capability.
“There are already many big corporates in the UK – in financial services, pharmaceuticals or the energy sector, for example – which have small research teams looking at quantum computing.
“What we want to be able to do is to engage right across the UK economy with small and large companies to help them understand if and how quantum computing can be a useful tool, or potentially a threat to their business model.
“The critical pivot point in the uptake of quantum computing will come when companies move from a research focus to operational delivery.”
Above: Michael Cuthbert
Quantum bits, known as qubits, express data in multiple combinations of 1 and 0 thanks to a phenomenon of quantum physics called superposition. Scientists hope they will calculate problems with an endless array of possible answers that today’s supercomputers cannot resolve – a form of computation called optimisation.
AI could one day benefit with quantum-powered autonomy that quickly designs new drugs and machines. But while a general quantum computer would perform a wide spectrum of algorithms just like classical models, these will likely need millions of well-configured qubits, and science is some way from accomplishing this feat.
Much of the research at present relates to a more modest iteration called noisy intermediate state quantum computers (NISQs) in which technology corrects qubit imperfections to run specific tasks.
NQCC aims to launch a 100-qubit NISQ machine by 2025, and while others are working on a grander scale – IBM hopes to reach 1,000 qubits by 2023, for instance – Cuthbert said it was important to avoid sacrificing quality.
He argued: “We have been very clear about saying that not only are qubit numbers important, but also the qubit quality.
“What you do not want to do is scale the noise associated with the qubit architecture, because you then have a law of diminishing returns, and that makes technical protocols such as error correction more difficult to manage.”
The global ecosystem is also growing, giving NQTP opportunities to collaborate with international peers at the frontier of quantum innovation. The EU has its own €1bn ($1.1.bn) commitment, for example, while China has put up $10bn to build the world’s largest quantum research facility.
Cuthbert said: “Perhaps what was not anticipated [when the NQTP was established in 2014] was the pace at which quantum computing would proceed internationally.
Above: The proposed National Quantum Computing Centre building
“That has really moved pretty quickly in the first five years, and with these second five years of the national programme, I think the UK clearly has stated its intent to be in the leading pack in developing future quantum computers.
Sam Johnson, innovation lead for quantum technology at Innovate UK, a branch of state funding agency UK Research and Innovation, said: “The NQTP programme extends from universities to industry – they bring together consortia of small businesses, industry and supply chains for emerging quantum technologies.
“So I think this is where the strategy the UK has pursued, has led to others in the world following and adopting.”
However the materials for building qubits are highly sensitive and prone to errors. Even reading the switches can throw calculations off course, making the execution useless.
There is still much work to be done to deliver quantum computers that run proficiently. Qubits fail far more frequently than their classical cousins – Cuthbert says they typically err within a single millisecond, versus 1 billion years for the standard silicon bit. Even reading the switches on qubits can throw calculations off course, because of quantum physics, making the execution useless.
It is a mammoth challenge, but the industry is beginning to draw closer. In August 2020, Google published data on a chemical reaction experiment undertaken using a 12-qubit machine, based on a larger model it claimed had achieved quantum supremacy, executing a computational task that no ordinary machine could achieve, in late 2019.
Finland-headquartered IQM marked another advance the following month with a bolometer technology it says can read qubits with fewer errors, leveraging microwave radiation and graphene-based materials.
The Aalto University and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Research spinout subsequently raised €39m ($46m) of series A capital from investors including internet group Tencent in November 2020.
It was part of a funding surge for European quantum computing, with 13 Europe-based startups having raised money since the start of 2020, according to deals database Crunchbase.
IQM focuses on a form of quantum engineering known as “co-design” with the aim of optimising the architecture of quantum computers during development to meet the needs of specific software algorithms.
Materials are needed to build larger and more powerful quantum machines, and these applications offer strategic value beyond their primary use case. Investors gravitate to the fundamental realignment of quantum computing, but they also value nearer term products, using quantum materials in areas such as bioscience or consumer electronics.
Today’s quantum computers often leverage superconducting circuits, a quantum material that conveys electricity without resistance. But these can be challenging as they require temperatures of almost absolute-zero, often residing in refrigerators the size of a supercomputer.
One alternative involves building the means to capture positively charged atoms. NQTP believes the UK has taken the initiative in this field, known as ion traps, through the University of Oxford-led Quantum Computing and Simulation Hub.
Proponents argue ion traps provide superior performance to superconducting, but it is still all to play for with an array of quantum developers looking to supersede existing architectures.
Among them is University of Colorado’s ColdQuanta, which received $32m in series A funding earlier this month. The spinout has developed lasers to engineer cold qubits on an atomised scale, potentially packing thousands into a volume of below 1mm2.
Johnson said: “All of the barriers in QC technologies can be encapsulated as scaling – so extending far beyond the tens of qubit devices that we have today.
“These technical challenges mean there is a range of platforms which are candidates for QC. At the moment many players are working with superconducting circuits, but there is also atoms, ions, photons and silicon as technologies competing in the long-term to be the primary QC mechanism.”
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