Dr Graeme Malcolm OBE, CEO and founder of M Squared, looks at where the UK stands in terms of quantum technologies.
Advancements in technology have brought major social and economic transformation, from the Bronze and the Iron Age, to the dawn of the internet. We are on the cusp of the greatest leap forwards of our time as we move beyond digital and embrace the coming era of quantum, and it offers the UK an unprecedented opportunity to lead the charge in this little-understood field.
Quantum technology has ignited the imagination of scientists for nearly a century, but only now are policymakers and investors starting to really take note. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is currently in the midst of its inquiry into the UK quantum industry, looking at how it can lead investment to sponsor scientific advancement and propel the nation to the forefront of global innovation.
The heart of this opportunity for the UK is the development of the quantum computer. The realisation of a commercially scalable quantum device would herald the biggest technological advancement since the first digital computers were originally conceived.
The world’s tech giants have naturally been investing significantly in quantum computing, and though it may seem counterintuitive for the UK’s position in the global quantum league-table, viewing the development as a ‘race’ would seem unproductive. Any and all demonstrable progress in quantum is positive for the UK’s industry, at a time when investment is more urgently needed than ever. With the advent of enormous pools of data, it is becoming more evident that the world would significantly benefit from more processing power to solve more complex problems.
Why do we need quantum computers?
Classical computer processing is failing to keep pace with our ability and desire to collect and interpret data. We are fast reaching a point where we are no longer able to compute the quantities we have. Data is the foundation of technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, but it also holds the key to understanding many of the perils that we currently face, including preventing climate change and understanding, diagnosing and curing diseases like Alzheimer’s, Dementia and Cancer.
An inability to crunch the vast banks of data threatens to slow progress as even the world’s most powerful supercomputers fall behind the rapid expanse of information that is readily available.
A traditional digital computer operates using binary code, where processing is predicated on a notion of either ‘on’ or ‘off.’ There are, however, an exponential number of states that can be exploited when we look to quantum bits, also known as qubits. Unlike the binary bit, a qubit can be in a state of ‘on’ or ‘off’, but also neither ‘on’ nor ‘off’, and both ‘on’ and ‘off’ – all at the same time. Once these qubits are entangled within a chain, we can start to see what near limitless computational power could really look like.
Quantum computers will soon be able to offer exponential processing power, solving calculations that are inconceivable for humans and crunching data in a fraction of the time taken by classical computers. Achieving quantum supremacy – the proposed moment that quantum computers overtake the power of classical computing devices – is the key to unlocking the potential of the world’s most advanced technologies. With proper investment, the UK is well placed to be at the heart of what would be a huge leap forward for global technological development.
Are we close to a viable quantum computer?
Whilst this may seem like science fiction or as a promised land confined to physics journals, we are much closer to realising the potential of the quantum computer than many sceptics suggest – we are already seeing the power of quantum within advanced sensing technologies in the UK today.
The quantum clock is the most accurate device that humanity has ever built and had it been created at the very beginning of the universe, to-date it would have lost just a single second in the 14 billion years since the Big Bang.
Collaboration is key
The UK is already a world leader in quantum technology and remains at the forefront of the commercial and academic agenda, uniquely positioned to take advantage of scientific progress in the field. But we must not become complacent in this position.
The key to continuing to push the boundaries is collaboration. It is vital that we reap the benefits both of combined knowledge within industry and academia to ensure that quantum computing exits research institutes and is applied in real-world applications in the shortest possible time.
Collaboration as a catalyst for innovation has been critical for creating the hub of high-tech businesses that now exists in Glasgow and one that has helped the city to move beyond its post-industrial struggles. The University of Strathclyde has been instrumental in harbouring the benefits of collaboration and helping to support the community of innovative businesses that are working in tandem to further the UK as a nation at the forefront of advancements in quantum technologies.
Can the UK compete?
There is often a perception that the UK cannot match global tech titans when it comes to developing resource-intensive technology. Yet quantum presents an opportunity for Britain to enhance its knowledge economy and lead the way.
The UK Quantum Programme has shown strong leadership but now it is time to invest more strongly and more boldly to help deliver the future of quantum. We must commit to UK innovation to help traditional industries evolve, to catalyse the development of new technologies and to support the emergence of brand new industries.
Quantum technology is actively pushing the boundaries of known physics and the UK has the chance to be at the centre of the conversation. Let’s take it now.