/Britain prepares to make a quantum leap in computing (via Qpute.com)

Britain prepares to make a quantum leap in computing (via Qpute.com)

Nestled among the trees of the Oxfordshire countryside, it would be easy to miss the headquarters of Oxford Instruments.

Housed inside, only a few hundred metres from smatterings of farmhouses and thatched cottages in Tubney Wood, Abingdon, is a potential breakthrough for Britain’s quantum computing.

Hanging like a golden chandelier, to be unveiled on Thursday, is what is claimed to be Britain’s first “commercially ready” quantum computer. It is part of a £10m project backed by the Government and built by Silicon Valley quantum developer Rigetti, alongside Oxford researchers.

The machine is ready to start work and, following testing, Rigetti aims to roll it out for commercial use early next year. “This is the first step,” says Mandy Birch, a senior vice president at Rigetti. “We’re excited to be working on some of humanity’s most important problems.”

Companies such as Rigetti are racing to create something that can be used to solve mathematical problems around climate change and drug discovery or financial markets.

Long promised, the machines aim to harness the properties of quantum mechanics to develop super powerful computers. Having inched forward for two decades, advances in the hardware have accelerated since 2019.

The technology makes use of quantum “bits”. Traditional computers run on ones and zeros. Quantum computers, however, run on these so-called “qubits”, generated by manipulating electrons or photons. Quantum can be one, zero, or even both, potentially supercharging the power of a computer.

This is, however, fiendishly hard science. Tinkering with quantum machines involves cooling them to near absolute zero or manipulating cutting edge circuitry.

About | What is quantum computing?

Our current era could be seen as comparable to the work of scientists in Bletchley Park, 1943, replacing cogs and valves in the code-breaking Colossus computer. Some experts argue we are still years from quantum computers proving useful beyond lab experiments.

By securing a deal for Rigetti to build a computer in the UK, Britain hopes to be at the forefront of these advances and on a par with the US, China and Switzerland as leaders in quantum computing.

Roger McKinlay, director of the UK’s Quantum Challenge, is optimistic. “There is no reason it should take another 40 years,” to leap from World War Two code breakers to the computing revolution of the 1980s and 1990s, he says, adding he hopes to see practical quantum computing on offer in the UK within two years.

The past 24 months have been transformational. In 2019, Google claimed “quantum supremacy”, meaning it had developed a computer it believed could outperform the best traditional machines at a certain task.

“We have moved from people saying ‘if’ there are quantum computers to ‘when’ there are quantum computers,” says McKinlay.

“We have gone from Google’s announcement two years ago, which was like a huge lab experiment, to the very different corporate style of Rigetti.”

With quantum computers in their infancy, the company, founded by Chad Rigetti in 2013, has raised $190m (£140m) to help it turn these sometimes unreliable machines into devices that can run real world tasks. Some of the machine’s first efforts will be financial number crunching for Standard Chartered.

It is also a boost to the FTSE 250’s Oxford Instruments, which specialises in advanced cooling systems that can chill parts of the device to colder temperatures than outer space. Its shares have risen by almost 50pc over the last 12 months.

Debate remains over how useful quantum technology can be in its current state. The computers have a problem with “noise” – a tendency to spit out error-strewn results, reducing their efficiency.

“There is a lot of hype in the field about what these ‘noisy’ machines may be able to do. But they currently really struggle to do anything commercially useful that can’t be done on a conventional computer,” says Sebastian Weidt, the chief executive of British start-up Universal Quantum.

As things stand, he argues, they are a long way from practical use and will need many millions more qubits of power before being able to break through this “noise”.

Birch, of Rigetti, argues its efforts are just a few years from being able to perform advanced calculations more efficiently and cheaply.

“Early computers were noisey, but that does not mean these quantum computers are not useful. We have built a state of the art … device. In the next one to three years it will be able to perform tasks better than normal computers.”

Quantum Computing | What are the applications?

Rigetti, however, is not the only company promising a near-term breakthrough. Another, Oxford Quantum Circuits, has also claimed its technology “is the only quantum computer commercially available in the UK”.

Elsewhere, London-based Orca Computing last week said it has designed the world’s smallest quantum computer – about the size of a cabinet, compared to rivals’ room-sized devices.

While Britain has invested a total of around £1bn in quantum research, it faces tough competition. In 2018, Donald Trump signed off a similar $1.2bn investment, even as venture capitalists and tech giants such as Google pour investment into the sector.

China’s total investment is unknown, but it is working on a rumoured $10bn quantum computer.

In all quantum technology, which includes quantum encryption and communications, the Asian nation has more than 3,000 patents, twice as many as the US. Some studies, however, suggest China is pulling away.

According to Birch there are good reasons for “like minded” countries such as the UK and the US, to work together. “It is absolutely critical to ensure this technology is used for good,” she says.

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