12 things you need to know about quantum computing

Posted on 7 Jul 2023 by The Manufacturer

For many, quantum computing may appear to have parallels with nuclear fusion: a technology with great potential but with no provable benefits despite decades of costly research.

However, beyond the hype and the theory, there will be plenty of real-life, tangible opportunities for manufacturers to solve critical business challenges more quickly and cheaply, and it is important to be aware of the threat that quantum computing offers to some encryption schemes. There’s already lots to read online and plenty of organisations, including Digital Catapult, that can help manufacturers dip their toes into the quantum water.

1. Why do we need quantum computing?

Despite the massive increase in computing power which defines our modern world, there are still some tasks classical computers can’t handle well. For example, developing a room temperature superconductor would help solve the world’s energy problems yet research is blocked, in part, because classical computers can’t simulate quantum systems with many entangled particles.

Medical research also suffers because classical computers can’t simulate large molecules accurately. Optimisation and machine learning algorithms are sometimes limited by computing resource constraints. Quantum computers will, it’s believed, solve some of these difficult problems in the future, due to their fundamentally different computing paradigm.

2. How will quantum computing affect my industry?

Today’s Noisy Intermediate Scale Quantum (NISQ) devices have, at most, a few hundred qubits, and these are very error prone. In the current NISQ era, Variational Quantum Algorithms (VQA), where a quantum computer is ‘trained’ by a classical computer, are likely to be used for a wide range of functions:

  • Optimisation: Solving a wide range of real-world problems such as finding the best configuration for telecoms networks, optimal vehicle routing for last mile delivery, optimising supply chains and factory flows.
  • Machine learning: Particularly for anomaly detection to find manufacturing faults.
  • Computational fluid dynamics: Calculating fluid flows around vehicles to make them more aerodynamic.

The ‘holy grail’ of modern research is to build a large, universal, error corrected quantum computer, which could in principle run any quantum algorithm; with many positive societal impacts including revolutionising the challenge of climate change by discovering new materials for solar cells, batteries and even room temperature superconductors.

3. Which industries will benefit the most in the short-term?

Multiple industries with complex supply chains will benefit from the ability to carry out better optimisations than are possible classically, and these are likely to be the first commercial use cases, with quick and significant paybacks. At Digital Catapult, we’re supporting sectors including energy, construction, automotive, transportation, advanced manufacturing, material science and telecoms to determine how companies in those sectors will gain a competitive advantage by understanding the future benefits and applications of secure quantum computing for their industry, upskilling their employees and encouraging innovation. For example, quantum computers are being used to develop next-generation batteries, and the aerospace industry will benefit from digital twins enabled by quantum fluid dynamics simulations.

4. How does quantum translate into economic opportunity?

Many businesses will benefit from improved quantum chemistry, fluid dynamics, machine learning and optimisation. These businesses will need to purchase not just a quantum computer, or cloud access to a quantum computer, but ‘the complete product’. They may need to purchase consultancy, to understand which problems are amenable to quantum computing, quantum software and the rights to use quantum algorithms.

The quantum computer manufacturer will themselves need to source essential supply chain components such as dilution refrigerators, lasers, semiconductor nanostructure design and manufacture and microwave generators, and depend on scientific research. All of these transactions provide an economic opportunity and build a quantum eco-system.

Quantum computing

5. What is a quantum computer?

Quantum computers depend on quantum effects only relevant at small scales, that we don’t see in our day-to-day lives. For example, a normal egg-timer starts off full, and then gradually empties as the sand drains out. The quantum equivalent, at the atomic scale, is completely different. A radiation pulse will cause an atom to transition between excited and ground quantum states, like the egg timer.

Because in quantum mechanics energy comes in lumps, or ‘quanta’, after a pulse of appropriate length, the atom is found with equal probability in the excited state or in the ground state. The pulse has placed the atom in a ‘quantum superposition’ where it is in both the excited and ground states at the same time. The atom can be considered to be a ‘qubit’ – the quantum equivalent of the classical computing bit.

6. How is quantum computing different from normal computing?

A bit used on normal, or ‘classical’ computing, is only ever in one of two binary states, 0 or 1. Because of superposition, a qubit holds much more information. In a quantum computer, parallel processing over many qubits in superposition can give huge benefits over classical computers for some computations problems.

7. What is quantum supremacy and why does it matter?

Google claimed quantum supremacy when a superconducting quantum device with 53 qubits carried out a computation that could not be performed on a classical computer. The use of the word supremacy is now generally considered inappropriate because of its political connotations. The computation had no business value and the error rates were high: nonetheless, this important demonstration hinted at future quantum business advantage, where it will be cheaper or more convenient to use quantum computations for some applications.

8. How far are quantum computers from being commercially viable — or actually being able to make an impact?

Most experts believe that quantum computers are three to eight years away from being commercially viable for some applications, and that universal, fault tolerant computers are at least a decade away. Some would say that quantum computers are already making an impact. There is at least one large company that has not fully operationalised a quantum optimisation programme, yet finds it helpful to run the algorithm daily to gain valuable insights into the best way to configure equipment routings through the maintenance organisation.

9. Who will quantum computing capabilities be available to in the near future?

Anyone can access a quantum computer at present. For example, using Qiskit it is possible to program a quantum circuit with a few lines of python code and submit this on a small IBM device. Large cloud computing vendors, such as Amazon Braket and Microsoft Azure enable cloud access to quantum hardware vendors, and manufacturers like D-Wave, and others, sell access to their devices. Digital Catapult is running a quantum technology access programme later this year.

10. How is the UK positioned to compete in the quantum computer industry?

The UK made an early start in funding quantum research, with total investment exceeding £1bn since 2014, and in March 2023 announced a new ten year National Quantum Strategy and committed to £2.5bn to developing quantum technologies in the UK over the ten years from 2024. The National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC) reports that the UK is joint fourth in quantum programme delivery and second in quantum technology commercialisation globally.

Although the global quantum computing industry is dominated by large, extremely well funded, US companies, there are several significant UK quantum computing companies. Orca has built a photonic computer and Oxford Quantum Circuits has built an eight qubit superconducting computer which is available on Amazon Braket. Phasecraft, Riverlane, Kuano and Feynman Solutions specialise in quantum software and quantum algorithms. Oxford Ionics, SeeQC, Universal Quantum, Quantum Motion and Duality carry out important fundamental research. Quantinuum is a merger of Cambridge Quantum’s advanced software development with Honeywell’s hardware.

11. Are there potential negative consequences of quantum like those we see with AI?

Shor’s 1994 quantum factorisation algorithm shocked the research community by suggesting an impressive ‘quantum speed-up’ that could undermine RSA encryption. Although the large, universal, fault tolerant devices needed to run the full algorithm are probably decades away, there are hints that a variation on this algorithm might break RSA encryption much sooner.

The combined development and lifespan of Internet of Things (IoT) devices like modern cars can be very long, and if an RSA encryption algorithm is hardwired in the chip, there is risk that devices could still be in the field when quantum computers arrive that can break the encryption.

12. How do we prevent/mitigate the possible negative consequences?

Any industry that depends on RSA or similar schemes to protect business secrets should be aware of the risk of ‘store now, break later’ attacks. There is a strong case to develop a strategy to implement quantum safe encryption in software and hardware. Like any new technology it will take decades for the full impact of quantum computing to be seen. In the long-term, quantum computing will profoundly shape our future with impacts as dramatic as the invention of flight or the silicon chip.

It is very likely that in the next decade we will start to see quantum computers carry out computations simply not feasible on classical computers. The UK is well positioned to take advantage of this new technology because of its early strategic investment and continued government support.

Quantum technology access programme

As part of the Data Centre of the Future, led by Orca Computing, Digital Catapult will be running a quantum technology access programme during summer 2023 in which companies in the energy, construction, automotive, transportation, advanced manufacturing, material science and telecoms sectors can receive free education and training on quantum computing, advice from quantum scientists on appropriate algorithms for their business, and hands on time on simulators and the ORCA PT-1 quantum computer. Email [email protected]. uk for more information and to register interest in the programme.

For more stories from The Manufacturer on Digital Transformation, click here.