YOU’VE heard of quantum mechanics, now meet the quantum engineers. After decades of being stuck in the lab, quantum science is about to emerge as a technology that will impact your everyday life. If ambitious plans succeed, by 2020 the UK could host the world’s most powerful quantum computer, a secure quantum network spanning the country, and numerous other quantum-powered industries.
This mission kicked off in 2013, when UK chancellor George Osborne announced a £270 million investment in quantum technologies. Researchers are now setting up hubs to focus on particular areas – computing, communications, sensing and imaging – and aim to deliver useful quantum devices within five years, starting in 2015.
These teams held their first annual meeting, Quantum UK, at the University of Oxford last month to discuss the five-year road map and potential hurdles to overcome – not least the perception that quantum is too weird to be useful.
“Potential hurdles to overcome include the perception that quantum is too weird to be useful”
“When you talk to the general public about quantum physics, the first thing they think about is spooky philosophical things,” Peter Knight of Imperial College London told the meeting. That needs to change. “That’s our critical message: this is now developing technology.”
Ian Walmsley, who heads the quantum computing hub at Oxford, says the basic science has progressed far enough to make this vision a reality. “It really now needed an engineering push to get us to the next level,” he says.
Unlike an ordinary computer, which runs on binary bits, a quantum computer’s “qubits” can be both a 0 and a 1 at the same time. This feature offers the potential for massive speed boosts when it comes to certain problems like searching databases or machine learning. But while binary bits are based on trusty silicon transistors, the jury is still out on the best approach for building quantum machines.
Walmsley and colleagues are working on a system based on trapped ions, individual charged atoms that are held in place by electromagnetic fields and zapped with lasers to read and write information. It’s called Q20:20, because within two years they plan to build a 20-qubit device, pushing the limits of current quantum computers. By the end of the five-year programme they aim to connect up 20 of these into a 400-qubit processor. “That’s big enough to do a number of things that supercomputers can’t currently do,” says Walmsley.
This modular design takes advantage of recent progress controlling trapped ion qubits in the lab, which showed that it is possible to successfully manipulate these fragile quantum states on a small scale. Now the Oxford group and others have designed a way to network these cells of qubits together into much larger processors. That means swapping one-off lab experiments for precision engineered quantum hardware.
“What’s available in the lab is already of the right performance,” says Walmsley. “If we can show that one of these small-scale things works, then there is no barrier to scaling it up, other than manufacturing more components.”
Since the computer is designed as a network, the qubit cells could potentially be scattered around the country, creating a kind of quantum cloud computer that many people can access – though the initial Q20:20 will probably be confined to a single lab, says Walmsley.