Tim Spiller, Professor in Quantum Information Technologies shares his views on the future of Quantum Computing
There’s been a lot of buzz around quantum computing in the last few decades, and now that various institutions have started to invest in quantum technologies, commentators have speculated about the potential uses for super powerful computing. But how far has quantum research really come, and are there tangible practical uses for quantum computing?
To find out, you’d need to ask a researcher, and someone who developed real-world applications for that research. Professor Tim Spiller is both, and as far as academics go, that’s a rarity. He’s a theoretician, but has also supervised the practical application of research in a number of institutions including Hewlett Packard. Now, with 15 years of experience in the industry, he’s a professor in Quantum Information Technologies at the University of York and the director of the York Technology Hub for Quantum Communications. The Hub is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and works to find practical quantum solutions for communications. The York Hub is one of four across the UK, each focusing on a different sector of quantum development.
“The UK made a major investment, about £270 million,” says Professor Spiller, “And £120 of that was spent on four projects called hubs. It’s a big collaboration across the country, and at York, we co-ordinate on quantum communications. We turn basic bits of research into technology. George Osborne found the money when he was chancellor, and the EPSRC control the money and distribute it. It an additional investment into science and technology.”
Rather than focusing wholly on academic theory, the team at York are finding practical applications for existing quantum research. There is still theoretical work, he says, using the fundamentals of quantum physics. But what’s the difference between ‘quantum physics’ and ‘quantum technologies’, and how do they differ from ordinary information technologies?
“Quantum physics is the underpinning stuff that you research. Quantum technology refers to the technological things you can potentially build using fundamental quantum physics. It’s going beyond limits in order to do things you can’t do with ordinary technology,” he says, but also advises caution.
“Don’t think that every single thing we can do with an ordinary computer we can do faster with a quantum computer.”
So we can’t do everything with quantum computing … despite how powerful it is. The question is, just how much of a difference is there in power levels between a regular computer and a quantum device?
“Richard Feynman pointed out that if you take a complicated quantum system and you want to simulate it on an ordinary computer, then there is exponential effort needed. If you’ve got a quantum system which is 300 bits, you would need the whole universe as an ordinary computer. Because of that exponential growth, taking an ordinary computer and simulating a quantum system is essentially impossible. I think people have got to about 30 bits or so, but every time you add one more quantum component, you double the size of the computer you need.”
According to Professor Spiller, building a modest machine (that doesn’t have full capabilities but could simulate certain systems) might solve interesting problems. The Hub led by Oxford University is working on creating a machine of just this description.
“They may be able to build something that’s big enough to simulate something interesting, to go beyond what we can do on a conventional computer. If you can get to about 50 quantum bits interacting with each other, you will be able to go in new directions. People have got clever approximate techniques, so we’re not totally clueless, but there are things that you can’t get from approximation. I think it’s fair to say that quantum simulators will be the first application of quantum processing and quantum computers. A quantum computer is different. Simulators will come first.”
So, how long will it be before these simulators work?
Professor Spiller expects that the Oxford-led project, named the 2020 processor, will be demonstrated in a few years’ time just in time for the year it’s been named after. For full-blown quantum computers, though, he says it will take a much longer timeframe. But what about the quantum computers produced and sold by Canadian startup D-Wave?
“What D-Wave makes is certainly not an all-purpose quantum computer. It is claimed that it’s a quantum simulator of sorts that can perform competitively with big, heavyweight, ordinary computers. Google has bought one, but they’ve also bought John Martinez’s group, which is deemed to be one of the world leaders in supercomputing. The combination of the two may create a machine that really does do something useful, but what D-Wave produce is not an all-purpose quantum computer. On an all-purpose quantum machine, you could run any quantum algorithm you like, and you can’t do that on the D-wave machine.”
Whether their products are quantum pedigree or not, at the minute D-Wave seem to be the biggest commercial firm involved in quantum computing. But which other companies are involved?
“IBM still have some activity in quantum and Hewlett Packard has a tiny bit of involvement in the U.S., so there are one or two big companies that have an interest in this. It’s a tricky one because with current approaches, quantum processing of any significant size needs a fridge, which is always going to be expensive. I can’t envisage having a liquid helium fridge sitting in your house just so you could run certain quantum algorithms. It’s difficult to see how the computing technology could be done at a cheap consumer level. To be fair, D-Wave have kept going and they’ve got rounds of competitive investment from venture money, so they are coping. Now, bigger companies prefer to acquire small companies rather than employ lots of R&D people internally. That’s a strategy that has been adopted by all of the big companies now. If D-Wave gets far enough, and it looks like there’s a real market to grow into, then maybe an IBM will buy them. There’s this factor of ten that comes in. If you spend a million pounds doing a piece of research, you spend 10 million to make a demonstrator and 100 million to set up a manufacturing plan. D-Wave are probably at the one to 10.”
It seems like the main barriers to advancing quantum processing and associated technologies could be neatly summed up as finance and fridges. However, once these issues have been addressed, what problems could quantum machines solve?
“They would be a really good research tool. You could simulate all sorts of things. It would be a worthwhile investment for a university, research institution or a government lab to help solve research problems. The main use of quantum processors at the moment would be as an all-purpose research tool that’s not for everyone in the street. But if you’re talking about communications, then everybody wants better data security. You might see the benefits of quantum processing as a consumer, because of the better design of materials, molecules, or drugs. It’s within R&D applications where quantum computers would have the most use, and also for solving complicated mathematical problems. Big companies, for example, could maybe use quantum processing to solve scheduling issues.”
Businesses might want to look into investing in quantum tech, then – especially if they’ve got a lot of data to deal with. Over the last few years, cybersecurity has resurfaced as a key issue for businesses as well as individuals. Could quantum communications offer a solution to data security problems?
“In many cases,” says Professor Spiller, “But it does give you a way in to solve a whole set of secure communications problems. If you send something, you know what sort of state it was in. If somebody else gets it, measures it and finds a contradiction, then someone must have tampered with it.”
So there are numerous uses for quantum technologies, but each area attracts a different customer. But what else can quantum technologies do? It’s clear that the professor doesn’t expect consumer-level quantum computers to become a reality in the next decade, but will there ever be a point where we carry quantum technology around with us?
“For sensing and communications, yes. Some future generation of phone might have a small quantum communications device which might give you improved secure communications. At the minute handheld devices rely on GPS, but if GPS goes down you’ve got a problem. If you want to navigate free of GPS, then you need various sensors working according to quantum laws. I can imagine a time where you’ll carry that around. Whether you’d ever need to carry around a full-blown quantum computer is unlikely. I mean, who knows? With problems we currently solve in communication and navigation, if we can make quantum technology good enough and small enough then you could see reason for carrying those around already.”
Although it doesn’t look like quantum technology will be breaking into the consumer market any time soon, improved attention and funding has paved the way for the possibility of widespread use in the future. Could these sort of developments take place in the U.K.?
“The U.K. had a reputation for doing brilliant science but failing to capitalise on it. I think the government has decided to try and do some things in the high-tech area well. George Osborne’s investment was made because of the technological potential, but there’s no doubt it made other countries in the world sit up and take notice.”
Despite worries about continued European R&D funding after Brexit, other non-EU members like Switzerland have benefitted from EU collaboration and investment. Recently, a €1 billion quantum flagship programme was announced in Europe to further research. Professor Spiller expects to see more investment in U.K. development, but questions whether or not the country will receive a fair share.
“The Brexit vote has undermined a lot of our hard work. Europe is investing quite heavily in the quantum area. When the U.K. government made their investment, suddenly we were one of the big players in the EU. At the minute, we’re still involved. I very much hope that all of the good work that’s been done won’t unravel.”
All in all, when viewed from a scientific perspective, quantum technologies are exciting, but still very much in their infancy. It looks like it’s far too soon to expect fully-fledged quantum computers to impact our everyday lives – but that doesn’t mean that they won’t in the future. Improved research and design could have massive implications for healthcare, for example, helping to create better drugs. There’s a clear trend emerging that sees governing powers recognise the need to invest in key technologies, but there are barriers to the growth of quantum technologies. Aside from the limited availability of huge fridges, the main issue seems to be financial. However, with big businesses like Google and international organisations like the EU pumping resources into advancing quantum tech, it’s tempting to imagine a rather more rapid adoption rate than Professor Spiller has suggested. Whether or not these quantum solutions will be ‘all-purpose’ is perhaps a more complicated question…
Will we carry around quantum devices in the near future? Could your business benefit from investment in quantum research? Will D-Wave be acquired by a company like IBM? Share your thoughts and opinions.