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June 8, 2021updated 29 Jul 2022 5:40am

Can the UK become a quantum computing world leader?

New £210m innovation centre is the first part of a plan to gain leadership in the much-hyped emerging technology.

By Claudia Glover

A new £210m digital innovation centre is aiming to help develop the UK’s expertise in emerging technologies including quantum computing. Jointly funded by the UK government and IBM, the centre could help establish the UK as one of the leading nations in the burgeoning quantum technologies ecosystem.

UK quantum computing strategy

IBM’s Q System One quantum computer. The company has invested in a new UK quantum technology innovation centre. (Photo by Boykov/Shutterstock)

The new centre, the Hartree National Centre for Digital Innovation, will be based at the Science and Technology Facilities Council campus at Warrington, near Liverpool. Employing 60 people from full-time data scientists to interns, the centre will “focus on using AI, high-performance computing  and data analytics, quantum computing and cloud technologies to solve challenges in sectors including materials development, life sciences, environmental sustainability and manufacturing.”

Quantum computing is a new type of computing architecture based on quantum theory, which promises to deliver machines with much higher performance and greater efficiency than traditional computers.

For IBM, the investment forms part of its Discovery Accelerator programme, which has already seen quantum computers and research centres placed in Cleveland, Ohio and at the University of Illinois in the US. Chirag Dekate, vice president of artificial intelligence, machine learning and supercomputing at Gartner, says the programme aims to stimulate innovation in quantum technologies. “At the heart of it is the creation of regional hubs that enable them to synergize activities around quantum computing,” he says. “They use a common development plain and activate the research and innovation around quantum computing.”

How will quantum computing help business?

Though it is already generating a lot of hype, quantum computing is currently in its infancy, explains Dekate. “From a state of maturity standpoint, we are at the same state of maturity as we were with classical computing in the 1950s,” he says.

From a state of maturity standpoint, quantum computing is at the same state of maturity as we were with classical computing in the 1950s.
Chirag Dekate, Gartner

Applications are starting to develop, but so far are limited in scope. “We’ve seen Volkswagen do routine optimisation problems on quantum computers already and optimisation problems with applications and logistics, for example, reducing traffic waiting times” explains analyst at Global Data Sam Holt. “That’s a pretty big near-term application, as well as simulations of perhaps new materials on the five-ten-year horizon.” Using quantum computing in the development of new materials and compounds could be particularly useful in the pharmaceutical industry to speed up the drug discovery process.

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The real benefits of quantum computing will be felt once machines are built containing thousands of qubits, or units of quantum information. Currently, machines are quite limited in scope (IBM’s most powerful quantum computer has 65 qubits), but Holt expects quantum hardware to multiply to more than ten thousand qubits over the next five to ten years. “With quantum, you can start doing some more interesting things once you’re around maybe 10,000 qubits,” he says. “I know that Goldman Sachs is working with IBM to estimate the point at which quantum computers could give an advantage in portfolio optimisation in the finance industry.”

Indeed, early use cases for quantum computing have centred on the financial sector:

What is the UK quantum computing strategy?

While IBM sees the commercial benefits of quantum computing, the UK Government is focused on the geopolitical advantages as it looks to establish post-Brexit Britain as a global tech hub. The new centre is part of a broader £2.4bn strategy, the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, which has been put in place to ensure UK businesses can benefit from quantum systems as they develop. Dekate says this initial investment in the new centre is likely to be just the start. "The £210m is a seed investment, I would be very surprised if we are at the end of the quantum initiative that we have seen so far," he says.

The UK is not the only country investing in quantum computing. "We are seeing these initiatives not just in UK and US, but in Russia, Japan, China, Canada, Australia," Dekate says. "All of these governments are investing fairly heavily in quantum computing. In fact, if you look at China's five-year plan, AI and quantum computing and high-performance computing are the three areas it wants to dominate in the future."

Holt believes the UK is well-placed to take leadership in quantum technologies, even if it will struggle to compete with the might of the US and China. "I think behind the US and China, in my mind, the UK is definitely one of the leaders elsewhere," he says. "I think we're quite a way behind the US and China, but definitely in comparison to a lot of our European colleagues, the UK is a leader."

At this point in the development of quantum technologies, Dekate adds that it is important for countries like the UK to be seen as competitive. "The transformative potential of quantum computing is immense," he says. "So even though we are in the early days, the reason you see so much investment activity happening around the world is because, in some sense, all of us are in a race if you will, to discover and develop the next quantum value".

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