The UK government recently announced plans to develop the UK’s first commercially available quantum computer. This significant announcement, coupled with the launch of a UK National Quantum computing Centre (NQCC), affirms the UK’s ambition of a quantum-ready economy.
Just like the US, Europe, China, Canada, Australia, and other countries, the UK has been systematically investing in the development of quantum technologies for a number of years now. The UK’s National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP) was formally announced in 2013. Like many other technologies, the early rounds of funding were aligned to defence programmes led by the Dstl and MoD.
In parallel, a network of university based quantum technology hubs, with each hub aligned to one of the application areas of sensors and timing, imaging, quantum computing and simulation, and quantum communication, was launched with a view to bringing scientists and engineers together with entrepreneurs. Through dedicated programmes (PhD research programmes, and research fellowship programmes), the UK’s programme has ensured that there is a skilled workforce in quantum technologies. By 2019, the total investment in the NQTP amounted to £1 billion.
The announcement regarding the UK’s first quantum computer and the NQCC is significant for several reasons.
So far, only a handful of players possess and provide access to quantum computing capability (D-Wave, IBM, Rigetti, Google, Honeywell, Xanadu, Amazon Braket, Azure Quantum) and none of them are based in the UK. Building a UK government backed quantum computing capability is essential if the UK is to remain competitive in the field. The UK’s first quantum computer will be built by a consortium involving Rigetti, Oxford Instruments, Edinburgh University, Phasecraft, and UK bank Standard Chartered.
The computer will be based in Oxfordshire, UK and is expected to become available over the cloud to end users using Rigetti’s platform. The project is expected to look at specific use cases - Phasecraft will look at software for modelling and simulating quantum systems, with applications in materials, energy, and pharmaceuticals, and Edinburgh University and Standard Chartered will look at applying quantum machine learning in finance. This represents a clear move from the lab to real world applications.
As for the launch of the NQCC, the focus is on bringing industry and the research community together, as well as with providing access to quantum computing capability as they become available in order to develop applications with end-users. The objective of the NQCC initiative is to deliver 100+ qubit NISQ-era platforms – NISQ refer to early stage quantum computers that may outperform classical computers on some tasks- by 2025.
Without any doubt, several challenges will have to be overcome to deliver quantum computing capability that is commercially useful. However, with the UK being home to a range of thriving early stage quantum computing companies focussing on hardware (OQC, Oxford Ionics, Orca computing, Universal Quantum), software (Riverlane, CQC), a strong academic research base, and an extensive quantum technology ecosystem built over the last few years, the UK is well placed to overcome these challenges.