Quantum computing | Watts the Future
(logo whirs) (bright music) (bluesy rock music) (stamp clicks) (upbeat rock music) Hi, I'm Matt Watts and today we're recording an episode of our new show which is looking at some of the technologies that are going to shape the world going forward. And we're calling it "Watts The Future". (You can see what we did there.) Today's episode is all about quantum computing. We're going to be asking some experts and some people on the street as to whether they know what quantum computing is and what impact they think it's going to have on our future. (British rock music) We're asking people some questions around kind of future technology trends that are happening.
Are you aware of quantum computing? Have you come across that yet? Quantum computing? No, I've not heard of that one yet. Not heard of that... It sounds like something from the future or something.
I think it's supposed to calculate super big numbers? No, I don't know. Whoa. I have no idea. Ooh. I have no idea.
I, like him, have no idea. I'm guessing it's something to do with physics? Because you have like quantum theorem and stuff. Absolutely. Okay. Absolutely. From what I know, it's a fairly new technology It is. but I know Finance, they're looking at it and areas like that as well.
(funky music) So what actually is quantum computing? Well, to really understand that we've got to look at the difference between traditional computing, the way that traditional computers and you and I work, and the way that quantum differs. So let's look at it using this map. If I wanted to calculate a route that was going to take me from Heathrow Airport across to, let's say Liverpool Street, the way that I work, the way that you work, the way that traditional computers work is we look at every possible route and once we've worked out the first route, we then look at the second route, and the third route, and the fourth route. And that takes time to work through all those different combinations. And this is where quantum is fundamentally different. When you give quantum a problem, to say getting from this location to this location, the way quantum works is it gives you all of the answers simultaneously.
That's the fundamental difference and why quantum is going to solve some of the problems that we simply can't solve today with traditional computing. (upbeat electronic music) To understand the impact that quantum is going to have on computing, I came here to London to meet with the CEO Richard Murray for ORCA Computing. So let's head in and chat. (upbeat music continues) Richard, great to have you with us. Thanks for being here. So tell us a little bit about kind of how you got into quantum computing.
Yeah, so I started life, I think in quantum pretty much everyone has to start life, as a quantum PhD. So I was an academic doing quantum experiments in a lab. Pretty quickly after my PhD, I left academia to become a consultant. So as a consultant I had a lot of fun doing things like designing nano-structured coatings for Oakley sunglasses, which was an awesome project.
That's fantastic. And then left the consultancy and I went to go and work for the UK government and they were just starting a big investment into quantum and I guess I was lucky enough to have known ORCA's other two co-founders, Ian Walmsley and Josh Nunn, who'd been working in the University of Oxford. I quite liked the idea of something genuinely quite new in quantum.
But, you know, the challenge is always going to be how do you start to convince people that there's something there? How do you get people excited about something that's still quite a few years into the future, right? Yeah, I think the need for quantum has never been more present. Everyone knows that there are some several big challenges facing sort of the future of semiconductors, the future of computing. And whenever anyyone wants to do anything challenging with artificial intelligence, for example, that's hard with or limited with current computing systems. At a very fundamental level, compute is fairly straightforward. The types of operations you can perform, you know, there's a lot of linear algebra that happens. There's a lot of linear processing.
Make one iteration. Choose path A. Yeah. Compare path A with path B. The quantum computer changes all of that. It doesn't have to say assess choice A and then assess choice B.
And it inherently physically carries both options within the states that it creates while the compute is operating. There's a lot of talk about it will enable us to solve diseases. It'll enable us to look at a different way to treat cancer. There's a lot of these kind of ideas out there.
Why is quantum such an appropriate tool or mechanism to be able to do that? A number of natural problems that we can't solve currently are quantum in nature. The efficiency that photosynthesis achieves. So the efficiency with which plants can convert light into and stored energy, we haven't been able to replicate that efficiency in manmade materials. It's currently really hard for us to understand how a new molecule inside of the body will behave. It's so many, yeah.
The more you think about it the more our applications emerge. So batteries, high temperature superconductors might sound a bit exotic but, so the reason why conductivity exists and how it can be overcome in materials is something we don't understand at a fundamental level. So what we're now saying is it's very difficult to solve a quantum process with a linear computer. Yes.
Because of the massive complexity. So what we're actually trying to do is simulate nature by using quantum technology that we can control. So looking out over the next two or three years, you know, what would you say would be the top industries that would benefit most from really starting to look at quantum computing today? There are several industries that live and breathe on having access to the very best computing and frankly those are, three I can think of, not in any necessary order, energy, defense, and finance. And if you think of across those three industries, for example in finance, you know, huge gains can be won or lost on the basis of having information available to you to make decisions.
And all of that information nowadays comes from very advanced compute systems. The same with the energy piece. We speak to a number of energy providers. Lots of challenges, very familiar with what current state of the art compute looks like and therefore in an excellent place to be looking at the small application areas where quantum computing can drive the most benefit. I think as a piece of advice to try and get into quantum, a lot of it is actually trying to learn the abstractions you need to understand the system. So, you know, how does the algorithm run in a general sense or what are the general parameters of algorithm.
You don't need to know about superposition to make an informed decision about whether you're going to buy a quantum computer or not. And a little bit like your analogy of, you know, I don't need to know how the storage device works to be able to put data onto it, recover data, secure data, you know, translating it back into kind of into our world. Yeah, and maybe there's a nice comparison there. I think we've gotten used to a computer as just a standard object because we're not presented with all of the physics about how the thing works. Yeah.
And the same is exactly true with the quantum computer. Moving to quantum computing, pretty much everything changes. You need to relearn how to program.
You need to relearn what hardware is and how hardware behaves what the noise model of a piece of hardware looks like. I mean you mentioned a few times skills. If a company wants to start and start using quantum computing today, they've got to have a lot of skilled people in the company who are familiar with the company's problems and also familiar with quantum computing.
Right. That doesn't emerge overnight. You need a sort of strategy to build up that expertise. You've got to have people working on it that many years beforehand, so they're ready for that moment where, I don't know, the CEO turns around and says, "So, remind me what you're doing in quantum computing." Yeah, because with all these things by the time something actually becomes ready, if you haven't been working on that two, three years beforehand, then you're now two or three years behind. Absolutely. If you are in an industry that
really relies on having a competitive advantage that's drawn from computing resource that's available, then that, you know, that can mean the difference of missing out on you know, a business advantage or or new business. Or losing your business. Or losing a business. Yeah.
If your competitor, you know has been more sort of futuristic in thinking about their future plans and has been working with quantum computing so that they are able to spot that unique application, imagine missing out on that same sort of potentially societal changing technology development. Some of the people that will be watching this will be thinking of these big kind of chandelier type systems, right? You don't do that. Why is your approach different? Our approach is fundamentally built from a photon, a single unit of light. Light's really useful because it doesn't rely on cryogenic temperatures. So by basing our technology on light, our technology doesn't require cryogenic cooling.
It operates at room temperature. It's sort of simple rack mounted boxes, devices. And then the final... They kind of look a bit boring
it just looks like a regular service, a black box in a rack. Our view of success sort of strangely will be, you know, when everyone's using quantum but no one knows they're using quantum. I mean as a philosophy we sort of really believe in the fact that quantum will exist in a hybrid fashion with classical computers. Yeah. Where you have lots of different types of processors. Every processor is designed for a unique type of problem and quantum will be no different.
Like at the point where your your existing processor needs that extra sort of complexity and might. Throw it into the quantum. Throw it into the quantum bit. That will solve a little bit of the or address some of the more complex parts of the data analysis problem before it gets handed back again. It needs then for the quantum system to be really embedded within your... So it could be an integral component, almost a sort of a more traditional, sort of a hybrid computer op.
An element of that hybrid computer could be, you know, quantum using photonics. It applies very much to the field of machine learning where lots of your layers of your neural network might be classical and one or two layers, maybe in the middle of your neural network, might be quantum, where the degree of connectivity is the highest. It feels to me like this is going to have a sustainability impact which is something that we've been talking about in one of our other episodes that we've been recording. A lot of people, you know, in and around IT and people outside of IT have no idea how much electricity is being consumed by data centers and the technology within them. So does quantum offer some hope in that area as well? Yeah, I think it does because when you're trying to analyze these very complicated, very energy intensive problems quantum gives you a much more maybe elegant solution to those problems which can be solved potentially in a much shorter space of time. You're able to use these quantum computers to analyze your data much more efficiently.
There have been a few really interesting reports that have suggested that it's just not sustainable for companies to be training very large models for AI models, for example. One of the major costs of running a high performance computer is just the sheer cost of the energy that you need. I think if people on the street knew that, they would probably look at their sort of green lifestyle in a completely new way. Hey, you know, I'm green but I'm using my mobile phone. That doesn't really count, because you know, what energy can that be consuming? Yeah. And I think unless we do that, we're just like dodging the key challenge and environmental challenge, facing compute and our future lifestyles.
And the one sort of final question that I've got, and it sort of links it back to data... Now quantum potentially has the ability at some point to be able to break some of our traditional, our known encryption mechanisms. If a nefarious player were to grab data today that was encrypted, it surely isn't going to be that long before we get quantum computers that have the potential to be able to decrypt that data. That is something that people should be considering right now, yeah? And you're right, the potential for a quantum computer to decrypt information from the past is very significant.
If you've got something that you're transmitting over an encrypted channel today, you've sort of got to be prepared for the fact that someone might record that piece of information today in its encrypted form. Yeah. And then use a future quantum computer to decrypt that information. But I'd also give a few other examples about things that affect the time scales of adoption.
Quantum computing is a generational shift in how we think about current computing systems. Quantum computers allow us the ability to do things that are unimaginable with current computing systems. Anytime that anything tries to replicate what we as humans do, flat out can't do it. And we know that as people because we know that when we try and speak to Siri it gets confused between train stations and you're thinking, "For goodness sake," you know? Quantum computers are, I think, the things that will help us realize the way we really want to use computers when we really imagine computers being inherently underpinning of our lives. Not as a sort of useful tool that we rely on but something that is integrated with our lives.
(upbeat electronic music) So I'm here to talk to Laura Foster, who's the Head of Program for Technology and Innovation at the UK trade association techUK. (upbeat music continues) Tell me a little bit more about kind of what your role here is at techUK. I am Head of Program for Tech and Innovation at techUK. TechUK being the UK's technology trade association. Essentially my role is to look at all the different forms of emerging and transformative technologies that are kind of evolving and developing in the UK market.
And for the last 18 to 24 months at teckUK we've had a whole quantum program where we've been engaging with members and working with them to really understand how we can commercialize quantum here in the UK. We have members at techUK who of course are the ones creating the quantum computers, creating the quantum technologies, but we also have members who are still trying to navigate and understand what this technology is. Trying to bring those fascinating, amazing quantum, mostly startups, who are developing all these technologies, trying to bring them into the wider UK tech sector and whilst at the same time taking the UK tech sector and showcasing to them what the opportunity of quantum will be.
Whilst at the same time also trying to bring UK government in. The UK government released its strategic intent document for the creation of the National Quantum Computing Center here in the UK, and that kind of signaled a bit of a step change from them viewing quantum as this kind of technology that's cool research but in the future to, "Oh no, this is something that the UK could really benefit from." We think the near future of quantum is going to be hybrid. What that means is NISQ-era quantum computers are very good at solving some of the high computational challenges that other technologies like HPC are trying to solve right now. Most people who work on current computers don't really know how a current computer works. It's much more about helping people understand the types of problems that quantum is going to enable us to solve.
That's much better, much more powerful than trying to explain what quantum actually is and how quantum works. What do you think are sort of the first applications of quantum technology are going to be? Again, I'm going to have to go back and really emphasize the point that the future of quantum is hybrid. Yeah. It is going to be those computing intense tasks where quantum can be converged with other forms of technologies.
I think most specifically high performance computing but also how quantum can be used alongside AI as well is going to be really important. These are compute intense tasks. So we're looking at things like weather forecasting, for example, protein folding, drug discovery, those high computational tasks where you could bring quantum into that and it could help speed up the process. Access to quantum computing is going to be a formidable challenge in the coming years. Yeah. So actually most people are probably going to access quantum computing via the cloud.
This is going to reduce barriers actually because if you're a business and you're already accessing other services through the cloud in a software-as-a-service model, it kind of makes a lot more sense for you to go, "Oh, I can access quantum that way. I can start experimenting with that technology." And also fundamentally it will likely reduce costs of accessing quantum via the cloud. So it doesn't just mean it's the big businesses that can entertain doing research on quantum computers.
It could open it up to those SMEs, the smaller research bodies as well. The skills gap... Yes. Yeah. It's not just a UK issue. It's an international issue, but there's just not enough people working in quantum right now to be able to do those really cool use cases where you kind of take it beyond that kind of hybrid approach.
So how can you get your existing workforce ready to interact with quantum technologies? How can we make it as easy as possible for those startups to kind of attract short-term internships? We need to make sure that we're preparing the workforce of the future to start interacting with some of these technologies Yes. like quantum, right? Yeah, I like the idea that the cloud potentially will be one of those ways that'll make the technology more accessible. So companies need to be thinking now about how are they going to start to upskill some of their people to start looking at what might be some of the problems they can solve with quantum for their businesses going forwards. With a lot of new technologies you tend to move in hype cycles, right? But if you kind of focus on skills and upskilling as a way to kind of get people out of that hype cycle to fully understand what quantum is, I think that is going to be really important as well. So one of the things that I think companies do need to be thinking about much more seriously is what's sometimes referred to as this kind of crypto extinction event. Because you know, cryptography, particularly encryption, that's actually very close to the types of problems that quantum is actually very, very good at solving.
When you're building out a quantum strategy in your business, you're trying to understand what quantum is, you're trying to identify those use cases. Fundamentally, as part of that, you also need to be building a quantum cyber approach as well. There's a lot we don't know in this space but we do know that quantum could potentially completely overhaul all the encryption systems that we do have right now.
There are technologies that have been created by some incredibly smart people out there. Yeah. Two to definitely highlight are your PQC, your post quantum cryptography, and then your QKD, which is your quantum key distribution. Whenever you're building out a quantum strategy that should include those quantum security technologies as well. There are use cases now work quantum is bringing a real advantage, which means that quite frankly we're very close to the commercialization of these technologies, which is absolutely fantastic. I think in the next five to seven years, it's going to be building out that infrastructure that we do have access to. So we have the National Quantum Computing Centre here in the UK, which is alongside other forms of access to quantum computing.
I do wonder and I am interested in seeing what quantum technologies outside of quantum will achieve in that time. So looking at wide scale adoption of quantum communications networks, for example, looking at quantum security tools in their first deployments like QKD and PQC. I'd be very interested to see what happens in that space. I think it is going to be another 10, 15 years before we start seeing widespread adoption of quantum. And that's again, just to do with some of those challenges we've already identified, access and skills. It's going to take a little bit of time for people to know what they can do and how to do it with, with quantum technologies.
My advice would be is if you are thinking of adopting quantum technologies is to start experimenting now. We've already talked about how you can access quantum through the cloud. Start identifying those use cases. Start understanding how it works, so that when the technology is ready for that use case that you have, you are also ready to adopt it. Fantastic. Look, Laura, it's been an absolute pleasure
spending some time with you this morning, so thank you ever so much. Thank you so much for having me. (upbeat driving rock music) So Watts The Future? Well, we know that quantum is going to give us the possibility to solve problems that we either struggle with or simply can't solve today. And that could be everything from managing rechargeable batteries, through to new cancer treatments, to solving challenges of the stock exchange. But all these things are positives and we also have to be aware that there may be negatives. Quantum has the potential to break current forms of encryption.
Maybe not today, maybe not in the short-term future, but certainly in the near term. So we have to be thinking differently when it comes to a world with quantum about how do we store, protect, and manage data. We don't know how long this is going to take but one thing's for sure, it's going to be an interesting ride. (Upbeat rock music)