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The growing pains of quantum computing

Taken from the 2021 Physics World Quantum Science & Technology Briefing, where it appeared under the headline “From infancy to adolescence”. You can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

As the field of quantum computing matures, new challenges are emerging. Ilyas Khan, the chief executive of Cambridge Quantum Computing, spoke to Physics World’s Hamish Johnston about navigating this changing business environment

Problem solver Cambridge Quantum Computing’s Ilyas Khan. (Courtesy: Cambridge Quantum Computing)

What does Cambridge Quantum Computing do?

We’re a quantum computing software and algorithm company, and we’re just over six and a half years old, so we’re in early adolescence. We’re trying get the most out of quantum computers both now and in the future, and in that respect, there are two sides to the coin. On one side, we work with the hardware companies to make sure that whatever hardware they’ve got is put to best use. There’s a long history of this in classical computing, where for 70 years we’ve had great algorithms and great software making hardware even better. And then on the other side of the coin, we work with users – people who have problems that might be solved by quantum computing. That side is obviously in its infancy, but what we do in these early days is to make sure that whatever is available can be useful.

You’ve developed software for applications in quantum chemistry and you’re working with PhD students in pharmaceuticals. Can you tell us more about that?

The point that’s probably worth making first is that there’s an informed consensus (and it has been an informed consensus for some time) that one of the great applications for quantum computers lies in materials discovery. At the most profound level, discovering new materials is a quantum mechanical simulation because it’s ultimately about understanding the stability of different molecular systems.

At Cambridge Quantum, we decided that this was extremely important a while back, when we decided to look at some of the biggest problems the world might face. One example of such a problem might be drug discovery in fields such as Alzheimer’s research, where there are few treatments available. Another might be carbon sequestration, where a material that could lock away carbon safely would be hugely beneficial. Other examples might include extending battery life, developing better surfactants for hydrocarbon extraction, or making refrigerants that don’t impact on the ozone layer.

We looked at a handful of these big problems, and we decided to partner with clients who knew more than anybody else about these areas. We’ve now got an enterprise-level software platform for that partnership, and it is beginning to do things that people have been dreaming about doing with quantum computers for a long time. It’s really exciting.

There is still a lot of academic work to be done, so we are working with (for example) the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline in sponsoring PhD studentships. But the spectrum of what we do includes real applications, too. In 2020 we announced that we would be working with the oil company Total on a carbon sequestration solution based on metal-organic frameworks.

You’ve got an agreement with Honeywell for access to its quantum computer. Do your customers use other quantum computers as well?

Quantum computers are still somewhat restricted in their availability and, frankly, in their performance. But this will change quickly. Already, over the course of the last year, the changes are incomparable. Large corporations now have the resources and relationships to access machines directly, and those machines are available from IBM, from Honeywell, and from other companies as well. It’s also now possible to subscribe to these machines, because some of the big cloud providers (Amazon Web Services and Azure are two examples) have taken initial steps towards offering what we might describe as quantum processing units alongside regular high-performance computing. Those early access agreements are now available for subscription, sometimes on a daily or even an hourly basis. And then beneath all of that, there is a clutch of start-ups like IQM in Finland, Alpine Quantum Technologies in Austria and Oxford Quantum Computing in the UK that are all on a very steep trajectory. Their processors will be available in a variety of ways.

All of this means that a large corporate entity has a variety of ways of accessing quantum processors, and what we do is to pull all of that together. We have two distinguishing features. We have a software development platform called Ticket that is platform-agnostic, meaning that people can reserve the right to use any machine. We also have access to the Honeywell machine, and we’re a client of the IBM quantum computers (of which there are rather more at the moment than there are of the Honeywell machines). So we have access to at least two of the world’s leading quantum computers.

In November 2020 you announced a partnership with the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) that involves using quantum computers to generate truly random numbers. Can you tell us more about that?

This is an area that people often take for granted, but ultimately all methods for protecting data or communications are about scrambling information in a random fashion and then unscrambling it later. Up to now, all those methodologies have been deterministic. People have used algorithms. But thanks to announcements and amplifications by authorities in the US, UK, Japan, China and Russia, among others, it’s becoming clear that the “post-quantum” environment will be one where quantum devices can offer randomness that has no pattern, and where if a hack did take place, there would be an alert at a basic level.

The NPL is moving towards offering this randomness in a standalone device, one that could be used in areas such as switches, network optimization and even artificial intelligence as well as cybersecurity. So that’s our project with the NPL. But in September 2020 we announced a complimentary project with IBM, where we do the same thing, except that instead of doing it in a device, we do it via an IBM or (more recently) a Honeywell quantum computer. So if you want an unhackable seed for your cryptographic key, then you can either take one that we will provide from a quantum computer, or – soon – one that is delivered by a device, using the expertise that NPL will help us to develop.

Unlike some chief executives of quantum firms, you don’t have a background in physics. Does that mean that quantum technology has matured to the point where you don’t need to be a physicist to start a quantum computing company?

While I think the quantum sector is maturing, it certainly could not be said that quantum computing was mature back in 2014 when Cambridge Quantum was established. But we set up the business anyway, and within our team we have some of the most talented quantum computing and quantum scientists around. These are people who know more than I ever will. They’re among the leading experts in the world, but they’re scientists – they don’t run the business.

The other part of your question – the implied part, if you like – is perhaps more interesting. I’m on a mission, and my mission for the last three years has been to demystify quantum computing. I am of the very clear view that we shouldn’t create mystery in this field. While it’s perfectly fine to have people who are deep on the scientific side, just as you would in pharmaceutical companies or biotech companies or artificial intelligence companies, I think it’s also possible for quantum computing to be understood by the general public. So in that sense, I think the maturity of the sector makes it possible for us to unravel and unpackage what Cambridge Quantum (and quantum computing more broadly) does.

What are your goals for the company’s future?

We have a very simple and straightforward view, which is that we want to do things that matter for people that matter. And we believe very strongly that quantum computing will end up being one of the largest segments of the global economy. We buy into what people like the German chancellor Angela Merkel have said, and what the US Congress said when it passed the National Quantum Initiative Act, which is that it is essential to be at the leading edge of using quantum technologies in everyday life.

Now, if that comes to pass – whether it’s in five years, or 10 years or 20 years – we want Cambridge Quantum to be at the forefront of companies involved in the industry. This is not dissimilar to what I would have said if I’d had a crystal ball in, say, 1994 and 1995, when I might have looked forward to 2020 and the prevalence of Internet firms such as Google and Apple among the world’s largest companies.

Underneath that mission, of course, we have to take care of what’s going to happen tomorrow and next month and next year. And in that context, we’re very, very scientific and technology-focused in building tools. So it’s a dichotomy of visions: for the short term, get the best product; for the longer term, be the leader.

What’s your advice for someone who wants to get into the quantum computing industry?

We were recently involved in a careers event where computer scientists, mathematicians and quantum information theorists were all looking at ways to get into the industry. And the fantastic thing about that is that for the last 25 or 30 years, the main careers available to those people would have been in academia. People who studied those subjects would have ended up either teaching or getting jobs elsewhere.

Now, companies such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, Honeywell and a hundred new start-ups are looking for talent in those areas. We’ve grown too – we’ve been hiring new people every single month. It’s not difficult to find vacancies if you have that background and training.

As for getting into the industry from an entrepreneurial standpoint, I think that is more challenging. There are a number of people who are “native” to quantum technology, as opposed to being a mathematician or a computer scientist. However, there are only a small number of people who combine being a quantum-native scientist with being the chief executive of a company. Examples might be Jeremy O’Brien at PsiQuantum or Mikko Möttönen from IQM, but they are rare. Most people who are quantum native are working within the organization.

So my advice from the business standpoint is to think very carefully about who you’re backing. I was lucky: I landed on my feet because there was a confluence of circumstance where I found people who know more than I ever will about quantum computing and I was able to work with them, trust them and give them the tools to build what is now Cambridge Quantum.

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