5 Jun 2023
How Britain can become a global leader in a world of quantum computing
By Jamie Urquhart and Steve Brierley
Winning in semiconductors and quantum computing is critical to the UK’s industrial and economic future not least as both are critical artificial intelligence (AI) enablers. The £1bn for semiconductors over two years announced by the Government is thus disappointingly small versus the vastly bigger sums committed by the US, EU and China. It should be reconsidered urgently.
The ten-year, £2.5bn commitment to quantum technology announced in March, while still relatively small in the grand scheme, received a better reception. That’s not only because the quantum commitment is 2.5x bigger in cash terms but because the UK has been building a solid global position in quantum tech over the past decade.
We should view them together. New semiconductors specific to quantum computing in particular is one area where the UK can lead. Success is not guaranteed, but it’s a smart bet – if the money is invested wisely.
Analysts estimate that quantum computing will create up to $850 billion in global economic value over the next 15 to 30 years. That’s probably an underestimate. As with the birth of the world’s first computers 75 years ago and smartphones 50 years later, we are often irrationally exuberant about the short-term impact of new technology, only to massively underestimate the long-term implications.
Quantum computers are certainly transformative technology.
Many mistakenly see them as simply superfast supercomputers. It’s true that a large and reliable quantum computer could quickly perform complex tasks that a huge supercomputer – even one the size of the planet – would take decades to perform.
Yet focussing on speed misses the bigger point. Quantum computers represent a new computing paradigm that will open possibilities for human progress that we’ve only just begun to imagine.
They will help us accurately simulate complex interactions between the molecules, proteins and chemical compounds that make up all organic and non-organic matter. And they’ll transform our capabilities in fields like aerospace and healthcare.
Without quantum computers, we might never accurately simulate how a new medicine would work in the human body or design new catalysts to create batteries that store vastly more clean energy.
The equations of our subatomic world are quantum mechanical, so the only way to solve and apply them is by building quantum computers.
Can the UK really be a global winner in this incredibly high-stakes game? Yes, but it won’t be by outspending the United States, China or the European Union. As a nation, we’re unlikely to even outspend some of the US and China’s individual tech giants.
The UK does, however, have a winning playbook that we can learn from: we can design and engineer the complex chips that every quantum computer will need.
We achieved exactly this in the Internet age, with Cambridge-based Arm designing the chips and intellectual property that power 90 per cent of the world’s smartphones and millions of other connected devices, large and small.
The enduring global success of Arm comes from solving a crucial technical problem: how to put vastly more processing power on tiny micro-processors with vastly greater power efficiency.
Openness and collaboration, enabling the UK to attract the best global talent; and international collaboration, particularly through the Open Microprocessor Initiative (OMI), were also key to Arm’s prowess.
What is quantum computing’s crucial technical problem? In a word, scale.
Specifically, quantum computers must grow from performing a few hundred error-free quantum operations (‘QuOps’) today to a trillion error-free operations (‘TeraQuOps’) to achieve their full potential. This challenge applies equally to quantum computers regardless of their ownership, nationality or the underlying technology they use to process and store quantum information.
With focussed innovation and collaboration, the UK quantum computing industry can work to solve this scaling problem for all quantum computers globally. Such UK leadership will require several things.
This includes a new generation of chips that effectively control the enormous quantity of data and simultaneously decode the copious errors that quantum computers produce. In simple terms, a single quantum computer must process and correct the equivalent of Netflix’s total global streaming data every second.
Practical expertise in the development, deployment and continuous scaling up of all types of quantum processors, known as ‘qubits’, will also be required. Fortunately, our rich ecosystem of top universities and quantum computing companies, supported for the past decade by £1 billion in seed investment by the UK government (the first country to do so), has resulted in the UK having the most quantum tech start-ups in Europe.
We do not rely on a small handful of big tech companies, as in Silicon Valley. Now’s the time to accelerate, not rest on our laurels.
By becoming a quantum creator not a quantum buyer, we’ll mitigate the risk of brain drain and prevent our existing quantum start-ups from migrating overseas. It’s a smart strategy where the UK can play to its unique strengths, following in Arms path to enable and accelerate quantum computing everywhere.