Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: The CIO's guide to quantum computing

Australia's Archer and its plan for quantum world domination

CEO Dr Mohammad Choucair said Australia is punching above its weight when it comes to the development of quantum computing technology, and his company is making sure the rest of the world is aware of this.

archer-choucair-fuechsle.jpg

Archer CEO Dr Mohammad Choucair and quantum technology manager Dr Martin Fuechsle

Image: Archer Materials

Quantum computing will revolutionise the world; its potential is so immeasurable that the greatest minds in Redmond, Armonk, and Silicon Valley are spending big on quantum development. But a company by the name of Archer Materials wants to put Sydney, Australia, on the map alongside, if not ahead, of these tech giants.

Universal quantum computers leverage the quantum mechanical phenomena of superposition and entanglement to create states that scale exponentially with the number of quantum bits (qubits).

Here's an explanation: What is quantum computing? Understanding the how, why and when of quantum computers

Special Feature

Special Report: The CIO's guide to Quantum computing (free PDF)

Quantum computers offer great promise for cryptography and optimization problems. ZDNet explores what quantum computers will and won't be able to do, and the challenges we still face.

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"Quantum computing represents the next generation of powerful computing, you don't really have to know how your phone works on the inside, you just want it to do things that you couldn't do before," Archer CEO Dr Mohammad Choucair told ZDNet.

"And with quantum computing, you can do things that you couldn't necessarily do before."

There is currently a very small set number of tasks that a quantum computer can do, but Choucair is hopeful that in the future this will grow to be a little bit more consumer-based and business-faced.

Right now, however, quantum computing, for all intents and purposes, is at a very early stage. It's not going to completely displace a classical computer, but it will give the capacity to do more with what we currently have. Choucair believes this will positively impact a range of sectors that are reliant on an increasing amount of computational power.

"This comes to light when you start to want to optimise very large portfolios, or perform a whole bunch of data crunching, AI and all sorts of buzzwords -- but ultimately, you're looking for more computational power. And you can genuinely get speed-ups in computational power based on certain algorithms for certain problems that are currently being identified," he explained.

"The problems that quantum computers can solve are currently being identified and the end users are being engaged."

The sweet spot for Archer

Archer describes itself as a materials technology company. Its proposition is simple at heart: "Materials are the tangible physical basis of all technology. We're developing and integrating materials to address complex global challenges in quantum technology, human health, and reliable energy".

There are many components to quantum computing, but Archer is building a qubit processor. 12CQ is touted by the company as a "world-first technology that Archer aims to build for quantum computing operation at room-temperature and integration onboard modern electronic devices".

"We're not building the entire computer, we're building the chipset, the processer at the core of it," Choucair told ZDNet. "That really forms the brain of a quantum computer.

"The difference with us is that we really are looking at on-board use, rather than the heavy infrastructure that's required to house the existing quantum computing architectures.

"This is not all airy-fairy and it is not all of blue sky; it's real, there's proven potential, we've published the work…we have the data, we have the science behind us -- it took seven years of immense, immersive R&D."

Archer is building the chip inside a AU$180 million prototype foundry out of the University of Sydney. The funding was provided by the university as well as government.

"Everyone's playing their role to get this to market," he said.

Choucair is convinced that the potential when Archer "gets this right" will be phenomenal.

"Once you get a minimal viable product, and you can demonstrate the technology can indeed work at room temperature and be integrated into modern-day electronics. I think that's, that's quite disruptive. And it's quite exciting," he said.

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Magnified region observing the round qubit clusters which are billionths of a meter in size in the centre of qubit control device components (appearing as parallel lines). 

Image: Archer Materials

Choucair found himself at Archer in 2017 after the company acquired a startup he founded. Straight away, he and the board got started on the strategy it's currently executing on.

"There is very, very small margin for error from the start, in the middle, at the end -- you need to know what you're getting yourself into, what you're doing…this is why I think we've been able to be so successful moving forward, we've been so rapid in our development, because we know exactly what needs to get done," Choucair said.

"The chip is a world first…science can fail at any stage, everybody knows that, but more often than not, it may or may not -- how uncertain do you want something to be? So for us, the more and more we develop our chip, the higher chances of success become."

Read more about Archer's commercial strategy here: Archer looks to commercialisation future with graphene-based biosensor tech

Choucair said materials technology itself was able to reduce a lot of the commercial barriers to entry for Archer, which meant the company could take the work out of the university much sooner.

"The material technology allowed us to do things without the need for heavy cooling infrastructure, which costs millions and millions of dollars and had to be housed in buildings that cost millions and millions of dollars,' he explained. "Massive barrier reduced, material could be made simply from common laboratory agents, which means you didn't have to build a billion-dollar facility to control atoms and do all these crazy scientific things at the atomic level.

"And so, really, you end up with the materials technology that was simple to handle, easy to make, and worked at room temperature, and you're like, wow, okay, so now the job for us is to actually build the chip and miniaturise this stuff, which is challenging in itself."

The CEO of the unexplainable has an impressive resumé. He landed at Archer with a strong technical background in nanotechnology, served a two-year mandate on the World Economic Forum Global Council for Advanced Materials, is a fellow of both The Royal Society of New South Wales and The Royal Australian Chemical Institute, and was an academic and research fellow at the University of Sydney's School of Chemistry.

Choucair also has in his armoury Dr Martin Fuechsle, who is recognised for developing the world's smallest transistor, a "single-atom transistor".

"Fuechsle is among the few highly talented physicists in the world capable of building quantum devices that push the boundaries of current information processing technology," Choucair said in January 2019, announcing Fuechsle's appointment. "His skills, experience, and exceptional track record strongly align to Archer's requirements for developing our key vertical of quantum technology."

SEE: Guide to Becoming a Digital Transformation Champion (TechRepublic Premium)

Archer is publicly listed on the Australian Securities Exchange, but Choucair would reject any claims of it being a crazy proposition.

"20 years ago, a company that was maybe offering something as abstract as an online financial payment system would have been insane too, but if you have a look at the top 10 companies on the Nasdaq…a lot of their core business is embedded in the development of computational architecture, computational hardware," he said.

"We're a very small company, I'm not comparing myself to a Nasdaq-listed company. I'm just saying, the core business…I think it's a unique offering and differentiates us on a stock exchange."

He said quantum technology is something that people are starting to value and see as having potential and scale of opportunity.

Unlike many of the other quantum players in Australia and abroad, Archer is not a result of a spin-off from a university, Choucair claimed.

"The one thing about Archer is that we're not a university spin out -- I think that's what sets us apart, not just in Australia, but globally," he said. "A lot of the time, the quantum is at a university, this is where you go to learn about quantum computing, so it's only natural that it does come out of a university."

Does Australia have what it takes?

Historically, Australia has a reputation of being bad at commercialising research and development. But our curriculum vitae speaks for itself: Spray-on skin, the black box flight recorder, polymer bank notes, and the Cochlear implant, to name a few.

According to Choucair, quantum is next.

"We really are leading the world; we well and truly punch above our weight when it comes to the work that's been done, we lead the world," he said.

"And that quantum technology is across quantum computing and photonics, and sensing -- it's not just quantum computing. We do have a lot of great scientists and those who are developing the technology."

But as highlighted in May by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in its quantum technologies roadmap, there are a lot of gaps that need to be filled over the long term.

"We just have to go out there and get the job done," Choucair said.

"In Australia we have resource constraints, just like anywhere else in the world. And I think there's always a lot more that can be done…we're not doing deep tech as a luxury in this country. From the very top down, there is an understanding, I believe, from our government and from key institutes in the nation that this is what will help us drive forward as a nation."

Archer isn't the only group focused on the promise of quantum tech down under, but Choucair said there's no animosity within the Aussie ecosystem.

Read about UNSW's efforts: Australia's ambitious plan to win the quantum race

There's also a partnership between two universities: UNSW and Sydney Uni quantum partnership already bearing fruit

"I think we all understand that there's a greater mission at stake here. And we all want, I can't speak on everyone's behalf, but at Archer we definitely have vision of making quantum computing widespread -- adopted by consumers and businesses, that's something that we really want to do," he said.

"We have fantastic support here in Australia, there's no doubt about it."

A lot of the work in the quantum space is around education, as Choucair said, it's not something that just comes out of abstractness and then just exists.

"You have to remember this stuff's all been built off 20, 30, 40 years of research and development, quantum mechanics, engineering, science, and tech -- hundreds and thousands of brilliant minds over the course of two-three generations," the CEO explained.

While the technology is here, and people are building algorithms that only run on quantum computers, there is still another 20-or-so years of development to follow.

"This field is not a fast follower field, you don't just get up in the morning and put your slippers on and say you're going to build a quantum computer," he added.

Archer is also part of the IBM Q Network, which is a global network of startups, Fortune 500 companies, and academic research institutes that have access to IBM's experts, developer tools, and cloud-based quantum systems through IBM Q Cloud.

Archer joined the network in May as the first Australian company that's developing a qubit processor.

Choucair said the work cannot be done without partnerships and collaboration alongside the best in the world.

"Yes, there is a race to build quantum computers, but I think more broadly than a race, to just enable the widespread adoption of the technology. And that's not easy. And that takes a concerted effort," he said. "And at this early stage of development, there is a lot of overlap and collaboration.

"There's a bit of a subculture that Australia can't do it -- yeah, we can.

"There's no excuses, right? We're doing it, we're building it, we're getting there. We're working with the very best in the world."

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