The UK is building its first commercial quantum computer

The government announced a £10 million investment to let businesses and researchers make the most of quantum capabilities.

An accessible intro to quantum computing

The UK's splashing the cash for its next quantum purchase: the science minister Amanda Solloway has announced the country's very first commercial quantum computer, backed by a £10 million ($13.36 million) investment from government and industry, to be available to use by businesses within the next few years.

The new machine is expected to help businesses unleash the billion-dollar opportunities promised by the quantum revolution in industries ranging from pharmaceuticals and transport to aerospace.

While the new quantum computer will be physically located in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, partners and customers will be able to access and operate the system over the cloud, to run applications in machine learning, materials simulation and finance. 

Solloway said: "Our ambition is to be the world's first quantum-ready economy, which could provide UK businesses and industries with billions of pounds worth of opportunities. Therefore, I am delighted that companies across the country will have access to our first commercial quantum computer, to be based in Abingdon."

California-based company Rigetti Computing will develop the quantum computer over a three-year programme, in partnership with various UK organizations such as the University of Edinburgh, Oxford Instruments, Standard Chartered Bank and Phasecraft.

Rigetti was one of the 38 winners of the Quantum Technologies Challenge last June, a competition led by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) that rewards projects focused on commercialising quantum technologies. The funding received as part of the challenge will be used to lead the development of the new quantum computer in Abingdon.

The US company is one of the only businesses developing quantum computing platforms around the world. Rigetti builds quantum computers and the superconducting quantum processors that power them, and then operates the technology in tandem with classical computing resources on a platform called Quantum Cloud Services (QCS), so that the quantum machines can be integrated into a public, private or hybrid cloud. 

After the quantum computer is built, complete with superconducting quantum processors and chips, the device is housed in very low-temperature dilution refrigerators to enable better control of the qubits. The hardware can then operate on the QCS platform, and third parties can access the machine using classical computing resources over the cloud. 

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After the quantum computer is built, complete with superconducting quantum processors and chips, the device is housed in very low-temperature dilution refrigerators to enable better control of the qubits.  

Image: Rigetti Computing / Justin Fantl

Rigetti's superconducting qubit technology will be used to build the quantum computer in Oxfordshire, and the device will be housed in a dilution refrigerator provided by Oxford Instruments. The University of Edinburgh will develop new ways of testing the hardware and the performance of the programmes. Standard Chartered Bank will work on applications of the technology for finance, while Phasecraft will look at quantum algorithms for materials design, energy, and pharmaceutical. 

The consortium plans to have the quantum computer operable in the second half of next year, and to continue to improve its scale and performance throughout the lifetime of the project and beyond.

"By providing access to quantum hardware, the collaboration aims to unlock new capabilities within the thriving UK ecosystem of quantum information science researchers, start-ups, and enterprises who have already begun to explore the potential impact of quantum computing," said Chad Rigetti, the CEO of Rigetti Computing.

Given the cost and complexity of building a standalone quantum computer for one single application, many organisations are turning to hybrid models and shared resources, an approach that Rigetti is pushing forward with QCS.

The US company is competing against tech giants like IBM in the quest to commercialise quantum computing at scale. Last year, for example, IBM launched its own commercial quantum computer, called IBM Q System One. The device exists as a physical 20-qubit computer that can be purchased as a piece of hardware; or, it can be accessed by developers over the cloud, as part of a network called "Q Network".

Since the Q System One was released, the company has deployed 15 devices for laboratories and companies to rent for use in research. The Q Network, for its part, has over 100 members and has run more than 130 billion executions since the programme started.

Flexible access to quantum hardware, while using familiar classical resources, is an attractive prospect for businesses. Quantum computers, when they are commercially available, are expected to provide better and quicker ways to solve problems such as optimising financial portfolios, improving AI computations or discovering new drugs to treat neurodegenerative diseases.

The UK has vowed to remain at the forefront of quantum research, and has already invested £1 billion ($1.34 billion) in a ten-year national programme designed to boost quantum technologies. 

As part of the national programme, the UK government also launched the National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC), a £93 million ($123 million) venture announced two years ago to improve the commercialization of quantum technologies, and provide businesses and research institutions with access to quantum computers as they are developed around the world.

Now halfway through the national programme, however, it is emerging that scaling up the huge potential of quantum computing is as hard as it sounds. While quantum research is taking leaps, industrial applications are effectively taking time to emerge.

Speaking at a conference earlier this year in London, Elham Kashefi, chair in quantum computing at the University of Edinburgh, said: "The UK has a very strong lead in research (...). We have the base but I don't know how we can create the money to push it to the next level, to connect to industry. There is a gap, because we need everything that is achieved in the national programme to be connected to the industry."

Providing businesses and organisations with access to a quantum computer, therefore, could significantly accelerate the development of practical applications for quantum, and bring about a deluge of innovation as the technology comes out of the lab and into the real world.