Quantum Computing has been in the dreams of physicists and computer scientists for over 35 years. But in recent years significant milestones have made this dream a commercial reality. 

For Ilyas Khan, CEO of Cambridge Quantum Computing Limited (CQCL), 2012 was the year when his team realised the true promise of quantum computing. “For years and years people were saying this was decades away. Then core engineering breakthroughs started to become apparent and we started thinking about developing some IP. At the same time, I was one of the founding partners of Cambridge Accelerate, and I came in contact with a lot of  hard science and deep science entrepreneurs as well as quantum information theorists, as opposed to people just building apps or things for the iPhone. As a confluence of those two circumstances, It appeared that quantum computers would become real in 10 years.” 

Ilyas Khan, CEO of Cambridge Quantum Computing

Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQCL), was founded in 2014 by Ilyas Khan and a group of Cambridge mathematicians. They are now widely recognised as one of the leading independent quantum computing companies in the world, with a focus on developing operating systems, quantum algorithms and quantum protocols that can be applied to a variety of fields, from financial services to medicine, cryptography and big data. CQCL was included as one of the ‘breakthrough businesses set to change the way we live and work’ in Bloomberg Business’ 2016 top 50 innovators list.

Advancing Technological Milestones

With the race for ‘quantum supremacy’ heating up and with reports on record numbers of qubits being publicised, many are surprised by the rate of the technological progress. “Of course, It is hard not to be surprised by the rate of change, but maybe with a bit of historical perspective it is not that surprising”, Ilyas states. 

“There is a correlation between the amount of resources applied to engineering challenges and the outcome. We don’t need to go back far to the 1960s and 1970s and look at what happened to personal computing and later, to telephony and mobile handsets. When capital started being poured in from the private sector rather than public and university sectors, that’s when things start to accelerate. Corporates typically don’t announce these things – they just do them.”

“In simple terms, when quantum computing was the exclusive domain of academia the only way somebody would know about advances was because academic groups would shout (very loudly) about small incremental advances in the form of the scientific papers in order to gain more funding. Once commercial organisations get involved, the speed goes up.”

Today CQCL are working with a long list of collaborators that includes hardware partners and clients from financial and global chemical industries, to academia and government. Ilyas claims that at this stage, “we are most concerned with the application over the industry” and therefore strive to give clients the tools to tackle cutting edge research problems such as the discovery of new materials.  The main expertise CQCL offer in Quantum Computing, are in three main areas of the field: Quantum Compiler Operating System, Quantum Chemistry, and early stage Quantum Machine Learning. In quantum technologies CQC has a focus on quantum encryption.

CQCL  – Quantum Compiler

CQCL offer an adaptable quantum compiler that translates programming language into basic hardware instructions. Ilyas claims that the objective here is to make quantum hardware useful and to illuminate what the potential applications could be down the line. For Ilyas, this is the top priority moving forward.

“Obviously there’s lot of people with the hardware and in order for hardware to be useful it has to be equipped with the ability to be used on software. Most people aren’t going to write in quantum algorithms. They’re going to write in high level languages. This is very recent. Due to the fact that we are independent and platform agnostic, we don’t care whether your machine is an ion trap or a super conducting processor or whatever. We are the preferred choice of them all. Our client base are potentially all the builders of the machines that aren’t Microsoft IBM, etc.” 

The benefits of this adaptability means that CQCL can work with all gate based platforms that generate, manipulate and measure qubits. Today,  CQCL’s current hardware contractors include NQIT (IoN trap based platform) and Oxford Quantum Circuits (Superconducting). In May 2017, CQCL won the EPSRC grant to develop a compiler module for the UK’s flagship quantum computing hub in Oxford, NQIT.

Quantum Chemistry

One of the most significant areas for quantum computing is in chemistry genomics. There is very real potential in the design of drugs, understanding objects like proteins and compounds that are essential for life.

“One of the main area where we have actual commercial clients rather than experimental partners is quantum chemistry”, Ilyas explains. “We’ve got one global chemical company who gave us a contract to design quantum software for three particular compounds that will be useable on channel circuits this year. They are set to make an announcement this year.” 

One of the most significant use cases for quantum computing is in genomics and chemistry

According to Ilyan, out of all use cases we will see the greatest industrial advancement in quantum chemistry in the short to medium term. 

“Within this year or next”

“I’m surprised when people gloss over the impact of quantum chemistry because the commercial applications are vast. Although it may be a dozen or so companies right now – these are companies that are involved in everyday activities.”

“For us, the application we’re most familiar with and aware of is the global speciality material companies that are suppliers to the semiconductor industry. This is where the capital cycles are huge and fast. In even the slightest increase in efficiency in certain compounds can be translated into vast commercial profit. That’s not to say that pharmaceuticals are not important but we’re not involved in that area at the moment.”

‘Hybrid Quantum Machine Learning’

When it comes to machine learning many in the industry are paying close attention.

For instance, Jacob Biamonte, a quantum physicist at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow recently claimed, Machine learning is becoming a buzzword and when you mix it with quantum, “it becomes a mega-buzzword”.

“Something that we are driving forward today and an area that I’m quite proud of is quantum machine learning”, Ilyas claims. A couple of our scientists collaborated on a wonderful paper that was published in September on hybrid quantum machine learning. For us this is a breakthrough. Obviously everyone is interested in machine learning learning today. But we now have our first commercial engagement which will deliver one of the first applications on a hybrid application.” 

Quantum Computing Time Frame

“Lets assume that the hybrid quantum machine learning methodology described in our paper – works. In this case quantum machine learning will be of interest to people even with noisy machines with about 100 qubits or so – which wont be next week but it could be next year.”

“Lets assume we need error corrected quantum computing and the development of credible quantum memory. If those are the two ingredients then I do agree that it’s 5 years from now – at a minimum. Therefore the number of corporate customers  around the world that are routinely benefiting from quantum computing –  lets say cloud delivered alongside super computers – will number in the thousands. Probably at the end of 2022/ 2023. That to me is an incredible timeline and is becoming the consensus.”

“Now obviously if we take the next stage – if you say the technology is implemented more widely than that – so instead of thousands of corporations , it became tens of thousands of corporations and million lives – then it’s further down the road.”

“On quantum chemistry I think it’s this year or next.”

“I’m surprised when people gloss over the impact of quantum chemistry because the commercial applications, may be a dozen or so companies, however, these companies are involved in everyday activities.”

Your 5 Year Strategy Is Key

Quantum Computing is set to be hugely transformative and disruptive over the next decade. Ilyas shared his advice for industry leaders about how they should stay ahead of the curve when considering a sound quantum computing strategy.

“I have two pieces of advice – one which is a bit of a mantra for me. Quantum Computing is no less mysterious than using your conventional computer or space travel or cars that don’t have drivers. The use of the language, ‘quantum’ inspires a lot of confusion, but the application in quantum computing should not be confusing.”

“It really is capable of being demystified.”

“Beyond that, I say look at your 5 year business cycle. Ask yourself one question: which part of my plan is likely to be impacted by quantum technologies or quantum computing in the current 5 year cycle? Once you’ve asked that question, you’re then equipped to start to think about how to take advantage over it in your area of expertise.”

“If you’re too general then the danger is you end up doing nothing.”

“So If you’re a hydrocarbon extractor like BP or Shell, then look at your 5 year plan as you’re investing hundreds of millions of dollars. Ask that question: In this plan, what aspect will either be vulnerable to or could be accentuated because of quantum computing.”

The Next 6 Months

Ilyas Khan revealed that Cambridge Quantum Computing Limited are anticipating. “We are looking forward to a ubiquitous operating system made available to all the people that possess quantum processors. Even if you’re a large organisation with a plan to build a quantum processor, and you reckon you’ve already got a compiler, the fact is there may be some aspect of our stack that can make your machine work better. Over the next 6 months that’s what we’re mainly looking forward to. Secondly we will be delivering certifiable quantum encryption in a stand alone device by the end of this year.”

Ilyas Khan is the CEO and co-founder of Cambridge Quantum Computing


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Written by Hal Briggs from Quantum Business