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Q&A: Roger McKinlay, Challenge Director - Quantum Technologies at UK Research & Innovation


An extract from one of our Deep Dives in TechWatch Edition 7


Q: How would you summarise how quantum is going to disrupt industry (particularly defence and security) in the next 5-10 years?

A: Everyone is going to be ‘disrupted’. We’re in for a shock. It’s incumbents that risk being negatively disrupted – but for new companies, it’s an opportunity Quantum technologies will impact everything. It’s not like the digital revolution, it’s a fundamentally transformative technology: think steam or early electronics, and their longer timeframes.

Defence and security companies are used to new technologies, but may not be the creators of these technologies. It’s going to be a seller’s market for quantum technology.

So defence and security companies will have to move quickly – maybe acquire the technology – to stay ahead of the competition. They will need to understand the impact on sensor performance, for example. This will be complicated by sovereignty and security issues. Governments will place restrictions on technology and company ownership. In the UK, we already have the National Security and Investment Bill, a pre-screening mechanism for deals involving investments in sensitive sectors. This allows the government to review and potentially prevent such transactions, if necessary.

Q: What are some of the most important quantum technologies that will be coming down the line?

A: Quantum computing, by far, promises the biggest impact, anticipated size of market, and ability to disrupt existing businesses. Most of the investor behaviour we’re seeing right now is driven by the prospect of quantum computing, mainly because it will be able to address currently intractable problems. It’s important to note that quantum computers won’t just be a better-performing kind of computer, but will work differently. They will be particularly suited to complex optimisation problems.

But quantum computing is a challenge. Quantum states are very sensitive. They are being used to create amazing sensors and imagers, but we will need to learn to isolate these states to make computers. That is why building quantum computers is so difficult.

Quantum states even know if you have looked at them! This is the basis of secure communication (for example, quantum key distribution). The secure communications and sensing markets are nearer than computing. And these markets will help the component technology to mature and, in turn, bolster the introduction of quantum computers.

This isn’t to say that quantum computers aren’t already being sold. Quantum annealers are being used by many organisations, such as banks, to begin to get their key thinkers to consider the impacts of quantum. So, whereas the ‘holy grail’ is a universal or general purpose quantum computer, able to tackle any problem but so difficult to make, quantum annealers are simpler machines that are constrained to more specific applications, but still able to solve important problems. D-Wave (which claims to be the world’s first commercial supplier of quantum computers) builds them, and Fujitsu uses digital annealers that are ‘quantum-inspired’. The customers incorporating annealers are serious about quantum and want to get ahead.

Q: What are a couple of the biggest opportunities and the biggest challenges involved?

A: What some people call ‘Quantum 1.0’ underpins many of our existing technologies, such as lasers and atomic clocks. ‘Quantum 2.0’ is opening up a host of new opportunities to exploit quantum mechanics further. This is the ‘second wave’ of the quantum revolution.

There’s a reason quantum computing is eclipsing other applications. By 2025, the market will already be close to $3bn. The services we take for granted involve a lot of costly optimisation. It’s where service providers get a competitive edge. The elements of the user experience that we take for granted actually incur a huge amount of work. Netflix’s suggestions on what you “might also like” is a multivariate optimisation problem on a huge data set. Quantum computers could run such algorithms in minutes. The same applies to optimising the portfolio of a bank for risk, doing in a few hours every week tasks which currently take years.

On the defence side, it’s really important to mention the following: smart imaging and sensing. Smart quantum imagers will differentiate light reflected off a target from particles of smoke, fog or silty water. This will be hugely important for autonomous vehicles relying on imaging guidance. Equally important will be the ability to see around corners, quantum cameras being sensitive enough to see light scattered from hidden objects.

Another application is in position, navigation and timing (PNT), where navigation satellites are not usable. This might be indoors, underwater, or in areas of interference and jamming. Satellite navigation is ubiquitous, but quantum inertial navigators and chip-scale clocks will provide reliance and alternatives.

An interesting opportunity is in gravity sensing. “Seeing” underground will greatly speed up construction. Think of digging holes in the right place and avoiding hidden hazards, be it for road-works, skyscraper foundations or HS2 in the UK. But the opportunities are broader. Being able to see hills and valleys – anomalies in the earth’s gravitational field – opens the door to new ways of navigating via gravity maps.

Finally, another product that is very close to launch is a gas sensor, developed by QLM, a company that spun out of the University of Bristol. A camera that can see clouds of methane has applications in automation, safety and regulation in the oil and gas industry. It’s a new technology fulfilling a growing need.

Want to continue reading the second half of this Q&A? Subscribe to TechWatch and receive Edition 7 to your inbox.
Roger discusses the skills gap in quantum and how we can be ready to harness disruptive technologies, alongside actionable recommendations.