Transforming Defence: Quantum Technologies
Dr. Gillian Marshall - Head of Quantum Technologies and Fellow, QinetiQ
Quantum 2.0 technologies explicitly create, manipulate, read out and exploit quantum states of matter. Quantum 2.0 is a very broad category but can be divided roughly into two parts:
Part 1: Quantum sensing, timing and communications
The first part is quantum sensing, timing and communications. These are all things we can do right now with classical techniques, but quantum enhancement could provide greater sensitivity, accuracy and range to such systems.
One particularly important application will be quantum position navigation and timing (PNT) – which could be used as a fallback if the global navigation satellite system (GNSS) fails. In the event of a full scale conflict, GNSS would likely be taken offline very quickly. New generations of quantum clocks, gyroscopes and accelerometers have not yet been combined into a quantum-enabled PNT system, but an early prototype may be feasible in the next five years.
Part 2: Quantum computing
The second part is more speculative. If a suitably large quantum computer could be built, it might be revolutionary – letting us do things we simply can’t do with classical computing. For example, quantum information processing could enhance machine learning, leading to better image recognition. Quantum computing-enhanced understanding of chemistry (in which a nearer term goal is being able to simulate molecules accurately) is another area of interest – and could be a game changer in drug discovery and materials research. It could also be used to simulate the chemistry required in batteries, which could help us to meet our Net Zero 50 goals.
We are currently in the Noisy Intermediate Scale Quantum (NISQ) era of quantum computing – quantum computers that comprise of small numbers (50 to a few hundred) of qubits (quantum bits). NISQ devices are already able to do things that conventional supercomputers can’t. However, a large, fully error-corrected quantum system with millions of qubits that could truly realise quantum computing’s revolutionary potential will be seen in the longer term – despite various (and preemptive) claims of ‘quantum supremacy’.
Preparing our people
That said; there are now people in the early stages of their careers who will be in the industry when true quantum computing arrives. Therefore, we must be ‘quantum ready’ for the debut of a suitably advanced quantum computer.
What does being ‘quantum-ready’ mean for defence? We must ensure that we engage early with the academics and researchers creating the next generation of quantum technology, in order to steer the direction of that research. Only then will we be able to benefit fully, when later-generation quantum technology becomes available. For example, defence would do well to specify its requirements for robustness and size, weight and power (SWaP) early on.
Another key element of quantum readiness for defence is assurance. The verification, validation and trust of quantum computers and quantum software implementations is of significant importance. Our people must be able to ask and answer the following questions. Has the quantum computer done what it was told to do? Has the quantum computer been told to do the right thing? And, has the output from the quantum computer been tampered with, intercepted or spied on?
Our people must be trained for all aspects of quantum readiness. As such, we are looking to partner or collaborate with other organisations and to train quantum specialists. People will be one of the biggest factors in the realisation of quantum.