18 Sep 2023
by Steve Brierley

Error correction is the key to unlock UK quantum

Guest blog from Steve Brierley, Founder of Riverlane. Part of techUK's #SuperchargeUKTech Week 2023.

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The stakes are high for quantum computing. The UK is investing £2.5bn over the next ten years, hoping to become a world-leading quantum-enabled economy by 2033. Success is not guaranteed. But it’s a smart bet – if the money is invested wisely. Analysts estimate that quantum computing will create up to $850 billion in global economic value over the next 15 to 30 years. That’s probably an underestimate.

As with the birth of the world’s first computers 75 years ago and smartphones 50 years later, we are often irrationally exuberant about the short-term impact but massively under-call the long-term innovation such transformative technologies can unlock. Quantum computers fall squarely in this bucket. Many see quantum computers as just superfast supercomputers. Indeed, a large and reliable quantum computer could quickly perform complex tasks that a huge supercomputer – even one the size of the planet – would take decades to perform. But focussing on speed misses the bigger point.

Quantum computers represent a new computing paradigm that will open possibilities for human progress that we’ve only just begun to imagine. They will help us accurately simulate complex interactions between the molecules, proteins and chemical compounds that make up all organic and non-organic matter. And they’ll enable us to solve the equations of motion by Nobel Prize winning physicists Dirac and Schrödinger, transforming our capabilities in fields like aerospace and healthcare, for example. Without them, we could never accurately simulate how a new medicine would work in the human body or design new catalysts to create batteries that store vastly more clean energy. The equations of our sub-atomic world are quantum mechanical, so the only way to solve and apply them is by building quantum computers.

Can the UK really be a global winner in this incredibly high-stakes game? Yes. It won’t be by outspending the US, China or the EU. We’re unlikely to even outspend some of the world's individual tech giants. But the UK does have a winning playbook that we can learn from: we can design and engineer the Quantum Error Correction Stack that every quantum computer will need.

We achieved exactly this in the Internet age, with Cambridge-based Arm designing the chips and IP that power 90% of the world’s smartphones and millions of other connected devices, large and small. Arm’s enduring global success comes from solving a crucial technical problem: how to put vastly more processing power on tiny micro-processors with vastly greater power efficiency. Other core principles behind Arm’s success include openness and collaboration, enabling the UK to attract the best global talent; and international collaboration, particularly through the Open Microprocessor Initiative (OMI).

What is quantum computing’s crucial technical problem? In a word, scale. Specifically, quantum computers must scale from performing a few hundred error-free quantum operations (‘QuOps’) today to a trillion error-free operations (‘TeraQuOps’) to achieve their full potential. This challenge applies equally to quantum computers regardless of their ownership, nationality or the underlying technology they use to process and store quantum information. With focussed innovation and collaboration, the UK quantum computing industry can lead to solve this scaling problem for all quantum computers globally. Such UK leadership will require several things:

  • A new generation of chips that effectively control the enormous quantity of data and simultaneously decode the copious errors that quantum computers produce. In simple terms, a single quantum computer must process and correct the equivalent of Netflix’s total global streaming data every second. Riverlane has already built the world’s most powerful quantum computer decoder and is on track to scale this to a ‘TeraQuOp’ decoder in the next few years.
  • Practical expertise in the development, deployment and continuous scaling up of all types of quantum processors, known as ‘qubits’. Fortunately, our rich ecosystem of top universities and quantum computing companies, supported for the past decade by £1 billion in seed investment by the UK government (the first country to do so), has resulted in the most quantum tech start-ups in Europe. We do not rely on a small handful of big tech companies, as in Silicon Valley. Now’s the time to accelerate, not rest on our laurels.
  • Continued openness and collaboration with companies and governments around the world, enabling the UK to share expertise, attract the best global talent and build public and private partnerships that will accelerate the deployment of quantum computing everywhere. Rightly, we have adopted the open-shop mindset and must continue on this path.

Today’s quantum computers have limited capabilities because their fundamental building block, qubits, are highly error prone. It’s not enough to simply build quantum computers with more and better qubits. Unlocking the full spectrum of quantum computing applications requires new hardware and software tools to control these inherently unstable qubits and comprehensively correct system errors at the rate of ten billion times or more per second.

By focusing on quantum error correction, the UK will become a quantum creator not a quantum buyer. We’ll mitigate the risk of brain drain and prevent our existing quantum start-ups from migrating overseas. It’s a smart strategy where the UK can play to its unique strengths, following in Arm’s path to enable and accelerate quantum computing everywhere.

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Steve Brierley

Steve Brierley

Founder, Riverlane