In this special edition of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Ilyas Khan, CEO of Quantinuum, discusses the quantum computing revolution
In terms of quantum computing, Ilyas Khan believes the UK is leading the way, just as it did at the start of the first industrial revolution. The CEO of Quantinuum, the organisation formed from the merger of Honeywell Quantum Solutions and Cambridge Quantum Computing, the company Khan founded in 2014, says the UK is one of the leading countries, if not the global leader, in quantum computing.
“You will find people who are either British themselves or who went through the system here, particularly the tertiary education system in computer science and quantum information theory, who lead globally the effort,” he says.
And quantum computing is a global effort. Nation state after nation state has a national programme, Khan adds. “Japan, China, France, Germany, the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy – you name it, country after country has got a national programme, in some cases going back decades. This is serious. This is not science fiction.”
Most of the nation-state quantum programmes, particularly those in the US, the UK and China, were originally born out of a concern that particular country would be vulnerable to other countries that had quantum systems that would break down strong encryption.
But the quantum debate has progressed beyond defence. Khan sees quantum computing as an industrial revolution in much the same way as when machines were used to do work that humans could not do. This, he says, “fundamentally changes the nature of how we go about living our lives”.
It promises to shift the boundaries of what can and cannot be done computationally. “Even if the only use of a quantum computer is to fix the nitrogen fixation problem or carbon sequestration, or curing cancer and other such endemic problems that we have with disease control and management, that in itself has profound implications,” he adds.
“It is not just moving the needle a little bit on trading options or something. It is not the same. Angela Merkel, when she was chancellor of Germany, said that the existential future of the German people, in terms of their ability to enjoy the kind of lifestyle that they would aspire to, depends upon Germany being a leader in quantum computing. I mean, you don’t really get people talking about that with some blooming fintech app.”
Think small for big ideas
One of the difficulties technologists face when trying to grasp quantum computing is that people are generally very good at grasping macro concepts, but find it very difficult to understand things at much smaller scales, as Khan explains: “Einstein and Newtonian physics are governed by rules that don’t translate or map across.”
This matters, he says, because of the way computer scientists have used Boolean logic such as “And” gates and “Not” gates. “When [Alan] Turing and others started to think about the way in which information can be managed, they resorted to the manipulation of what we describe as first order logic – the “And” gate and the “Not” gate and the “Or” gate. These are all based on logic and this is something we, as humans, understand and rely upon. This is also one of the reasons why, for all the magic that computers represent, they do very little. There’s very little that gets done [computationally].”
Even artificial intelligence (AI) represents very little progress in terms of value. Khan says: “We’ve gone very little further than banging two stones together to get a spark. Yes, we can be impressed by the fact that these things happen, but they’re not accountable. They’re regressive. There is nothing that you can rely upon with all these expensive machines.”
A simple example is the huge amount of processing power used by Amazon’s Alexa service to respond to a question people already know the answer to, such as, “Alexa, what is the time?”.
For Khan, quantum computing is very different to how IT people think about classical computing. “All the [logic] rules that govern the way we do things are contrived. First order logic is contrived. It’s a human artefact. The transistor, therefore, that allows the binary system to instantiate the on and off [bits], the zero and one state, is a result of that thinking.”
In a quantum computer, the qubit does a job that is equivalent to what transistors do in a classic computer. However, says Khan: “It is embedded in a physical thing. It is not contrived, which could be a photon or an electron.”
What this means, according to Khan, is that the rules that govern binary logic do not apply to the mathematics reflecting the rules of quantum mechanics. “They are different rules and we haven’t even started talking about quantum mechanical features such as superposition and entanglement.”
While the field of quantum computing may be littered with jargon unfamiliar to those in business IT, Khan believes it is something that people with a willingness to learn can grasp.
Looking at the development of quantum computing technology, Khan says it is analogous to the very early days of mobile phones.
“For the two or three years prior to the mobile phone – the big bricks that were mostly in cars because of the continuous need for electric charge – somebody, somewhere had designed the handset. Somebody, somewhere had to put up the towers. Somebody, somewhere actually connected the dots. And while all of that was going on, the population didn’t know that it was going to happen. It just happened. That doesn’t mean that the science and the engineering hadn’t advanced. It just meant that it wasn’t yet in the public domain. And with quantum computing, I think that we are at that tipping point.”
This is because quantum computers are now in the public domain. “These machines actually exist,” Khan adds. “We can program them and we can do stuff with them.”
This begs the question about what are they are being used for and how they will they impact society. “If anybody tells you they know how it will affect humanity, give them a cup of tea. We just don’t know,” Khan adds, answering the question on what impact quantum computing will have on society.
“Just as we didn’t know [the impact of] the first Ford Model T, or when the first aeroplane took off, or the first computers arrived, or telephone…we didn’t know. We understand the direction of travel and what we do know is that this is an industrial revolution, the likes of which we have never seen.”
However, for Khan, quantum computing will be revolutionary. He argues that it is debatable whether the advent of computers represents an industrial revolution. “It was just a continuation of the main first industrial revolution. We have to be careful not to fall into the trap of equating quantum computing with just another technology. It is not. It affects everything we do and the way we do it now.”
No matter how long it takes for the potential of quantum computing to be fully realised, Khan says: “My conviction is that we, and certainly our children, are living through the first stages of an industrial revolution, not just a mere emergence of a new technology.”
Khan says that in late 2021, the development of the technology moved on to where people started working on the idea of a software stack. “If you think about it in classical terms, you’ve got the hardware and you want to be able to manipulate the hardware efficiently. So you’ve got the beginnings of control systems and middleware, and then above that you’ve got the compilers and everything that talks to the systems around it. And suddenly, you get the emergence of an operating system.”
Khan points to the TKET project, originally developed by Cambridge Quantum Computing, as one of the projects laying the groundwork for software development on quantum computers. He says more than a million people around the world have downloaded it from GitHub.
“TKET abstracts everything. You access an instruction set which is the equivalent of to an API [application programming interface] call. While it’s not quite as sophisticated because we don’t have the plethora of quantum computing machines yet, TKET is the foundation which allows everything to be built, and I would encourage anybody who is interested in this to look at it.”