The next giant leap: why Boris Johnson wants to ‘go big’ on quantum computing

Our day-to-day lives are unimaginable without the technology behind everyday computers such as laptops and smartphones. Boris Johnson is one of the people who have noticed the rapid advancement of an alternative method of computing. He will need to push the boundaries of his linguistic dexterity to explain it.

Quantum computing looks at how the particles in the universe work. The prime minister promised last week that the UK would build a general-purpose quantum computer and secure 50% of the global quantum computing market by 2040. China and the US have taken big steps in the field of technology this year.

The way we process information in computers still doesn't take full advantage of the 20th-century achievement of classical computing, says Peter Leek, a lecturer and quantum computing expert at Oxford University.

A new and more powerful way of processing information has been given by work on quantum physics. If you can use the principles of quantum physics to process information, you can do a range of types of calculations that you can't do with normal computers.

Classical computers use bits that are 0 or 1 to transmit information. A text message, email, or even a film on your phone is a string of these bits. The information is contained in a qubit in quantum computers. These qubits are particles that can be in several states at the same time and are called superposition. This means qubits can be used to compute many different outcomes at the same time.

If you compare a piece of memory in a computer to a normal one, it will be in a unique state of ones and zeroes. In a quantum computer, memory can be in all possible states of zeroes and ones.

If you double the number of qubits, the computing power increases even more. If you link the entangled qubit pairs together, you will get a very powerful computer that can crunch through numbers at unprecedented speed, provided there is a quantum algorithm for the calculation you want to do.

Jay Gambetta, a VP of quantum computing at IBM, says that the combined system has more power than the individual systems. The University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in Hefei achieved 66 qubits with the help of the Eagle quantum processor made by a US computer firm.

The practical applications of quantum computers are not there yet, but theoretically they could have exciting uses like helping design new chemicals, drugs and alloys. Gambetta says that quantum computing could result in a much more efficient representation of chemical compounds, predicting accurately what a complex molecule might do and paving the way for new drugs and materials. He says that it gives us a way to model nature better.

Gambetta says that quantum computing could help combat global heating by more efficiently separating carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbon monoxide, which would reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Quantum computing could help us understand how we can use less energy.

IBM and Daimler collaborated to use quantum computing to model new batteries. The UK wants to be at the forefront of the market for products that can be enhanced by quantum computing, if these are just some of the products that can be.

IBM calls quantum advantage, where a quantum computer can solve problems faster than a classical computer, when it reaches the 1,000 qubit level. IBM hopes to reach 1,000 qubits via its Condor processor in the year 2023.

The UK has a long history of innovation, exemplified by Alan Turing in computing and Paul Dirac in quantum mechanics. Bob Sutor is an IBM colleague and he says that education and skills are important for the UK and other countries to make quantum computing a reality. The faster we get there, the more people are working on it.