UCL Quantum Science and Technology Institute


Transcript: Quantum Ready - Episode 1

In this first episode Katy visits UCL in central London to learn the basics of quantum computing and why business should be interested. Katy is joined by Professor Paul Warburton and Paolo Cuomo who interview: Matthias Ziegler, Accenture's emerging technologies innovation lead for Austria, Switzerland and Germany, and Richards Moulds, the General Manager of Amazon Braket, the quantum computing services at Amazon Web Services.

Katy  0:03  

Have you ever heard of the Simon, a device made by the tech company IBM?


In 1994, the firm unveiled the world's first smartphone, it was roughly the size of a standard brick and weighed half a kilogramme. Mobile, it wasn't. But like its slightly more mobile cousins, IBM Simon could place and receive phone calls. What made Simon special is that he could send and receive faxes and emails to the device also had an address book, a calendar, calculator, world clock, notepad, and more. Simon had a lot of problems. So the battery, for example, only lasted an hour. It was impractical in other ways, too. So the idea didn't catch on. 


Enter the cutting edge age of the flip phone. The word smartphone probably wasn't used widely for another decade. And the landmark moment for this technology came in 2007 with an announcement from a guy named Steve Jobs. 


JOBS: And we are calling it iPhone. Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone. 


It's fair to say the smartphone changed the world. Look where we are today.


<Sound effects>


Why am I telling you this? Well, in the 1990s the smartphone era of today was totally unimaginable. The life that we live and the way that we live it with our phones was beyond the wildest dreams of most people. And the story's not over. We're still figuring out novel uses for smartphones today, in 2022. While we're not going to spend this podcast series discussing smartphones, we are going to talk about another future that we will struggle to imagine today. Quantum computers don't yet exist. At least they don't really exist in ways that are useful to you and me. But one day, they might change the game too. The anticipated applications range from faster personalised drug design, to the ability to outwit traders on Wall Street. And the technology to enable quantum computing is developing rapidly. We don't know if or when this sort of useful quantum computing will emerge. It could be years, it could be decades. But for you and your business, there's no time like now to start thinking about them. Are you? Quantum ready?


I'm science communicator Katy Pallister. And in this podcast from UCL’s Quantum Science and Technology Institute and Quantum London, we'll be exploring if your business needs quantum computing, and where to begin in this bewildering world. On today's episode, we'll start with the basics. I'll be asking the big questions like: what is quantum computing?


Paul  3:34  

I don't think you need to know much about quantum mechanics in order to really understand some of the power of this technology, but to think about what applications in your own business sector could potentially benefit from quantum computation?


Katy  3:53  

How could quantum enhance my business?


Matthias  3:56  

Quantum Computing has now developed into a topic that's picked up by all industries. And quantum computing is both a threat and also an opportunity


Katy  4:06  

And how to navigate that fine line and prepare yourself for a quantum future.


Paolo  4:11  

It's the new scary technology. I believe that these companies need to become quantum ready as soon as is possible.


Katy  4:26  

Now we should be clear right from the start of this journey. Useful quantum computers are a work in progress. Research is progressing rapidly and is increasingly becoming more promising. In this series, we will be focusing on how businesses could use quantum computing once these efforts materialise. But first, I thought we should get a flavour of that ongoing research effort. That's why I've come to visit one of UCL’s quantum computing labs, hidden deep in a central London basement. 


Paul  5:08 

[in the background] I do love coming into the lab.


Katy  5:11  

[in the background] could this be a silence, a danger, magnet maybe on or something.


Paul  5:16  

[in the background] Yes I saw that… so I have… all your credit cards have been destroyed.


Katy  5:20  

My guy today in the lab is Paul Warburton. He's a professor of nanoelectronics at the university. Paul will also be with me through the series to navigate the jargon as I embark on my journey into the quantum world.


Paul  5:35  

And I do research on quantum computers using superconducting devices.


Katy  5:39  

Before we get started, just a quick question, why quantum? Why pursue this field?


Paul  5:46  

Well, quantum I guess I come to quantum because it's very interesting. That's what drives everything in academia. But also, interestingly, it turns out that there's a huge range of applications. And in particular in computation, where exploiting in quantum physics could, in principle, turn into some pretty powerful computational devices.


Katy  6:09  

Well, that's a lovely segue to where we are right now. Paul, could you talk me through some of the things that are around us right now?


Paul  6:16  

Yeah, so at the moment, we're in the basement of the physics department at UCL, and we're surrounded by a large number of fridges, and these are not your common garden, domestic kitchen fridges. These are dilution refrigerators, which cool down the quantum devices, which are the basis of possible future quantum computation devices. They call them down to temperatures around 0.01ºC above absolute zero. So that’s 10 millikelvin, as we would say.


Katy  6:50

That’s as cold as it gets, really.


Paul  6:52 

That's as cold as it gets. Ideally, we could get even colder actually, that would help us with the devices. But it starts to get very difficult to cool down to temperatures that low.


Katy  7:01  

So now that we've figured out where we are. Just a bit more about quantum because I studied maths and physics at university, albeit a few years ago now. But the world of quantum computing wasn't even really discussed then about five years ago. Could you just tell me maybe what is quantum computing?


Paul  7:20  

So I mean, traditionally, going back, you know, 20 years or more, quantum physics was the realm of atoms, electrons, subatomic particles, you needed to use quantum mechanics to understand how these things behaved. But more recently, it's been realised actually, comparatively large things eg electronic devices, you can also in certain circumstances, make them behave quantumly. In other words, you need quantum mechanics to understand how they behave. And once you've got an electronic device that is behaving quantumly, then you can start to think about exploiting some of the weirdness of quantum mechanics to do computational tasks for you. And that's what quantum computation is, is taking some of these comparatively large, although still very small electronic devices, and getting them to behave quantumly to do something useful.


Katy  8:20  

So you've used the word quantumly there, would you be able to describe some of these quantumly properties.


Paul  8:28  

So I guess it begins with quantum superposition. So if you imagine in a regular classical computer, such as you have on your laptop, or your mobile phone, the bits in a classical computer can either be zero or one. Thanks to superposition in a quantum computer, the quantum bits, or qubits, as we call them, can kind of both be zero and one simultaneously. And that's what we call a superposition of zero and one. And that starts to give these qubits in a quantum computer, exponentially more computational power than you have from the simple zero or one bits in the classical computer.


Katy  9:11  

So perhaps maybe people might be familiar with the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat. Is that… that's about superposition, isn't it?


Paul  9:18  

Yeah, that's right. So you can think of Schrödinger’s cat as being simultaneously dead and alive in much the same way as a qubit, or a quantum bit, can be simultaneously zero and one.


Katy  9:29  

Amazing. I like that analogy, you know. So Paul, we're surrounded by all of this equipment, trying to make these quantum computers and thinking about all of these different quantum properties. But what's wrong with our classical computers? Why do we need to do all this?


Paul  9:45  

So essentially, with a quantum computer, you're getting what you might call parallel processing for free. So with a classical bits, which can be either zero or one, those are two states that your classical have bits can be in, of course, with a qubit, you can make a superposition of zero and one. And you can add up various different weights of zeroness and oneness. And this gives your quantum variable, your qubit, an infinity of possible states it can be in, rather than just the simple naught and one that you have on a classical bit. And so that allows you essentially to do a whole lot of parallel processing of all those possible states your qubit can be in, even though you've only got a single qubit. And in fact, if you wanted to make a model of a single qubit, using a classical computer, you'd need an exponentially large number of classical bits to model all those possible states of a qubit. So by using a qubit, you basically do all that parallel processing that you would do on a classical machine in one shot, on a single qubit.


Katy  11:00  

So I guess it's about efficiency. And then I guess the possibilities of being able to do bigger calculations processing with our quantum computers.


Paul  11:11  

I mean, there are a number of well known problems from computer science that cannot be solved effectively with a classical machine. These are, you know, if you take existing algorithms that you would run on a standard silicon computer, it would take you millions and millions and millions of years to do the calculation. And maybe this would only take you a few minutes with a quantum computer. So it's that potential for exponential speedup with a future quantum computer that's really driving the whole field and makes it a very exciting place to be right now.


Katy  11:51  

So that's the science, but why might a business want to get involved? So we've left the lab and come upstairs in UCL, and we're now joined by Paolo Cuomo, Paolo, could you introduce yourself?


Paolo  12:04  

I'm Paolo Cuomo. I'm the co-founder of an association called Quantum London. Quantum London looks to get a discussion going between businesspeople about what quantum computing may mean for them. I've always been very interested in where new and evolving technologies are going, and really trying to make sure that businesses grasp the opportunities of both new technologies as early as possible.


Katy  12:29  

So now, Paolo, why are you so interested in specifically, quantum computing technology for businesses?


Paolo  12:37  

Quantum Computing offers a potential for companies to run analysis and do calculations, which at the moment, are slow or impossible with classical computers. Therefore, almost every type of company will be using quantum computing in some form in the next 5, 10, 15 years in order to be able to do what they currently do better, and maybe in order to actually answer new questions which are currently impossible for them to answer.


Katy  13:05  

It still all seems a bit out of this world to me, though, so I sent Paulo and Paul out to speak to some of the leaders in the field about the potential of this technology.


Paolo  13:15  

That's right. You'll hear our conversation with these world experts throughout the series. But to get a bit of background for you, Katie, I spoke to Matias Ziegler. Mateus is Accenture's emerging technologies innovation lead for Austria, Switzerland and Germany. He told me why companies should consider quantum.


Matthias  13:34  

Quantum computing has now developed into a topic that's picked up by all industries. And quantum computing is both a threat and also an opportunity. So as a threat, there’s the potential of quantum computing to break the current cryptography standards. Certainly that's an impact that deals with every industry


Katy  13:56  

A threat and an opportunity. We'll take a look at those cryptography threats later in the series. But Paulo, what did Matthias suggest were the most promising opportunities for the application of quantum technology?


Paolo  14:09  

Well, as a consultancy, Accenture are clearly involved in advising whether businesses should be looking at quantum, and when, and how. Part of Matthias’ job at Accenture is figuring out which emerging technologies, the so-called “deep techs”, are most relevant. Quantum is clearly one of them. And he's helping companies understand what the possible applications might be.


Matthias  14:31  

Typical topics quantum computing can contribute to so the optimisation or simulation or sampling, also machine learning. And they are actually open for all industries, so applicable in all industries. So a great uptake was in financial services. They were some of the first movers, for example, with topics like portfolio risk optimisation, but also in pharma. We see now very big potentials and almost all of the pharma companies already looking into it. So one example: how can you identify a molecule for new medicines, that was also a case that we picked up already with the labs in 2017 together with Biogen and 1QBit, to develop a solution that made it easier and faster to find out how molecules of medicines interact with molecules in the body, and how you could make it better matchmaking and so faster. Identifying new medicines, that's something we are also still improving together with those partners.


Paolo  15:29  

Matthias talked about a topic very close to my heart, which is climate change. And he talks through some of the opportunities that quantum computing may actually bring to that critical topic.


Matthias  15:40  

So the typical challenges quantum computing solves can also contribute to sustainability topics. Optimisation is one of the things you can improve with quantum. And so if you can improve industrial processes, manufacturing processes, so that they use less carbon, that will be a way to improve. Or also in simulation, you can simulate chemical reactions, and so find less energy-intensive processes. Also, if you're finding a new formula for fertilisers, for example, that are at the moment, a source of very large carbon emissions, that could also be a contribution.


Katy  16:17  

So Paul, it sounds like there's a lot of potential in these optimisation-type problems.


Richard  16:23  

Yeah, I spoke to Richard Moulds, who is the General Manager of the Amazon Braket quantum computing services at Amazon Web Services. That's Amazon's hugely influential computing service. And Richard told me why quantum computers are perfect for these sorts of challenges. The areas that you hear most customers focus on really, I think, fall into two categories. They are using quantum computers to simulate the quantum world. So diving into energy states in atoms and molecules to try to do better chemistry, to try to build better materials, to try to design better drugs. Which in a sense, makes perfect logic really, you know: using a quantum system to analyse and simulate other real world quantum systems makes a lot of sense. The other area is solving mathematical combinatorial problems you'd typically associate with optimisation: decision making, where the scale of the problem impacts the complexity dramatically,  whether you're shipping packages, or whether you're routing traffic around a network, or trying to assess the risks on a financial portfolio, or trying to train a machine learning system. You're faced with massive optimisation problems, which have been known about for decades. Some of those problems seem to be well-suited to quantum computers.


Katy  17:38  

But in this imagined future, where businesses use quantum computers, would they be at desks in offices, like classical computers are today? Or how would this work?


Paul  17:48  

No, no. Richard from Amazon Web Services explained this exact conundrum to me.


Richard  17:54  

Quantum Computers don't do everything, they only solve very specific mathematical problems. We won't use your quantum computer to do video rendering, or searching through databases or anything like that. So they will always be coprocessors, essentially, of classical systems; we're not trying to push quantum computers for their own sake, we definitely want to take a top down approach, customers arrive with their problems, we will hopefully try and solve it with the classical system, because we have plenty of data available today. And then help them understand how a quantum system might play into that solution area over time, and obviously help them build up expertise in how to program these systems, and how to define problems to be presented to a quantum machine.


Katy  18:34  

And we will also be looking at these potential use cases throughout the series, Paul and Paolo, thanks for going out and investigating!


Paul  18:41  

It's great, I've enjoyed it. Thank you very much, Katie.


Paolo  18:43  

It was fascinating. It was fun. And it gives me real excitement that this is going from beyond the lab, actually into places where a fantastic new technology can make a real difference to many industries.


Katy  19:00  

Now, the potential of quantum computing to revolutionise businesses does sound huge. Paul, help me out here, what challenges have faced quantum computing and what still needs to be figured out?


Paul  19:12  

I mean, lots of things still need to be figured out. It's fair to say quantum computing is in its infancy, both in terms of the hardware, the sort of chips that are sitting in the dilution fridges, and in terms of the software as well, you know, there's no accepted universal way of writing quantum software yet. And so there are challenges throughout the stack, as we say in engineering. Primarily, I think, from my point of view, these two things will will go on in parallel. And it's a question about taking what's been done in sort of research demonstrators to date, and making them work at scale. So going from maybe 50 qubits, 100 qubits that the field is at right now, scaling up to 1000s of error-free qubits is a major technical challenge.


Katy  20:06  

So how far into the future might we see these useful quantum devices that you're describing?


Paul  20:13  

I'm afraid I haven't brought my crystal ball with me here today. Your guess is as good as mine. In my opinion, there are many technical challenges, as I say, but there are also many brilliant people and lots of investment being put into these challenges. IBM certainly is very bullish about so called fault-tolerant, i.e. error-free quantum computation. I personally retain an academic scepticism about this. But I think the field at the moment is doing proofs of principle of very impressive quantum computational operations on small scale demonstrators, and that will continue. In the shorter term, there may be some applications in the next couple of years: for example, using quantum computers to do simulations, rather than do quantum chemistry or drug discovery. There are important problems there, which don't require the full error-free, huge scale quantum computing devices and do seem almost within touching distance right now. At some stage, these machines will do something that cannot be done at all with a classical machine. And then that's a whole different game.


Katy  21:28  

So Paul, you mentioned IBM there. I just wondered if you had any thoughts about how this partnership works between academia and industry, and how maybe that's pushing forward quantum computing?


Paul  21:42  

Yeah, I mean, both academia and industry has a role to play. In academia we’re a creative bunch, we have wild ideas, many of these end up on the cutting room floor so to speak, but some of them will then fly, and turn into useful technology. And in order to make that transition, we look to our colleagues in industry who have all the skills for systems engineering,  productization, tying in the developments in quantum computing technology to what's required in the commercial sector. And that really, I think, is the proper realm for industry. And they're doing a great job of it.


Katy  22:21  

But Paulo, this is all still quite futuristic and theoretical, why does industry need to start thinking about quantum now?


Paolo  22:30  

I think the reason we need to start thinking now is because we need to be ready, we need to be quantum-ready. We need companies to be aware of what it might mean for them, what the rough timelines are, and how they need to be ready to embrace the technology once it's commercially available.


Katy  22:45  

All of this technology will require a huge amount of investment. Is this too risky for businesses?


Paolo  22:53  

I think there's great news there, in fact, which is that the way we will access quantum computers is not by buying one. I genuinely think over the next few decades, very few companies or organisations will need to buy a quantum computer. And that's because you will access quantum computers on the cloud, effectively quantum computing as a service. And therefore it's possible to take baby steps, in a way that if you have to invest millions or billions in hardware, wouldn't be practical. That therefore reduces the risk, reduces the cost. Furthermore, there's organisations already available: consulting firms, advisory firms, that are helping companies think about where the opportunities might be to use quantum and again, allowing those small steps and say, right, this possible calculation, this possible business process could benefit, let's prepare you for that. In a small way, that’s a small investment.


Katy  23:44  

So I'm going to ask this to both of you. For interested listeners, what are the first steps into this quantum world? Paulo, I'll start with you.


Paolo  23:54  

It's a fascinating question. Whenever I talk to people about technology, they're like, well, you know, what can I do? And if this had been a couple of years ago, I'd have struggled to give much advice because it was really still so confusing. But over the last few years, thanks in part, I guess, to our lockdown and a need to move to a world full of webinars, there is a fantastic array of insightful, accessible information on the topic. You've got organisations such as Quantum London, who are running a series of webinars and ever more in-person meetings. You've got things like the Quantum Strategy Institute, which was only set up a few months ago, but has already churned out a huge number of very accessible white papers on the topics of how quantum can help businesses. You've got conferences, both virtual and in person. And therefore what I think individuals need to do is they need to see how can they invest small amounts of time, modest amounts of money to engage with this network, with this community. Because the only way you can really start to understand the technology is by talking to other people. And if you find like-minded, interesting people, then that's a really exciting way to engage in a new topic.


Katy  25:04  

Paul. What are your thoughts on this?


Paul  25:07  

I think, I mean, there are two aspects. One is education in the broad sense of the word, I don't think you need to know much about the quantum mechanics in order to really understand some of the power of this technology. But, you know, a brief dip into a basic primer, for example the book that Paolo has written on 30 minute introduction into quantum computation is more than enough to really get a feel for this. And secondly, to get some hands-on experience. And many of these high tech companies, IBM, D-Wave, for example, Rigetti, offer opportunities to access their quantum computers via the cloud, just to have a go and see what they can do at a sort of proof-of-principle demonstrator level, and that's a really useful way, in my mind, of starting to feel and understand A) some of the capabilities, but also B) some of the limitations of what's available today. And then, to think about what applications in your own business sector could potentially benefit from future developments in quantum computation, and so have some “technology pull” to move the field forward.


Katy  26:24  

Super. And I think we'll actually be discussing with some of those companies that you mentioned there a little bit later about what technology they have on offer right now. Paul Warburton, Paulo Cuomo, thank you both very much for joining me today for our overview of quantum computing. And I'm really looking forward to exploring these ideas in much more depth with both of you.


Paul  26:46  

Great, thank you very much, Katie. It's been nice talking to you.


Paolo  26:49  

It's a pleasure. It's been a delight. I look forward to staying in touch.


Katy  26:54  

Next time, we'll look at the technology that's out there and what might be right for your business. Make sure you join us then. Quantum Ready is a High Vis Radio production for UCL. I'm Katy Pallister, thanks for listening.