Quantum speeds across the world and space
Pioneers in quantum technology are working with integrated circuit makers to deliver the quantum’s benefits in volume and lower its costs, Alan Burkitt-Gray writes.
Quantum science and technology are emerging into the commercial world for use by cloud providers and, perhaps most importantly, cyber-security services. The past few months have seen a slew of announcements from companies that are introducing communi-cation hubs and data centres to what could become a fundamental technology.
While it is tempting to talk about “quantum leaps”, those are just about the smallest movement any particle can make – tiny, almost immeasurable steps. What happened this year are significant steps made by companies emerging from universities across the world, which are the early movers into a new and exciting business.
One of these firms is Arqit Quantum. An advocate of providing quantum-secured communications, it published a “Post Quantum Cryptography Mythbuster” that says threats to data security from weaknesses in public key infrastructure (PKI) are “rising rapidly and the development of quantum computing makes the problem critical”.
“‘Quantum safe’ is a very high bar, which hardly anyone who uses the phrase manages to achieve,” says David Williams, Arqit’s founder and chairman. “Always ask the question: could an actor with a universal quantum computer and a mind like [MIT mathematician] Peter Shor’s potentially crack this algorithm? The day that an adversary breaks your mathematical algorithm, you won’t know until it’s too late. And it will happen.”
The European Union introduced its response to Arqit in late September: a consortium of 20 European companies, led by Luxembourg-based satellite company SES, to develop satellite-based next-generation cybersecurity for Europe. To do this, the consortium is working with the European Space Agency and the European Commission to design, develop, launch and operate a satellite-based, end-to-end secure quantum key distribution (QKD) system: the Eagle-1 satellite.
The trouble everyone faces is that quantum computers are inevitable. And when they arrive, the PKI cryptography that has kept data secure for decades will become crackable in reasonably fast times. It take months or years to decrypt messages secured with the encryption used now for everyday communications, such as financial transactions. Quantum
computers will shorten that to almost nothing. That means encryption has to be stronger – hence the opportunities for Arqit and Eagle-1.
“European security and sovereignty in a future world of quantum computing are critical to the success of Europe and its member states,” says Steve Collar, chief executive of SES. “The Eagle-1 system [is] a cornerstone for the development of secure and sovereign European networks of the future.”
While alliances between major industries and the public sector, like the Eagle-1 consortium, are making advances in quantum technology, some emerging players are based in labs and the modern equivalents of garage workshops. One such example is Quantum Motion.Backed by two universities and the UK’s security services, Quantum Motion has opened a lab in London so potential users of quantum computing can explore the potential. It plans to use the established technology of silicon-based integrated circuits (ICs) to make quantum computing cheaper and more widely available.
“We want to focus on a technology that will scale,” chief technology officer James Morton tells me. “We’re harnessing the millions of dollars that have gone in silicon fabrication. We want to use that for a silicon-based quantum computer.”
Quantum Motion has built a team that includes IC and software engineers, quantum physicists, and quantum computing architects.
The company is a spin-off from Oxford University and University College London (UCL), but one of its investors is the National Security Strategic Investment Fund, a venture capital arm of the UK government that has heavy involvement from the British intelligences agencies, including MI6 and GCHQ.
Oxford Ionics is another company trying to bring mass production techniques from the silicon chip industry to quantum technology. Founded in 2019, the company says its goal is to move quantum computing “out of the research lab, into real industrial solutions”.
To do this, Ionics is collaborating with Germany’s Infineon Technologies to build high-performance, fully integrated quantum processing units consisting of millions of 5×5mm qubit chips hosted on 30cm diameter semiconductor wafers. “Qubits make mistakes,” Ballance says, so the wafers will use a “majority voting” approach to error correction.
Infineon mass produces semiconductors for commercial markets, including “chips for cars and cellphones”, says Chris Ballance, co-founder of Oxford Ionics. By using these mass production techniques, Ionics aims to reduce the cost of quantum computing so it can be accessed by new markets.
Ballance, a fellow at Oxford University’s physics department, says that Oxford Ionics already has “a few select partnerships with customers”, including a data centre company. He would not identify that company, or any of the firm’s customers, only saying he expects Ionics’ “first customers will offer cloud access” to quantum computing.
According to Ballance, early adopters will come from the financial sector, which will use it for “for portfolio optimisation”, and researchers investigating “hard materials science problems, such as drug design”. But he mainly expects to be surprised, saying “The real killer apps will be things you don’t expect.”
Quantum Motion says its decision to use silicon transistors is key to its approach to make quantum computing a commercial product. The world already has a significant number of silicon foundries that build ICs for computers, data centres, phones and virtually every electronic device.
“Silicon foundries are tens of billion-dollar facilities, supporting the entire industry,” says the company’s chief technology officer James Morton.
“Around US$500 billion has been ploughed into the silicon industry,” adds James Palles-Dimmock, the company’s chief operating officer.
This led to their decision to outsource fabrication of Quantum Motion’s quantum devices to silicon foundries.
“Our focus is to develop a scalable unit which can be a key proof you can build a quantum processor with silicon. If you can, why would you want to do it any other way?” says Morton.
“We have already got many chips back from different foundries,” adds Palles-Dimmock.
Quantum Motion’s aim is to build its devices into equipment housed in the standard 19-inch racks used in telecoms operators, data centres and IT departments.
These racks are now 100 years old: AT&T developed the standard in 1922, and detailed it in the Bell System Technical Journal in July 1923. The company’s lab is a few metres from its front door, just off the Caledonian Road in Islington, London.
During my visit, Morton and his colleagues showed me the Tardis-like cylindrical construction of bright, ultra-pure copper that houses the company’s technology: an assembly in a giant stainless-steel vacuum flask, made by Bluefors of Finland, kept at very low temperatures.
“Up here,” says Morton, pointing to the top of the unit, “it is about the temperature of Neptune. There, in the middle, is the temperature of outer space.”
He explains that Neptune’s temperature is around −223°C: that’s 50 kelvin. The kelvin scale starts at absolute zero: –273.15°C. The temperature of outer space is slightly warmer: –270.45°C, or 2.7 kelvin.
Morton then points to a number of copper-coloured cylinders, called pucks, attached to the bottom of the unit.
“Down here, the temperature is 10 millikelvin,” he says. It is at that temperature, just 0.01°C above absolute zero, where the quantum effect occurs, keeping individual electrons in one of two quantum states – spin up and spin down – for nine seconds.
“Qubits are [determined by] the spin of the electron,” says Morton. “Those nine seconds indicates the device is very stable. It’s much longer in silicon than in other materials. We’re developing a fault-tolerant universal quantum computer.”
The importance of quantum computing to security industries is demonstrated by US pioneer ColdQuanta hiring two former members of the intelligence community. (Or at least two that we know about.)
Last year, Laura Thomas, a former CIA case officer who was the agency’s chief of base in Afghanistan, became ColdQuanta’s vice-president of corporate strategy.
This year, computer scientist Dawn Meyerriecks became an independent director and board member of ColdQuanta. Before taking on that role, she spent eight years at the CIA, leaving as its deputy director for science and technology in 2021, and for the previous four years she was an assistant director for acquisition, technology and facilities, working under two Directors of National Intelligence. The DNI leads the US Intelligence Community, a coalition of 18 US national security organisations.
Of Meyerriecks, Thomas said: “In addition to her national security and commercial market insights, Dawn is the type of leader who focuses on the people behind the product. We’re fortunate to have her on the journey with us as we scale up not only our quantum technology, but also the people and organisation behind it.” The CIA, and other members of the intelligence community, are taking quantum seriously.