Luminous Ventures recently announced its investment into Universal Quantum, a spin out from the University of Sussex building a universal quantum computer. At Luminous, we exist to back entrepreneurs and scientists striving to move society forwards and this investment encapsulates that thesis. Quantum technologies hold significant promise for society and the world since they are expected to unlock vast potential, hitherto not possible.
The team at Universal Quantum are building a general purpose quantum computer — that is, a computer leveraging quantum mechanics that can be used for general application rather than specific use cases. This is no mean feat — there are significant engineering and technical challenges in this endeavour. Key challenges are building a critical mass of qubits (quantum bits), lengthening coherence times and error correction (the prominence of the latter has been rising in prominence, as discussed in this article).
There are a number of solutions to these problems and several architectures for quantum computers are being developed. Most of the leading efforts (Google, IBM, Rigetti) have focussed on superconducting. However, superconducting has its challenges, notably the requirement for near absolute zero temperatures (-243 degrees celsius), a susceptibility to noise, the short period for which the qubits can retain their quantum state and the limited gate connectivity to qubits.
As such, one competing architecture that has gained significant traction in recent years is the trapped ion architecture and it is on this that Professor Winfried Hensinger and Sebastian Weidt at Universal Quantum are working. Trapped ion involves the “trapping” of ions using magnetic fields, with the energy levels of their intrinsic spin forming the qubit.
Like all quantum computing architectures, one of the challenges for trapped ion architectures is their scalability and it is on this matter that the team at Universal Quantum have pioneered a blueprint for success. This method involves a modular approach which makes use of ion transport between different modules. Other companies employing trapped ion, such as IonQ, a spin-out of the University of Maryland, make use of laser driven single and multi qubit gates, whereas the approach at Universal Quantum employs global long wavelength radiation and locally applied magnetic fields. The advantage of this is that it avoids the need for a huge number of precisely aligned laser fields necessary for gate operation for a large scale quantum computing adopting the IonQ approach. The team’s paper on the subject can be found here.
Since the early work in this field by Richard Feynman and David Deutsch, significant research has been undertaken in both academia and by public institutions. During the last ten years, we have seen those efforts move to the private realm, with at least 52 private companies commercialising quantum technologies funded since 2012 and around $1.5 billion of investment into private companies since 2012, with just over half of this going into quantum computing companies. The quantum computing companies with the biggest amounts raised include PsiQuantum, a Bristol university spin-out which has raised $279 million to build a quantum computer using photonics, Rigetti (superconducting) a Silicon Valley based company which has raised around $190 million and IonQ (trapped ion), which has raised $85 million. Larger corporates have also invested heavily — Google, IBM and Honeywell all have made big bets in the space, with Google even claiming quantum supremacy in late 2019, performing a calculation in 200 seconds that Google estimated would take the world’s most powerful supercomputer 10,000 years (notably refuted by IBM in a blogpost here).
Despite the significant funding and flurry of papers, the amounts invested pale into comparison with AI, with AI start-ups in the US alone raising nearly $20 billion in 2019. Rewind to 2011 and the investment into AI was in the hundreds of millions, similar to where quantum is now. At Luminous, we see a similar trajectory for quantum technologies in the years to come and there are certainly a lot of parallels that can be drawn.
However, there is a significant challenge ahead: it is generally considered that universal quantum computers require a million qubits (hence the targets of Universal Quantum and PsiQuantum). Admittedly, quantum computers targeting more narrow tasks will not require that many qubits but, whichever way you look at, there is still a way to go since the highest number of qubits claimed by any quantum computing company is still less than 100 and that is even before any team has truly dealt with the stability and fidelity of those qubits.
Once quantum computers outperform classical computers, the market opportunity is significant. First, the market will be in industries with complicated simulation and optimisation requirements — life science, chemicals and energy distribution. This will trickle down to other areas. As with the development of supercomputing in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the hardware players will be the early winners and, where trapped ion becomes the architecture of choice (as we believe it will), then significant value will accrue to the early holders of IP and know-how in that field. Thereafter the operating systems and software will emerge but, given the exploratory stage of the space, the true place to start is the very heart of the problem itself: the hardware.
Our investment in Universal Quantum is a bold bet and we couldn’t be happier and prouder to be partnering with the stellar team and to be at the ringside for what will surely be the most exciting technological development in the next decade.
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