The Ministry of Defence has reportedly acquired the British government’s first quantum computer.
Unlike your regular old Dell or HP, a quantum computer is able to rapidly make highly complex calculations in the blink of an eye.
According to reports, the ministry will work with London-based firm Orca Computing on applying the computers to ‘defence applications’.
The use of quantum computing for the UK government marked a ‘milestone moment’, according to Stephen Till of the ministry’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DTSL).
Most computers process data in bits, which have a binary value of either zero or one, whereas quantum computers use a two-state unit for data processing called a qubit.
The only trouble is that quantum computers are a little too advanced at this point – there’s not a whole lot they can actually do yet.
But that’s likely to change as the future catches up with them.
Prof Winfried Hensinger, head of the Sussex Centre for Quantum Technologies at University of Sussex, told the BBC the true potential of quantum computers will take time to fully materialise.
‘They can’t actually solve any any practical problems yet,’ he said.
‘They’re enabling you to maybe gauge the possibilities of what working on a quantum computer would have if you can scale this machine to really large system sizes.’
What is a quantum computer and how does it work?
At its most basic level, a quantum computer is able to process information as more than just one of two states.
For a regular, non-quantum computer, everything boils down to ‘bits’ – or a binary option of either 1 or 0. A quantum computer, on the other hand, boils down to something called ‘qubits’. These are smaller than bits because they themselves can store two pieces of information.
Quantum relies on the quantum property of ‘superposition’. It’s best explained as a computing version of Schrödinger’s cat:
- A qubit can be both ‘on’ or ‘off’ but also any variant or position in-between. If observed, it will only be one of these states but when not being watched, it could be every possibility available to it.
- In practice, this means 8 bits would have 256 combinations but only one can be used at any one time.
- Eight qubits would hold all 256 combinations at once. Every time you add a qubit to a quantum computer, you double the information capacity. This process is exponential. So if you have ten qubits you can store 1,024 pieces of information.
When computing large amounts of data, this becomes pretty handy.
Let’s say, hypothetically, you wanted to use a computer to map out the chemical compound of your morning cup of coffee. There’s going to be the different molecules involved in the steamy beverage (caffeine, polyphenol, chlorogenic acids to name a few – coffee has over 1,000 aroma compounds alone) each with their own unique properties.
A regular dusty laptop would take an age to figure out all the different information and lay it out for you.
A quantum computer would do all of that in a split second and still be able to list all the different ways those molecules behave when they’re introduced different stimulants – like temperature or a dash of milk.
What’s more, it would be impossible for anyone using a regular laptop to intercept the information as it’s being processed and transmitted by the quantum computer.
Richard Murray, chief executive of Orca Computing, said the company’s work with the MoD is a ‘significant vote of confidence’.
‘Our partnership with MoD gives us the type of hands-on close interaction, working with real hardware which will help us to jointly discover new applications of this revolutionary new technology.’