What’s very small but set to be very big? Quantum technology, according to the UK government, which took the decision in June to reinvest in a scheme designed to move the science beyond academia and research laboratories and into commercial and practical use.
Some £1bn has already been invested in the UK’s National Quantum Technologies Programme, which was set up in 2013. The government recently announced a further £153m of funding through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (which aims to ensure that 2.4 per cent of GDP is invested in R&D by 2027) plus £200m of investment from the private sector.
This means spending by industry is outstripping government investment for the first time, a good indication that the technology has stepped beyond an initial, broadly speculative stage. "Quantum is no longer an experimental science for the UK," says former science minister Chris Skidmore. "Investment by government and businesses is paying off as we become one of the world’s leading nations for quantum science and technologies."
Whereas "classical" computers are based on a structure of binary choices – yes or no; on or off – quantum computing is a lot more complicated. Classical chips rely on whether or not an electron is conducted from one atom to another around a circuit, but super-cooled quantum chips allow us to interface with the world at a much deeper level, taking into account properties such as superposition, entanglement or interference.
Confused? Think of a simple coin toss. Rather than being able to simply call heads or tails, superposition allows us to take into account when a coin spins, while entanglement is whether its properties are intrinsically linked with those of another coin.
To help harness this new potential in different areas, the government’s programme works across four hubs: sensing and timing; imaging; computing and simulation; and communications.
One of the key advances that quantum computing is expected to bring is not just substantially greater processing speed but the ability to mimic and, therefore, understand and predict the ways that nature works.
For example, this could allow us to look directly inside the human body, see through smoke or mist, develop new drugs much more quickly and reliably by reviewing the effect on many molecules at the same time, or even make our traffic run smoothly. Meanwhile, the Met Office has already invested in this technology to improve weather forecasting.
Image: IBM Q System One quantum computer, photo by Misha Friedman/Getty Images