Ministry of Defence acquires government's first quantum computer

The future of British warfare? Ministry of Defence acquires government’s first quantum computer that could be used on the battlefield to help guide military tactics

  • The Ministry of Defence has started to develop a powerful quantum computer 
  • Could be deployed to battlefield in armoured vehicle to guide military tactics
  • Quantum computers can make very complex calculations extremely quickly
  • MoD will work with British company Orca Computing in a ‘milestone moment’ 

The Ministry of Defence has acquired the government’s first quantum computer – a powerful machine which could be used on the battlefield to help guide military tactics.

Quantum computers are able to rapidly make highly complex calculations that cannot be done by regular computers.

In what has been called a ‘milestone moment’, the MoD will work with London-based firm Orca Computing on applying the computers to defence applications. 

Officials say these could range from aiding a platoon in active combat to helping military scientists explore the effects of new toxins on the human body.

A quantum system could also analyse images and other data gathered from the battlefield, as well as being asked to assess the enemy’s likely next move and potentially advise on a best response. 

The Ministry of Defence has acquired the government’s first quantum computer – a powerful machine which could be used on the battlefield to help guide military tactics 

HOW COULD THE QUANTUM COMPUTER BE USED BY THE MOD?

The MoD will work with London-based firm Orca Computing on applying the computers to defence applications. 

Officials say these could range from aiding a platoon in active combat to helping military scientists explore the effects of new toxins on the human body.

A quantum system could also analyse images and other data gathered from the battlefield, as well as being asked to assess the enemy’s likely next move and potentially advise on a best response.

The heart of modern computing is binary code, which has served computers for decades.

Most computers found in homes and offices process data in bits, which have a binary value of either zero or one, whereas a quantum computer has ‘qubits’ which can take on the value of zero or one, or even both simultaneously. 

This process, known as superposition, allows quantum computers to bridge binary digits and cope with uncertainty where ordinary computers cannot. 

Experts say it means that the problems combed over by average computers for years could be solved in a matter of minutes.

Stephen Till, of the MoD’s Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL), told the Times the aim was to build a quantum computer robust enough to travel in an armoured vehicle. 

‘A particular interest we have in Orca is that their systems are compact. They don’t require cryogenics; they’re not overly power hungry,’ he said.

‘You can imagine deploying one in a military vehicle on a muddy battlefield somewhere.’ 

Orca chief executive Richard Murray said that a system could be operational within two to four years.

He added: ‘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.’

Professor Winfried Hensinger, head of the Sussex Centre for Quantum Technologies at University of Sussex, told the BBC that the true potential of quantum computers will take time to fully materialise.

He said they ‘can’t actually solve any any practical problems yet’, but added: ‘You can imagine that within defence, there’s a lot of problems where optimisation can play a huge and very important role.’ 

The MoD will work with Orca’s small PT-1 quantum computer, which the company says is the first of its kind to be able to operate at room temperature, rather than requiring ultra-low cryogenic temperatures to keep heat-sensitive qubits cool. 

It is made up of five black boxes, each roughly the size of a briefcase, which are mounted on a rack.

The system uses photons, or single units of light, to optimise machine learning tasks like image analysis and decision-making.

Mr Till said having access to the quantum computer made by Orca – a start-up with roots at the University of Oxford – would accelerate the MoD’s understanding of quantum technology

DSTL is part of the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, a £1 billion effort to commercialise advances in quantum mechanics.

QUANTUM COMPUTING: OPERATING ON THE BASIS OF A CIRCUIT BEING ON AND OFF AT THE SAME TIME

The key to a quantum computer is its ability to operate on the basis of a circuit not only being ‘on’ or ‘off’, but occupying a state that is both ‘on’ and ‘off’ at the same time.

While this may seem strange, it’s down to the laws of quantum mechanics, which govern the behaviour of the particles which make up an atom.

At this micro scale, matter acts in ways that would be impossible at the macro scale of the universe we live in.

Quantum mechanics allows these extremely small particles to exist in multiple states, known as ‘superposition’, until they are either seen or interfered with.

A scanning tunneling microscope shows a quantum bit from a phosphorus atom precisely positioned in silicon. Scientists have discovered how to make the qubits ‘talk to one another

A good analogy is that of a coin spinning in the air. It cannot be said to be either a ‘heads’ or ‘tails’ until it lands.

The heart of modern computing is binary code, which has served computers for decades.

While a classical computer has ‘bits’ made up of zeros and ones, a quantum computer has ‘qubits’ which can take on the value of zero or one, or even both simultaneously.   

One of the major stumbling blocks for the development of quantum computers has been demonstrating they can beat classical computers.

Google, IBM, and Intel are among companies competing to achieve this.

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