UK start-up PsiQ has recently relocated to California’s tech heartland of Silicon Valley in its attempts to bring a commercially viable quantum computer to market within 5 years. Led by Jeremy O’Brian, an Australian who was until recently director of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Quantum Photonics, PsiQ has come to the conclusion that a move over the pond is its best bet of realising that ambitious 5-year target. It is hoped that a Silicon Valley base will make raising capital easier for the company. Another PsiQ’s co-founders is Terry Rudolph, previously a professor at Imperial College London.
Hermann Hauser, one of the co-founders of the UK-based chip designer Arm, which was acquired by Japan’s Softbank in 2016 for $31 billion, was an early investor in PsiQ and commented for the Financial Times:
“The story is that the best of Britain is going to the US to scale up. They rightly concluded that they couldn’t access the capital in Europe so moved to the Valley.”
It is believed that quantum computers will have the power to change the world. A working quantum processor would be able to process data and find patterns unidentifiable by the human eye at exponentially faster speeds than today’s machine learning algorithms can do using current processor technology. That would also allow scientists to map the atomic and microscopic world. Fields that could be revolutionised include pharmaceuticals development, energy production, materials science and chemical engineering and even finance.
That’s possible because quantum processors maintain the ‘bits’ that all computing is based on, and has been since the very first computers, in both ‘0’ and ‘1’ states simultaneously. The tricky part is maintaining enough ‘qubits’ – quantum bits, in that status stability for long enough. It means maintaining a quantum processor at a temperature of minus 273 degrees Celsius, or 0.02 degrees away from absolute zero.
Prototypes of quantum computers have so far only managed to maintain very small numbers of qubits for very short periods of fractions of a second. That’s enough to show that quantum computers are theoretically possible and demonstrate their potential. But it makes producing commercially available quantum computers a monumental challenge.
The move across the Atlantic has drawn criticism from some quarters as contributing towards a UK brain drain, with the company taking some of the UK’s top quantum experts with it. However, PsiQ’s co-founders have an almost evangelical commitment to realising their goal. Mr O’Brian’s explained:
“Having had zero ambition to be entrepreneurs, start a company or move to Silicon Valley, we did all of those things because we felt a moral responsibility to bring this technology to bear.”
“This is nothing short of a necessary tool for humans to invent our future. The majority of our staff come from systems engineering, the semiconductor industry, photonics and so on. It’s called Silicon Valley for good reason. We are building a computer that will look similar to a regular computer so that’s the place to be.”