The UK task-force trying to get quantum computers out of labs

  • Quantum computing startups and academic organizations are teaming up to make quantum computing commercially-viable
  • The research program DISCOVERY will pool expertise to help overcome some of the biggest technological and logistical barriers the industry faces 

Quantum computers can process what’s impossible or difficult for today’s computers in seconds. With the industry advancing rapidly, the fields of finance, medical, automotive, and science will be able to leverage these systems to solve inextricable problems that classical computers are unable to. 

That could bring transformational potential to anything from aviation, mining to drug discovery, among a lot more.  

But when that potential might be tapped remains uncertain — there are currently some very high barriers to accessibility, cost, and technological advancement.

Quantum computers are vast and expensive machines that require perfectly-balanced environmental conditions. They’re powerful, but not reliable, and the slightest interference can lead to high error rates in quantum processing.  

In short, getting quantum computers out of labs is like staring up at Everest. 

So far, tech giants like IBM and Google have been locked in a race for quantum supremacy among more specialized firms like IonQ, Rigetti, and Honeywell. Making technology that’s commercially-viable is the goal — it’s nice to demonstrate the technology’s potential, but getting it used in the real-world is the ‘do or die’ endgame for all. 

Now, nine major organizations from the UK’s quantum computing industry have announced the launch of DISCOVERY — an industry-led quantum computing research program that aims to tackle quantum computing’s technology barriers on the path to commercialization. 

The £10 million (US$13 million) research program is part-funded by the UK Quantum Technologies Challenge, led by UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body of the UK government. 

DISCOVERY is being coordinated by Scotland-based M Squared, an international supplier of photonics and quantum systems, alongside a number of leading startups, established businesses, academic institutions, and research groups. 

The idea is to pool expertise across fields and approaches to quantum computing in order to navigate and overcome technical barriers. Other members include Oxford Ionics, ORCA Computing, Kelvin Nanotechnology, and TMD Technologies

According to a blog post by M Squared, there are three “promising approaches” to commercially-viable quantum computing: neural atom, ion trap, and optical qubits. 

“These approaches represent the state-of-the-art in demonstrated hardware; however, barriers to commercial deployment remain with the challenge of increasing both qubit fidelity and qubit scalability,” read the post. 

“The program will demonstrate a shift from fundamental, academic activity to scalable, commercial implementations.”

Another objective of DISCOVERY is to develop the wider UK’s wider quantum computing sector, and that means working out the nuts and bolts in hardware supply and plotting roadmaps for industrial deployment for these technologies. The combined experience of the members — “well-matched with commercial nous and in-depth market knowledge” — will be a boon, in this respect.  

“The DISCOVERY project will help the UK establish itself at the forefront of commercially viable photonics-enabled quantum-computing approaches,” said M Squared CEO and founder Dr. Graeme Malcolm OBE.

“The coming era of quantum technology will play a major, transformative role in both the economy and society alike. It is therefore critical that the UK leverages its expertise in science, research, and advanced industry to come together and make progress in commercial applications.”

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Belgium scales back coronavirus testing strategy as labs face crunch – POLITICO

Belgian officials are defending the decision Monday by the country’s nine regional health ministers to limit coronavirus testing just to people with symptoms, saying they have no other choice in light of labs getting overwhelmed.

Until now, anyone who was in close contact with a positive case or who had returned from a “red zone” abroad also had to get tested. But with cases skyrocketing, the health ministers decided to switch course to ease pressure on testing labs.

Virologist Steven Van Gucht, who advises the government on its coronavirus policy, described the new policy as “not ideal” in an interview with Belgian broadcaster VRT.

“But we can’t demand the impossible,” he added. “When the capacity is insufficient, we have to adapt and see what the next best thing is.”

Belgium’s national health minister, Frank Vandenbroucke, took a similar view Tuesday, saying that “you have to keep things feasible in this serious situation.”

Some critics are saying it’s the wrong move at the wrong time — especially for the country’s test-and-trace efforts.

The problem, said Rik Van de Walle, rector of the University of Ghent, is that the country’s test-and-trace strategy has “failed since the end of last week … [and it] will take at least a couple of weeks to set up a new strategy.”

But the decision was broadly seen as the best among worsening options.

Vandenbroucke warned on Sunday that the country is nearing a coronavirus “tsunami.” In the country of 11 million, there are on average 8.422 new infections per day. The number of patients in the hospitals has doubled since last week. And with testing labs under pressure, there are longer waiting periods before getting results. Almost six out of 10 people have to wait longer than a day, especially in Brussels and the southern part of Belgium.

For people who don’t have symptoms but are still deemed as “high risk” due to their travels or contacts still have to quarantine, with the period extended from 7 to 10 days. The new system is in place until November 15.

As in other EU countries, one reason that more cases are reported is that far more testing is being done than in the spring. Belgium has ramped up its testing capacity from 4,000 tests a day in March to around 60,000 to 65,000 tests a day in October. The country’s new coronavirus commissioner, Pedro Facon, said on Tuesday that daily testing capacity will be ramped up to 100,000 by the end of the year.  

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Coronavirus: Rival states targeted UK and US coronavirus labs with ‘malicious cyber campaigns’ | UK News

The UK and US have warned that state-backed cyber attackers are trying to steal data from universities, pharmaceuticals and research institutes involved in the coronavirus response.

Organisations trying to develop a COVID-19 vaccine are also among those being targeted.

A joint advisory published on Tuesday did not name any specific country involved in the “malicious cyber campaigns”, but culprits are understood to include China, Russia and Iran, as well as others.

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), a branch of GCHQ, and its US counterpart, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), urged workers in healthcare and medical research to change easy-to-guess passwords.

They also advised staff in these sectors to use two-factor authentication to help fend off what the agencies called “password spraying” campaigns, which hit a target with multiple common passwords in the hope that one will work.

Staff have been advised to strengthen their passwords

There is not thought to have been a successful attack on an institute in the UK, but Sky News understands attacks have had success elsewhere.

The significant rise in cyber attacks on research institutes and universities is thought to be in line with a shift in priorities of national governments in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Suddenly, access to information held by a rival nation’s laboratories is of top importance.

The US-UK warning said the “advanced persistent threat” (APT) groups carrying out the cyber attacks – typically state-backed hackers – were targeting medical research and healthcare organisations as well as local government “to collect bulk personal information, intellectual property and intelligence that aligns with national priorities”.

The NCSC has made protecting the UK health sector its top priority in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, according to Paul Chichester, the director of operations.

“By prioritising any requests for support from health organisations and remaining in close contact with industries involved in the coronavirus response, we can inform them of any malicious activity and take the necessary steps to help them defend against it,” he said.

“But we can’t do this alone, and we recommend healthcare policy makers and researchers take our actionable steps to defend themselves from password spraying campaigns.”

Security officials have identified targeting of national and international healthcare bodies, pharmaceutical companies, research organisations, and local government with the likely aim of gathering information related to the coronavirus outbreak, the joint US-UK statement said.

The warning followed a joint advisory from the NCSC and CISA last month about cyber criminals exploiting the coronavirus outbreak for their own personal gain.

They warned that the frequency of coronavirus-related cyber attacks will increase over the coming weeks and months.

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Last month, the NCSC created the Suspicious Email Reporting Service after seeing an increase in coronavirus-related email scams.

In its first week, the service received more than 25,000 reports – resulting in 395 phishing sites being taken down.

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