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Riverlane building operating system for quantum computers

CEO Dr Steve Brierley at Riverlane, St Andrew's House, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
CEO Dr Steve Brierley at Riverlane, St Andrew's House, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Anyone thinking that computing power has reached some sort of peak hasn’t heard of quantum computing.

That may be because only 50 have been built, and they’re all different, so there’s no software compatibility - not even a harmonised programming language - for the quantum era. In fact it’s not even certain there will be a quantum era, though that will change if Cambridge-based Riverlane has anything to do with it.

“It’s quite difficult because if you write software for one quantum computer it won’t work on any other,” explains CEO Steve Brierley, “so we’re currently developing an operating system, which we expect to be complete within 18 months – as an initial product. The challenge in the sector is what is the best way to build a quantum computer and this operating system will remove the uncertainty.”

Riverlane’s quantum operating system is being developed using expertise from the physics, chemistry, computer science and mathematics sectors. Using a quantum computer based at Oxford Quantum Circuits, Riverlane is also identifying new materials and industrial processes.

The quantum computer at Oxford Quantum Circuits
The quantum computer at Oxford Quantum Circuits

“There’s only 50 quantum computers currently around, and it’s likely to remain a limited number,” says Dr Brierley. “Quantum computers are very good at certain things: you won’t see one on your phone any time soon, though it might be used to make the chips on the phone run faster.

“It costs several million pounds to buy the components to build a quantum computer and you have to get the staff – there’s very few people who know how to build one. We work with companies that already use computational modelling in design, for instance Merck, which has a performance materials division which includes everything from lip gloss to organic LEDs in a TV.”

Dr Brierley has spent the last 10 years researching algorithms and architectures for quantum computers, most recently as a senior research fellow in applied mathematics at the University of Cambridge.

“I jumped in 2017,” he says. “I couldn’t do both jobs well and I wanted to do this 100 per cent.”

The quantum era of computers began with Richard Feynman’s 1981 ‘Simulating Physics with Computers’ lecture, where the quantum field theorist considered why physicists need computers, and what they require of these devices. Since the theoretical groundwork was laid, there has been progress for both quantum hardware and software.

“Richard Feynman was talking about the difficulty of modelling physics at the quantum level to solve the Schrödinger equation [which describes the wave or state function of a quantum-mechanical system],” says Dr Brierley. “In the time I’ve been working on quantum computing there have been two big trends: the hardware has developed as Moore’s law states, so processing power is twice as good every 18 months and at the same time the system requirements are reducing, which means quicker run-time.

“The hardware is getting better and the software is getting better at the same time, and the two curves meet, so it’s closing the gap between the size of computer we need and the size we have.”

The Merck association shows how useful quantum computing can be in the age of data. Traditional computers are based on ‘bits’, which have a value of one or zero. But with quantum computing, the qubit (quantum bit) can be both one and zero simultaneously, which allows multiple calculations to be performed at the same time.

“It’s not easy to develop quantum algorithms exploiting this power, though,” notes Dr Brierley. “Finding these new algorithms is one of Riverlane’s specialities.”

By bringing the discovery of materials and drugs into a new computational era, Riverlane is developing two early-use cases for its software: the design of new batteries and new drugs.

“Chemistry is a bit of a dirty word but chemistry in everywhere, it makes things sparkle and batteries function,” says Dr Brierley. “New materials and industrial processes design involves a lot of lab work.

“Production takes place in a laboratory, it takes years to test different compounds, and we want to replace the lab work with quantum computing – the hit rate is much higher, but it’s still ultimately tested in the lab. We would say: ‘Here’s how this chemical is currently produced, and look particularly at the reaction pathway and maybe there’s a different way to produce it’. If we can do that it would have a huge impact.

“Merck spends billions a year [$10bn in 2018] on R&D. We know we can make a difference, though there’s no certainty.”

Dr Steve Brierley (centre) with some of the Riverlane team. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Steve Brierley (centre) with some of the Riverlane team. Picture: Keith Heppell

Then there’s life sciences.

“Drug discovery is also a very exciting area for us,” Dr Brierley says. “We work with a Cambridge life science client to understand metallo-enzymes, so that helps the search for new antibiotics. Some bacteria are becoming very good at breaking up antibiotics of last resort, which is a huge problem. Quantum computing can model the mechanism of how metallo-enzymes produced by bacteria operate.”

“The partnership with Oxford Quantum Computing and Riverlane demonstrates the physical performance of Riverlane’s algorithm - alpha-VQE - running on Oxford Quantum Computing’s quantum computer,” says Ilana Wisby, CEO at Oxford Quantum Computing. “The project is being delivered in collaboration with Oxford University.”

In the area of quantum advantages, Riverlane has an edge. And a plan. And - by the way - a conference.

“We’re working with software to run on a quantum computer and targeting not the current generation but the next one or two generations beyond that – that’s where the hardware will perform far beyond traditional approaches,” Dr Brierley concludes.

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