The power of quantum technology could yet be felt across diverse sectors © Getty Images/iStockphoto

A Cambridge university spinout has completed a successful trial of a quantum “universal operating system” months after receiving a grant to install it across the UK’s quantum computers.

Officials are hopeful that the Deltaflow.OS, created by Riverlane, a quantum software company, and tested in partnership with Oxford Ionics, could open up a quantum software market and establish the UK’s standing in the technology by creating a single system that can be used across a range of quantum computers.

“We have solved a really important problem in quantum computing: how hardware and software interact whilst teasing the highest possible performance out of a quantum computer,” said Riverlane chief executive Steve Brierley.

In May, the government awarded a £7.6m grant to a Riverlane-led consortium to deploy a new operating system for quantum computing, a technology that relies on the behaviour of subatomic particles, across the UK’s quantum computers. While classical computers contain binary bits which represent either zeros or ones, quantum bits — or qubits — can be both at the same time, opening up the possibility of performing millions of calculations instantly.

While the technology has long been discussed, significant developments have been made over the past year. Last September, Google claimed to have reached “quantum supremacy” — a state in which a quantum computer can carry out calculations much faster than even today’s most powerful supercomputers.

But to date, creating a wider commercial ecosystem has proven a challenge. One reason is that most commercial options use bespoke operating systems, which are not transferable to other kinds of quantum hardware or external labs, locking software developers into developing applications for a single type of quantum computer.

Christopher Ballance, chief scientist and co-founder of quantum hardware company Oxford Ionics, also said that many current “full-stack” quantum computers, fully designed by a single company, were opaque “black boxes” for external users. “That’s fine for simple programs but as soon as you start developing more complicated ones, you want to know what’s inside,” he added.

“What we’ve managed to demonstrate is that our operating system can talk to quantum hardware and that it is portable across different technologies,” said Leonie Mueck, chief product officer at Riverlane.

Potential use cases for the new operating system include in quantum finance and quantum chemistry, which make use of “hybrid” algorithms combining quantum and classical computing. “You need a quick feedback loop with these systems to correct any errors,” she said.

Mr Ballance said the universal nature of Deltaflow also meant that software developers would be able to write applications for different types of quantum hardware, which would open up the quantum space to greater competition. “In the history of computers, it’s when this competitive ecosystem opened up that revenue started pouring in,” he said.

“It’s a technical breakthrough but there’s also an enormous commercial breakthrough,” added Roger McKinlay, challenge director for quantum technologies at UK Research and Innovation.

“We need to define the interface between software and hardware, and we cannot leave it to the big players,” said Ms Mueck. “The UK is in a strong position to take a lead on standardising this space.”

The power of quantum technology could yet be felt across diverse sectors, including cryptography, chemicals and pharmaceutical discovery, according to a 2018 report by the Boston Consulting Group.

FT Weekend Digital Festival

Join the FT for 3 days of digital debate and entertainment, and your ultimate guide to our changed new world

Get alerts on Quantum technologies when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article