Winter Talk with Ilyas Khan
For all our rich heritage, C. Hoare & Co. is a determinedly forward-looking institution. It was a great pleasure, therefore, to welcome Ilyas Khan, CEO and founder of Cambridge Quantum Computing, as speaker on 3rd February for our virtual Winter Talk, Quantum Computing; Reviewing the Landscape of an Emerging Reality.
In conversation with Alexander Hoare and Rennie Hoare, Ilyas, who is currently Leader in Residence at Cambridge Judge Business School, shared his views on the potential of quantum computing to transform disciplines such as drug development, cybersecurity, carbon sequestration and financial modelling.
‘A quantum computer shifts the boundaries of what can and can’t be done in a very specific way,’ he explained. ‘The computers we have today are contrived instruments; they were conceived by people like Alan Turing and they use first-order logic, i.e. logic invented by human beings. A quantum computer, on the other hand, utilises the laws of nature.’
‘The world we live in has certain rules,’ he went on, ‘If I take an object and drop it, it’s going to fall: these are Newtonian mechanics and they are rules that we understand. However, a quantum mechanical world is one where we’re dealing with fundamental particles at an atomic, or subatomic, level. And it turned out – around 200 years ago – that the rules of nature are different at the atomic level; gravity doesn’t work there, logic doesn’t work there. When you get smaller and smaller and smaller, the rules change. A quantum computer will generate a qubit [the basic unit of quantum information] which is thousands of times smaller than an atom. So it’s not just a question of quantum computers being faster – although they do happen to be faster – they’re different; they bring into play stuff which has been intractable until now, solving questions that would take billions of years of traditional computing.’
While quantum computing has been on the horizon for some 40 years, it is now a practical reality:
‘In the last six or seven months, large global organisations have started allocating capital to using these machines. It’s a small sliver of society, perhaps 100 organisations around the world, but this adoption rate is significant when you consider that in 1995 nobody ever heard of Google or Amazon. I think we will see that kind of development in quantum computing, but far more accelerated.’
In geopolitical terms, misgivings about China’s declared supremacy in the field of quantum computing are, in Ilyas’ view, overplayed:
‘The lead that China has been advertising is definitely a lead, but the UK is not far behind. In fact, I would say that, on an all-round basis we’re just as advanced right now. China, the US, Germany and UK are the leading nation states with big comprehensive quantum-computing programmes. Here in the UK we’ve had a very integrated approach and for nine years we have had a tertiary education system that has been training quantum-information theorists. So I’d say we have a fair shot at being the leaders in this next industrial revolution.’
Dystopian visions of sentient computers taking over the world are equally unhelpful:
‘The artificial intelligence we have now is scratching around with an abacus,’ said Ilyas. ‘The real artificial intelligence, the capability to discern pattern where only chaos exists, becomes a reality with scalable computers and there will be good and bad uses. But I still think we will be masters of machines and not the other way around.’
Following wide-ranging discussion of questions raised by our virtual audience, Ilyas pointed out that, as ever, real power will reside in knowledge:
‘A tiny fraction of the world’s population knows how to use quantum computers. But what, in the 1960s and 1970s was the domain of a PhD in computer programming is today the domain of my children. As founding chair of the Stephen Hawking Foundation I got to know Stephen very well – he’s the reason Cambridge Quantum Computing exists – and people like Stephen thought that quantum computers would allow us to understand the nature of reality, that there would be the capacity for human beings to use 90% or 100% of our brains. Now when that happens, everything shifts. It may be 5 years, 10 years or 100 years along the line – I don’t know. But that’s the journey we’re on now.’