What is the Orca PT-1 computer and how does quantum computing work?

UK defence ministry signs deal with Orca Computing, aiming to scale up technology

The demonstration model quantum computer on a scale of 1:1 from the year 2020 displayed in the Future Museum in Munich. Getty
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Britain's Ministry of Defence said on Thursday it will work with UK tech firm Orca Computing to investigate the scope to apply quantum technology in defence.

Here, The National explains what quantum computing is and why the UK MoD has agreed to work with Orca.

What is quantum computing?

The pioneer of quantum computing was Paul Benioff of Argonne National Labs, who in 1984 theorised the possibility of designing a computer based exclusively on quantum theory.

In the most simple of terms, quantum computing is extremely high-performance computing — so high performing it has the potential revolutionise global industry.

Normal computers process data in bits which have a binary value of zero or one. Quantum computers, by contrast, can process digits simultaneously using a two-state unit called a qubit.

This means that quantum computers have far greater processing power than their regular counterparts.

How much does a quantum computer cost?

This extra processing power comes at a heady cost. Quantum computing firm SEECQ says "a single qubit costs around $10,000 and needs to be supported by a host of microwave controller electronics, coaxial cabling and other materials that require large controlled rooms in order to function".

It estimates that in terms of pure hardware, "a useful quantum computer costs tens of billions of dollars to build".

Who is Orca Computing and what is the Orca computer?

Orca Computing is a 2-year-old UK company that is seeking to scale and integrate quantum computers with real-world technology.

This is a challenge, as qubits must be kept at extremely old temperatures or they will become unstable.

However, Orca says it has found an alternative to conventional quantum computing whereby its software allows small-scale photonic processors to use single units of light to power the process at room temperature.

Investors have been persuaded by Orca's Series A funding round, raising $15 million and attracting investment from the likes of Octopus Ventures, Oxford Science Enterprises, Quantonation and Verve Ventures.

Why has the MoD teamed up with Orca Computing?

The UK's MoD is also seemingly persuaded by Orca's proposition, having agreed to work in concert with the firm to develop future data-processing capabilities, using Orca's small PT-1 quantum computer.

"Our partnership with MoD gives us the type of hands-on, close interaction, working with real hardware which will help us to jointly discover new applications of this revolutionary new technology," said Richard Murray, chief executive of Orca Computing.

Stephen Till, of the MoD's science and technology lab, said access to the PT-1 would accelerate his ministry's understanding of the technology.

"We expect the Orca system to provide significantly improved latency — the speed at which we can read and write to the quantum computer," he said.

Updated: June 09, 2022, 4:04 PM