What is a quantum computer? Price, how does quantum computing work, and why has UK MoD got one - explained

Quantum computers use the principles of quantum physics to carry out complex calculations

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The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has announced they have bought their first quantum computer.

Quantum computers solve complex calculations quicker than regular computers, with their creators saying they can tackle problems even supercomputers cannot handle.

The purchase was hailed a “milestone moment” by Stepehen Till, from the MoD Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL).

The MoD will work alongside British company Orca Computing to explore how the quantum computer can assist with UK defence.

Here’s everything you need to know about what a quantum computer is and how much it costs.

What is a quantum computer?

A quantum computer is a computer that uses the principles of quantum physics to store data and make complex calculations.

The D-Wave Systems Advantage quantum computer in Julich Germany (Pic: Getty Images)The D-Wave Systems Advantage quantum computer in Julich Germany (Pic: Getty Images)
The D-Wave Systems Advantage quantum computer in Julich Germany (Pic: Getty Images)

They work completely differently than your laptop or mobile phone and are even more superior than supercomputers.

What makes them so unique is their ability to undertake calculations with large amounts of data using the process of superposition.

Quantum computers are highly sensitive and things such as heat or electromagnetic fields can cause the system to crash.

How much does a quantum computer cost?

Whilst Orca have not announced how much their quantum computer costs, it is expected to be in the tens of millions.

In 2017, the German D-Wave quantum computer had a price tag of $15 million.

Speaking about the collaboration, Chief Executive of Orca Richard Murray, said the MoD’s purchase is a “significant vote of confidence”.

Adding: “Our partnership with the MoD gives us hands-on close interaction; and working with real hardware will help us to jointly discover new applications of this revolutionary new technology.”

How does a quantum computer work?

A quantum computer uses quantum physics to help bridge the gap between binary numbers.

Normal computers use binary numbers that can be in either 0 or 1, whereas quantum computers use memory called qubits, which allow for different digit arrangements that can occur at the same time.

This process is known as quantum superposition.

Orca’s quantum computer system also uses photons, or single units of light for tasks like image analysis and decision-making.

The MoD has said that having the quantum computer will help them understand the latest technology.

Why has the Ministry of Defence got one?

The MoD has purchased a quantum computer to help them understand how its processes can help the UK.

The deal has been called a “milestone moment” by Stepehen Till, who works at the DSTL.

He explained: “Accessing our own quantum computing hardware will not only accelerate our understanding of quantum computing, but the computer’s room-temperature operation will also give us the flexibility to use it in different locations for different requirements.”

However, there is still a lot to learn about quantum computers.

Speaking to the BBC, Professor Winfried Hensinger, head of the Sussex Centre for Quantum Technologies at University of Sussex, explained its full potential would take time to materialise.

He explained: “They can’t actually solve any practical problems yet. They’re enabling you to maybe gauge the possibilities of what working on a quantum computer would have if you can scale this machine to really large system sizes.”

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