Apr 27, 2021 - Technology

Exclusive: Air Force research taps quantum computing

Illustration of a computer floating above a space/time grid

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

U.S. Air Force researchers are partnering with a quantum computing company to use its machine learning algorithms, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Quantum is the next generation of computing, and its growing adoption by the military shows the progress of the technology as it gradually moves out of the lab and into the real world.

Driving the news: Later this morning the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) — its technological development wing — will announce a partnership with the quantum computing software company QC Ware to harness its algorithms to better surveil unmanned aircraft.

  • QC Ware will design and deliver quantum algorithms that are capable of clustering and classifying the flight plans of objects many times faster than the classical machine learning algorithms that are currently used for the job.
  • Using currently available quantum computing hardware, the algorithms will be tested with real-life data, with the aim of determining how many qubits — the basic unit of quantum computing power — are needed for the system to run accurately, as well as the maximum allowable error rate of the calculations.

What they're saying: "The question is, if you have a number of data points, like satellite images or flight paths, can you group them together so that you can assign some sort of meaning to all the signals you have out there?" says Iordanis Kerenidis, head of quantum algorithms at QC Ware.

  • "We think this can be a demonstration of a real quantum advantage."

Details: Part of that advantage is quantum computing's theoretical ability to simulate reality more accurately than its classical counterparts.

  • Real-world experiments like this one will help put that theory to the test, while exploring the outer limits of current quantum computing hardware.

Context: "The Air Force is famous for deploying technologies throughout our history that have really made a difference," says Michael Hayduk, deputy director at the AFRL's information directorate.

  • But with competitors like China investing heavily in quantum computing, he adds, "we really have to take a whole of nation approach to the technology," which includes partnering with private companies like QC Ware.

The bottom line: Even some experts believe there has been more hype than reality to quantum computing so far, which makes real-world experiments like this one all the more necessary.

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