Riverlane building operating system for quantum computers
11 Feb 2020

Steve Camb Ind

CEO Dr Steve Brierley at Riverlane, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Anyone thinking that computing power has reached some sort of peak hasn’t heard of quantum computing.

That may be because only 50 have been built, and they’re all different, so there’s no software compatibility - not even a harmonised programming language - for the quantum era. In fact it’s not even certain there will be a quantum era, though that will change if Cambridge-based Riverlane has anything to do with it.

“It’s quite difficult because if you write software for one quantum computer it won’t work on any other,” explains CEO Steve Brierley, “so we’re currently developing an operating system, which we expect to be complete within 18 months – as an initial product. The challenge in the sector is what is the best way to build a quantum computer and this operating system will remove the uncertainty.”

Riverlane’s quantum operating system is being developed using expertise from the physics, chemistry, computer science and mathematics sectors. Using a quantum computer based at Oxford Quantum Circuits, Riverlane is also identifying new materials and industrial processes.


The quantum computer at Oxford Quantum Circuits

“There’s only 50 quantum computers currently around, and it’s likely to remain a limited number,” says Dr Brierley. “Quantum computers are very good at certain things: you won’t see one on your phone any time soon, though it might be used to make the chips on the phone run faster.

“It’s not easy to develop quantum algorithms exploiting this power, though,” notes Dr Brierley. “Finding these new algorithms is one of Riverlane’s specialities.”

By bringing the discovery of materials and drugs into a new computational era, Riverlane is developing two early-use cases for its software: the design of new batteries and new drugs.

“Production takes place in a laboratory, it takes years to test different compounds, and we want to replace the lab work with quantum computing – the hit rate is much higher, but it’s still ultimately tested in the lab. We would say: ‘Here’s how this chemical is currently produced, and look particularly at the reaction pathway and maybe there’s a different way to produce it’. If we can do that it would have a huge impact.

Then there’s life sciences.

“Drug discovery is also a very exciting area for us,” Dr Brierley says. “We work with a Cambridge life science client to understand metallo-enzymes, so that helps the search for new antibiotics. Some bacteria are becoming very good at breaking up antibiotics of last resort, which is a huge problem. Quantum computing can model the mechanism of how metallo-enzymes produced by bacteria operate.”

“The partnership with Oxford Quantum Computing and Riverlane demonstrates the physical performance of Riverlane’s algorithm - alpha-VQE - running on Oxford Quantum Computing’s quantum computer,” says Ilana Wisby, CEO at Oxford Quantum Computing. “The project is being delivered in collaboration with Oxford University.”

In the area of quantum advantages, Riverlane has an edge. And a plan. And - by the way - a conference.

“We’re working with software to run on a quantum computer and targeting not the current generation but the next one or two generations beyond that – that’s where the hardware will perform far beyond traditional approaches,” Dr Brierley concludes.

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