A small manufacturer of laser technology based out of Glasgow is carving out a niche for itself at the forefront of the quantum computing boom.

Traditional laser companies, like Silicon Valley giants Coherent and Toptica, have their hands full with the vast materials processing and manufacturing market for smartphones and computers, allowing M Squared to focus on edge applications like medical research, chemical detection and quantum computing.

An M Squared atom interferometer
An M Squared atom interferometer

Dr Graeme Malcolm, CEO and founder of M Squared explained to Techworld that the company was founded with the intention of looking at “some new themes for where lasers, photonics and quantum technologies would all become important”.

The chipmaker of quantum computing

M Squared was already selling lasers to many of the labs working on quantum computing, but it wasn’t until three years ago that he started to see the potential for the technology to really take off, when he saw the progress being made in the field at institutions like MIT, Harvard and the National Institute of Standards Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg. Fast forward to 2017 and computing giants like Google and Microsoft are starting to take this area seriously.

First though, let’s take a step back and look at how quantum computing works, and why lasers are required at all.

First, imagine an atom at room temperature shaking around in different directions. What M Squared does is take three pairs of laser beams at different directions to hold the atom in place. The force of the super-pure light uses recoil energy to slow the atom down, cooling it to a millikelvin in temperature, colder than the temperature of deep space.

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Once the atom is cool it becomes easier to manipulate the behaviour of the particle and it becomes what Malcolm calls “a very pure quantum particle”, or what is known in quantum computing as a qubit, the quantum equivalent of a traditional computer bit. In short “we can now cool the atoms and hold them in arrays where they can become the qubits for quantum computing”, he said.

It is at this point that researchers can start to perform some of “the tricks that [Albert] Einstein and [Werner] Heisenberg were able to do the theory of 100 years ago”, he said.

Scaling quantum computing

The problem in the past has been scaling these arrays beyond small strings of qubits, which limits the amount of information processing that can be done.

This is where it gets a bit technical. Malcolm explained that “once you have more than one qubit you can create this state called an entanglement where this photon or that photon can be entangled together. So they can become qubits that are zeros and ones and every state in-between zeros and ones.” This opens each qubit up to store an unprecedented amount of information because it isn’t limited by binary logic.

Existing quantum computers like the commercially available D-Wave 200Q claims to consist of a lattice of 2000 qubits. Malcolm says that existing players in the market have struggled to maintain entanglement beyond six qubits though, "so they do lots of little fragments of quantum computing and amalgamate them together, which isn't a scalable quantum computer".

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M Squared instead is looking to create a more "universal, scalable quantum computer". Malcolm says it has already provided lasers to the University of Innsbruck in Austria, which has allowed researchers to entangle 50 qubits together in a string, the tipping point where quantum overtakes a traditional supercomputer.

Researchers at the university use what they call bra–ket notation to apply quantum algorithms to the system for scientific use cases like researching the quantum qualities of hydrogen bonds and computation-heavy genetics research.

Precision time

Another piece of work M Squared is applying its expertise is in what Malcolm calls “precision time”.

By lining up the cooled atoms into a lattice “each atom will interact with its neighbour in a well-controlled manner”, he says. By making this lattice vibrate in a controlled environment you can start to develop an extremely accurate measure of time.

For example, one M Squared customer, the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado has used laser technology to develop an optical-lattice clock which “is accurate to one second in a million, million, million seconds. Which is longer than the entire lifetime of the universe to date. So they have built a clock that wouldn’t have lost a second of time since the start of the universe,” Malcom explained.

This sort of precise timekeeping will prove useful to the financial services industry as it looks for more accurate timestamps for regulatory audits on markets where high-frequency traders are increasingly at play. It is also important for the development of blockchain technology as the audit clock needs to be accurate to ensure the system is as immutable as promised.

What next?

M Squared wants to help super charge the development of quantum computing and become the backbone to the development of the technology by producing the ion ‘traps’ required to manipulate atoms in a way that allows users to control the system.

“At a certain point we start to pair lasers up and fine tune the relationship to enable some of these complex multi-qubit systems and putting a control layer over the top,” Malcolm explained.

In practice this looks like a computer chip which has ions lined up along it. This is held in a ‘trap’ — or even lots of micro traps — where lasers on the top and bottom of the unit hold rows of ions in place. This makes the traps 2-3 millimetres in height, instead of around one millimetre in a traditional silicon computer chip.

Malcolm believes that they can keep scaling these down though as “we keep moving the miniaturisation of the laser technology forward”. In terms of price M Squared lasers certainly haven’t scaled down to the silicon chip level yet either, with each laser starting at around £50,000.

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Instead of just being usable by a handful of scientific researchers, companies like M Square and D-Wave want to democratise quantum computing in the future. The difference is, M Squared just wants to provide the infrastructure, it doesn’t want to solve the memory or coding problems the rest of the industry is grappling with, or build the hardware or software to use it.

In theory this could position the Glasgow-based company of around 75 people to become the Intel of the quantum computing boom. Now all it needs is the big bang.