Defence Science and Technology Laboratory
Keeping people safe by harnessing quantum computing
Fast and accurate decision-making is crucial to making the best use of resources within defence and security, and ultimately, keeping people safe. And while humans are an essential part of the decision-making process, scenarios are becoming increasingly complex for humans alone in a fast-paced world.
The UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), has a mission to advance UK capability through the development and application of novel or innovative science and technology. Our team has been working with Dstl and the wider Ministry of Defence (MOD) for many years on a range of new technologies to build understanding of its operational challenges.
Our prior experience in operational analysis, the mathematics of decision-making, applied physics and quantum computing techniques has allowed us to identify the opportunity for a new approach to using machines to support human decision-making. The solutions we proposed were rooted in a hybrid of classical and quantum computing techniques transferred from our experts in the financial sector and applied to defence-related challenges.
Funded through the MOD’s Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) – the government organisation that finds and funds exploitable innovation for a safer future – together we created prototype tools to help make better decisions, faster while keeping the essential elements of human decision-making. Future evolutions of these tools are expected to play a key role in improving many decision-making processes across the MOD, lowering risk, optimising resources and, ultimately, keeping people safer. This work also helps position the UK at the forefront of practical quantum algorithm development.
- Applied advanced quantum principles to the challenge of making operational decisions better, faster, and with more human impact.
- Created real-world demonstrations of the potential for today’s quantum computing to address today’s military operational challenges.
- Improved the quality of decision-making by providing a tool enabling people to rapidly explore the trade-offs involved in decision-making.
Enabling faster operational decisions in a complex environment
As the science arm of the MOD, Dstl’s role is to help the MOD apply science and technology innovation to strengthen the nation’s defence and security. Dstl is alert to the need for improving the quality and speed of decision-making in an ever more complex operating environment, and so it needs ideas on how disruptive technologies could provide solutions.
Quantum technology is a fast-maturing field of mathematics, physics and engineering. One branch, quantum computing, enables agile decision-making by identifying an optimum course of action by trialling all scenarios and outcomes simultaneously. This cannot be done using conventional computing tools.
To fully address such challenges, very significant improvements must be made in the hardware and software.
Applying disruptive technology to real-world challenges
Our team worked with Dstl and military end-users to define challenges where quantum computing could make a significant improvement to today’s issues. To achieve this, we brought a unique and distinctive mix of expertise to the challenge, combining operational analysis expertise with physics, mathematical, and quantum expertise. In parallel we drew on our experience helping companies in the financial services sector make highly confident and speedy decisions.
Realising the opportunity of quantum computing
One way to understand which challenges quantum computing can solve is to test and learn. Together with Dstl and its military advisers, 22 possible use cases were identified and narrowed to an initial two to explore the possibilities.
The resulting innovation was a hybrid of classical computing and quantum computing solutions hosted via Amazon Braket – Amazon’s quantum computing service. The two selected use cases were to answer the questions “where is the best place to put communications assets to ensure a resilient network?”, and “how to best use limited resources and their constraints against a to-do list?” These were both examples of solving problems that rapidly scale to a complexity beyond the capability of humans or classical computing solutions.
The next step was to understand how MOD operational challenges could be programmed into the computer. Quantum compute software is comparable in maturity to classical computing in the 1960’s – this required us to program very differently and transform the problem definition into the mathematical formulation required for a quantum computer. The instructions were then relayed to the Braket service on the cloud to run the calculation on today’s hardware. The result was a hybrid solution with data formulated and presented by the classical computer, but with calculations carried out using quantum techniques – making the best of the capabilities of both forms of computer.
This hybrid classical/quantum approach allowed MOD users to make an efficient exploration of trade-offs, producing a wide range of solutions from which they could choose. This provided the human impact that is essential to good decision-making and enabled Dstl leaders to communicate to their teams the reasons and the diligence they took in reaching the decisions.
Making the most of limited resources
In the case of resource allocation, the problem is already extremely complex, trading off objectives, different resources, varied tasks, and appropriate timing to reach each solution successfully. Owing to its complexity, this is a task that needs the balance of computing and human experience. The team therefore challenged humans to beat the hybrid classical/quantum solution. The feedback from this test was simple: today’s quantum computers make decision-making better and faster.
Supported by this evidence, we enabled expert defence planners to rapidly identify a range of good decisions, and then, using their experience, select the most operationally applicable and resilient.
The two cases the team considered can be applied to a range of opportunities including routing, timetabling and pattern spotting, in addition to other scheduling and resource placement tasks.
Positioning the UK at the cutting edge
Together with Dstl, we have positioned the MOD at the forefront of exploiting developments in quantum technology; this work has shown that today’s Noisy Intermediate Scale Quantum (NISQ) processing technology can enhance complex decision-making. Key decision pathways have been made better and faster as a result of the utilisation of the two test cases.
Dstl will continue to invest further in quantum computing solutions and hardware. This work will help mature real-world use-cases and develop further applications that will ultimately save time, money and lives by making better decisions, faster.
The work has also opened up a valuable and strategically significant opportunity for the UK to become a world leader in sectors beyond defence.