Defence Science and Technology Laboratory
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Making better, faster decisions with quantum computing

Industry partner PA Consulting has worked with Dstl on prototype tools using advanced quantum principles alongside essential elements of human decision-making.

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 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. PA Consulting has been working with Dstland the Ministry of Defence (MOD) for many years on a range of new technologies to build understanding of its operational challenges.

PA’s prior experience in operational analysis, the mathematics of decision making, applied physics and quantum computing techniques has allowed them to identify the opportunity for a new approach to using machines to support human decision making. The solutions PA proposed were rooted in a hybrid of classical and quantum computing techniques transferred from their experts in the financial sector and applied to defence-related challenges.

Funded through MOD’s Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) – the government organisation that finds and funds exploitable innovation for a safer future – PA 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.

Principal Scientist at Dstl, Dr Martyn Fletcher said:

We suspected that quantum computing had potential but we needed to put this into a military context and working with PA Consulting they are helping to provide the right approach to practically evaluate near term potential from both the quantum and the defence operational viewpoints.

The work has:

  • 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.

Paul Martin, PA quantum technology expert elaborates:

What we needed to show is that quantum computing potential can be tapped, and that this new disruptive technology can begin to address today’s optimisation and operational challenges, regardless of market sector.

To fully address such challenges, very significant improvements must be made in the hardware and software.

Applying disruptive technology to real-world challenges

PA has 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, PA brought a unique and distinctive mix of expertise to the challenge, combining operational analysis expertise with physics, mathematical and quantum expertise. In parallel PA drew on their 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. PA, together with Dstl and its military advisers identified 22 possible use cases and narrowed these to an initial 2 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 2 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, given their constraints, against a to-do list?’ These are 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 PA 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, PA 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 2 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, PA is helping to position 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 2 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.

Stephen Till, a Senior Fellow at Dstl said:

The 2 use cases PA has explored have shown quantum benefit can be derived even with today’s NISQ processor technology.

With further developments in system architectures and hardware expected, the work has increased our confidence that quantum information processing will help solve many of MOD’s important challenges.

To my knowledge, this is the first piece of work to demonstrate quantum benefit using a NISQ machine to solve militarily important problems and that will build confidence and underpin continued investment in quantum information processing by the UK MOD and Government.

For a simple guide to quantum physics, demystifying quantum technology using everyday language, familiar examples and analogies, read It Takes Two to Entangle, a Dstl biscuit book.

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