Quantum Personality of The Year 2020 – Nominee: Ilyas Khan

Ilyas Khan - Cambridge Quantum Computing

Ilyas Khan, CEO of UK quantum startup Cambridge Quantum Computing, is the third nominee of the ‘Quantum Personality of the Year 2020’.

He founded the company in 2014, when the wording ‘quantum’ was anything but trendy.

Prior to CQC, Ilyas has been Chairman and Trustee of The Stephen Hawking Foundation and a “Leader in Residence” at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School.

He has a long-standing interest in the foundations of mathematics and category theory. He is a Life Member of the American Mathematical Society.

He is a very accessible and kind person who likes to share his views and his passion about quantum computing and physics.

Here is the interview of Ilyas with both personal and business questions.

Ilyas, could you tell us when/why you created Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQC)?

CQC was founded due to the confluence of a couple of circumstances. Firstly I was one of the founders of Accelerate Cambridge, the accelerator programme of the University of Cambridge Business School. At the same time I was the Chairman of The Stephen Hawking Foundation.

This set of circumstances effectively led to the creation of CQC as a Cambridge based company with a focus on building solutions for quantum computers that we felt would occur within the next decade (remember this was 2014).

When you look at the rearview mirror of the last 5 years, what are your feelings about the quantum industry?

In Feb 2015 I wrote a blog post about the emerging industry. My predominant feeling is that pretty much everything we anticipated in 2015 has occurred more quickly than we expected, meaning I was far too conservative in my assumptions.

The other feeling I have is of comfort and confidence that our “science led; enterprise driven” approach at CQC has been absolutely correct.

How do you feel the competitive landscape in your quantum domain?

I think it is exciting and positive that quantum computing is attracting good people and entrepreneurs. The eco-system needs good quality companies and the current state of competition bodes well.

What is your best quantum achievement during this year?

In September we launched the first ever enterprise level application for quantum computers when, together with IBM we provided IBM clients with a crucial application to be able to draw down verifiably quantum (and therefore maximally random) bit streams for use in cryptography and Monte Carlo simulations. This programme with IBM is now being extended across multiple hardware platforms.

Additionally CQC raised the largest amount of capital of any quantum software company in 2020 and we are proud of pushing the barriers on behalf of the whole sector. We believe strongly in the alignment of interest between investors and quantum computing companies.

Where do you see yourself and your company in 3 years?

We think that the roadmaps recently announced by hardware companies such as IBM and Honeywell and also the ambitious cloud-based distribution plans of Azure and AWS and IBM are clear markers for a trajectory of growth in the quantum computing sector.

We think that in the coming 3 years more enterprises will be actively using quantum computers both for experimental as well initial real-world applications. In this latter area we are especially excited by the use-case where quantum computers are used for generating seeds in cybersecurity that are unhackable. 

CQC will be at the fore-front of these developments since we believe very much that advances in hardware will have to be accompanied by advances in software and algorithms.

Some people speak about a “quantum bubble”. From your point of view, is it real and does it impact your business?

We believe that the very large majority of quantum computing companies, from the largest organisations to the smallest start-ups are aware of the need to remain realistic. We also believe in research driven experiments where results are published before they are pushed into the market-place. This discipline will help all of us.

We think that the key issue is for there to be an alignment of interest and knowledge between quantum computing companies and investors. This will be very helpful.

To you, what will be the next ‘quantum big thing’ in 2021?

We think there may be two areas to look out for in 2021. Firstly we may see the emergence of credible quantum processors beyond the trapped ion and superconducting platforms. Secondly it is very clear to us that error correcting methodologies will see meaningful advances.

In software we are confident that there will be major advances in material discovery applications.

Who has been the most influential person in your life?

Apart from my wife Mara and my mother, both of whom were the most important people in my life, I would say that I was most influenced by Stephen Hawking, especially in the period from 2010 to his death as I got to spend more time with him. Words cannot convey the impact that he had in so many ways.

If you could rewind your professional life 10 years back, what would you like to change?

I would say that I wish I started CQC earlier !!!

What are your strengths and weaknesses? Both pro and personal.

I think my strength in both personal and professional terms is my energy. I would say also that in both personal and professional terms I am very lucky that my friendships and relationships last decades – i.e. long term. Lastly in terms of strengths I am lucky to be a patient and long-term thinker. I am a long-distance runner (having run too many marathons to count and also having run ultra-marathons) so this trait is probably both personal as well as professional.

Your most hard learned lesson in business?

Don’t try to oversimplify. It never works !

Your bedtime book currently?

Inward Bound by Abraham Pais, and also The Avignon Quintet by Lawrence Durrell. My daytime book is On Language by Noam Chomsky. Finally I am re-reading Gilles Chatelet’s wonderful Figuring Space.

Tell us about your hobbies

I am an amateur violinist (very bad) and also very interested in architecture and love sketching by hand.

Say out any of your favorite quotes

Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace and power in it“.

I discovered that quote over 25yrs ago and I think it is so apt.

Also, from Stephen Hawking “remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet

Which are your three magic lamp genie wishes?

  1. Fault tolerant quantum computing of course is item 1 🙂
  2. That we can accommodate a global community of tket users measured in the tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands and eventually millions as the community of independent quantum programmers expands in the coming years
  3. On personal basis that I can accompany a professional cellist and somehow play a cello/violin duet of Bach’s Cello Suites, with the arrangement written in a long lost manuscript by Pablo Cassals 🙂