6 minute read

How IBM and STFC Hartree Centre are accelerating innovation in the UK

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)'s Hartree Centre Building in Daresbury, UK at night
The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)'s Hartree Centre Building in Daresbury, UK.

The world needs science like never before: To address the global chip shortage, mitigate global warming, discover new materials faster — all of these benefit from accelerating the pace of scientific discovery. We also need to collaborate with talented people, finding solutions together across borders and time zones.

IBM Research has been embracing collaboration with academic institutions, industry players, and government organizations. One of our main partners in the UK is the country’s Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Hartree Centre.

STFC is one of the nine research councils making up UK Research and Innovation, a body of the government that directs research and innovation funding. STFC supports research into particle physics, astrophysics, space science, and nuclear physics and computing, operating world-class research facilities for the UK. IBM’s Leonid Leiva Ariosa recently sat down with Mark Thomson, STFC’s Executive Chair, and Kate Royse, the Director of the Hartree Centre, to discuss the future of research with quantum computing, AI, and much more.

Leonid: IBM and STFC have been working together for several years now. What would be the highlights of this ongoing partnership, in your opinion?

Mark: It’s quite an unusual partnership for STFC, to collaborate with a large multinational — scientifically and on the business side. The model of this collaboration is really interesting, and very effective – especially because it’s very open, which speaks of the strengths of STFC and the Hartree Centre, and also of the nature of IBM Research.

The areas that excite me most have to do with the potential future applications of quantum computing. It’s still very early stages, but for me it’s the most exciting and the most likely to be the most disruptive area. We’ve had numerous discussions not just around what we do at the Hartree Centre, but actually around quantum technology in general. STFC hosts the National Quantum Computing Centre, so it’s an area much, much broader area than just this collaboration. There are so many opportunities in quantum.

Leonid: Kate – speaking of the Hartree Centre, what are the main projects your researchers are focusing on together with IBM, and why are they important?

Kate: We cover a myriad of different sectors within the Hartree National Centre of Digital Innovation. I think some of the top ones are our pharmaceutical and life sciences work, particularly with Reprocell — that’s a massive highlight and is doing really well. They are working with the Hartree Centre and IBM to develop an AI-powered platform to streamline the drug development process and identify more effective treatment for inflammatory bowel disease. I’ve seen some of the early results and I’m really excited about it.

I’d also like to highlight some of the work we’ve been doing on multi-source flood detection for the UK. We have co-developed a machine learning algorithm with IBM capable of identifying past and current flood events using satellite data. This accelerated process will help predict which areas are at high risk of flooding and can be used to inform decisions around infrastructure planning and crisis management as well as adapt to other climate events like wildfires.

Leonid: Research has always been a global endeavor aimed at bringing together brilliant minds – after all, science knows no borders. What is the latest now in terms of the Horizon Europe and STFC — and have there been any effects on joint projects with IBM?

Mark: The UK government’s preference has always been to associate with Horizon Europe. In terms of STFC, we haven’t seen any major impact on our international collaborations. A lot of the things we do are global — they tend not to be through the European Commission but through international governmental organizations for example. We also have very strong bilateral relationships with partners around Europe. I think we’ve been probably trying to focus on those just to keep our links to the major scientific powers in Europe, including France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland.

Mark Thomson (STFC), Sreeram Visvanathan (IBM), Kate Royse (STFC Hartree Centre), Peter Waggett (IBM Research) and David Bunton (Reprocell).

Leonid: With IBM and STFC Hartree Centre signing a five-year partnership in 2021, one of the main aims has been to accelerate discovery and innovation with AI and quantum computing. Speaking of quantum specifically, how important do you feel quantum technologies are for the UK – and globally?

Kate: I think quantum is the next big thing in computing and in the next 20 to 30 years we’ll be talking about QPUs instead of GPUs. And that’s really exciting. I think where we’re going to see the biggest impact short-term is going to be around quantum and hybrid HPC, and how we move from quantum computing into HPC. I don’t think that quantum will necessarily answer everything, there will still be a place for an HPC traditionally as we know it today but they will be working together.

Leonid: That sounds exactly like IBM’s strategy around quantum-centric supercomputing, bringing quantum as an element at the center of the future of computing.

Kate: Absolutely. And we’ve had some fantastic projects within this program where that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. Material discovery, pushing it over into quantum and then getting the HPC. We’re starting to see an improvement in the selection of types of materials and chemicals that we can use. It’s not about that it’s not actually faster yet as a total process, but rather whether there is quantum advantage in being able to find things quicker, and finding the things we’re looking for better will actually provide an advantage at the end of it in terms of speed discovery, I think it will happen, we’re not quite there yet — but it’s pretty close.

Leonid: Mark, how can quantum help the world, in your view? Quantum computing, but also quantum communication, quantum sensing, and so on.

Mark: It’s going to be incredibly disruptive. That’s absolutely clear when we get to the point of having genuine error-correcting quantum computing, it will be a new computing revolution. It will change the way we do pretty much everything. The journey there is going to still take quite a while, but it’s that journey between having smaller, slightly noisy systems and how you start to use those — because that could already be potentially disruptive. Once we really get to very capable error-correcting quantum computing, I think it will change everything in computing.

One of [Richard] Feynman’s early dreams around quantum computing was the world and all of the interesting systems we look at in fundamental science are quantum systems. So the way you solve those systems is using the quantum system. I think just in terms of that, our understanding of the universe, it’s going to push things forward substantially.

Quantum communications clearly in a very interesting area: Secure communications are going to be probably clearly on the government’s agenda. The way we encrypt our information will change, it will be encrypted using quantum techniques because we’ll have to do that because quantum computing will break existing techniques. Then there are quantum sensors, using very entangled systems over large distances to make very precise measurements, and using quantum systems to measure things like gravitational waves and detect dark matter. The potential is enormous.

Leonid: To continue the theme of innovation – how do you think the projects STFC and IBM are working on today can help us accelerate science in general?

Mark: This whole system of almost unsupervised learning to help researchers make breakthroughs more rapidly, IBM’s approach of accelerating discovery is a really interesting idea and I think we’re beginning to see that come to fruition now.

You won’t have to have 1,000 PhD students reading 100 papers each and then trying to capture the information. That can be all automated. You can just speed up that process of discovery. I think this is going to change the way we do science. In this area, our collaboration with IBM is particularly interesting because an organization like STFC doesn’t have the scale of investment in artificial intelligence tools that IBM has.

Leonid: Kate, what is your view on partnerships in science, in general? Do you think there should be more collaborations in research — especially when it comes to public-private collaborations between industry and academia?

Kate: Absolutely. I do feel that it’s incredibly important just on the basic side that you move out of groupthink, that you involve different people from different backgrounds, working in different cultures that give you new ways of answering problems.

The IBM collaboration is an excellent example. At the Hartree Centre, we’re bringing different sets of expertise together, getting different people working together using different tools. The public research element and the private sector research element have very different cultures and ways of working. Bringing those two together and using the best bits of those is really valuable to coming up with the right answers and new ideas.

In terms of the future, I’m looking to be working more in the way that we have been working with IBM. I would like to see us working also together with IBM in pushing vendors, chip manufacturers, et cetera, to help steer along that line of accelerated discovery and the types of things we’re going to need to be able to do that. If we drive that, particularly with hardware vendors, it would be quite interesting.