We are at the beginning of a new era of technology
For most of the last century, quantum mechanics research focussed on understanding the nature of the universe. But in recent years, we have reached a point where we can control and measure these strange quantum behaviours with new degrees of accuracy. The result has been an explosion of interest and innovation in a new generation of quantum technologies.
Quantum computing has received a lot of attention, but it is just the tip of the quantum iceberg. Many of the world’s major research companies – in IT, engineering, and defence – are harnessing quantum phenomena to develop a huge range of new technologies. IBM and Google, BT and Toshiba, Rolls Royce and Airbus, Thales and QinetiQ all have research programmes in these areas. Myriad startups are spinning out of universities to meet growing interest in quantum, in applications across communications, transport, energy, and health.
So, what does it all mean?
What are quantum technologies?
Quantum technologies take advantage of the unusual properties of individual atoms, electrons and photons, and how they interact. At the quantum scale, particles follow different rules to human-scale objects – many of them seemingly bizarre.
In the classical world, objects exist in a specific place and time. In quantum mechanics, state and location are probabilistic, not absolute.
Why is this useful?
The quantum state of particles responds to the world around them in ways we can now measure and calculate. If we detect how their quantum state has changed, we can understand what is changing them: the presence of an oil reserve, corrosion that will cause a bridge to collapse, a poisonous gas, activity in the brain.
And we can go further. We now have technology to change quantum states with incredible precision. This allows us to encode data within particles, which will change how we share information, making electronics and communications smaller, faster and more secure.
What technologies are we talking about, and what industries stand to benefit?
The UK Government’s National Quantum Technologies Programme has established four quantum hubs focusing on computing, communications, sensors and imaging. These are a pretty good guide to where the industry is going.
Sensing is a good place to start. Small changes in magnetism or gravity register as quantum fingerprints on particles. By detecting these, we can understand what’s happening around us.
An immediate application is for the detection of corrosion. Corrosion is the curse of the energy and construction industry, destroying pipelines and bridges. The disruption in the quality of a metal surface, or the presence of small pits due to corrosion can be detected through the altered pattern of the magnetic signature of the metal surface. This can be detected through paint or insulation which makes it a powerful new technique.
Closely related is imaging. Quantum cameras will soon see the invisible. A camera has already been developed to see round corners. Out of sight objects can be reconstructed into images, based on how individual photons are reflected. This could be used to detect whether humans are in a building before entering it, saving lives of firefighters or soldiers. It is also a candidate technology for driverless cars which would benefit from knowing what’s around the corner.
This incredible detection sensitivity also has applications in communications, allowing us to share information encoded within particles.
We do this by using lasers to create ‘qubits’ – quantum equivalent of bits which represent the 1s and 0s in digital communications. For instance, a photon of light can be created in two different states which can represent either a 1 or a 0.
One of the closest-to-market quantum technologies is quantum key distribution (QKD). Here we create a qubit encryption key and send it to the receiver. In quantum mechanics, observing a system changes its quantum state, so anyone intercepting the key will change it. The encrypted message will only be sent if the key arrives unchanged – making transmission of information highly secure.
And finally, Quantum Computing
Quantum computers also use qubits but take advantage of quantum superposition, whereby particles exist in two states simultaneously. This allows orders of magnitude more information to be stored than in ordinary computers, which in turn enables the creation of computers with unprecedented data processing speeds.
Whilst we won’t see quantum computers in PC World any time soon, they will have a major impact on our lives. The modern business world is increasingly built on processing huge amounts of data. AI, including applications such as driverless cars, need to absorb and learn from huge data sets to be capable of making human-like decisions. Models of new medicines are incredibly complex, taking in not just drug trial data but detailed information about human biology. Being able to run these models at many times the current speed could transform R&D in pharmaceuticals and other data heavy industries.
Planning for the quantum age
Mainstream adoption of quantum technologies is not quite here yet, but we are getting close. Although a functional quantum computer is probably a decade away, many of the technologies discussed in this article have been demonstrated and are heading towards commercialisation. We are probably just a couple of years away from seeing real uptake of quantum technologies.
What you should do about this depends on who you are. High-tech companies with major R&D programmes should be looking seriously at how quantum will replace their existing technology offers, and engaging with the relevant quantum researchers at universities and NPL to ensure they stay ahead of the curve.
For end-users of these technologies; it’s time to start watching closely, setting your criteria for adoption, and feeding that into quantum R&D programmes.
Any new technology comes with uncertainty and complexity, and quantum is full of both. A major stumbling block could simply be lack of understanding amongst buyers. The more complex the technology, the more important it is that we develop test capability, industry standards and validation criteria that provide confidence that it will do what it says on the tin.
Rhys Lewis is Director of the Quantum Metrology Institute at The National Physical Laboratory, the UK’s national measurement institute. He is responsible for NPL’s strategic direction in quantum and for NPL involvement in the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme. He joined NPL in 2007 following a career in industry, including roles at SMEs and start-ups. He holds a degree in Physics and a DPhil in atomic and laser physics from Oxford University.
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