- What exactly is quantum mechanics?
- What will the second quantum revolution bring?
- Quantum computers could serve the needs of the world
- Companies and organisations developing quantum technology
- How will quantum sensing impact industries and society?
- Risks, challenges, and constraints of quantum tech
- Quantum technology predictions
- Some important ethical considerations
Without the first quantum revolution nearly a century ago, the world as we know it today would not exist. This led to the 20th-century technological revolution, which brought with it semiconductors, lasers, and MRI – inventions that eventually led to the development of computers, advanced medical procedures, tiny computer chips, digital cameras, Blu-ray, barcode scanners, LEDs, optical fibre communication, navigation technology, nuclear power plants, and many other technologies we use today. Quantum technology forms the basis of a ‘second quantum revolution’, in which quantum effects that were previously unexploited will be applied in many different kinds of devices. Companies and knowledge institutions all over the world are now working to find ways to translate quantum technology into concrete applications, which will offer opportunities to find solutions for many of our current societal challenges.
What exactly is quantum mechanics?
The foundations of quantum mechanics date back to the early 1800s, when Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein made important contributions to what is currently referred to as the ‘old quantum theory’. From 1924, Louis de Broglie’s matter-wave hypothesis led to a more comprehensive picture, after which the true significance of quantum mechanics became undeniable. Quantum mechanics is a physical science that forms the foundation of various related disciplines, such as condensed matter physics, nanotechnology, structural biology, quantum chemistry, electronics, and particle physics.
Quantum mechanics deals with the behaviour of matter and energy on the scale of atoms and subatomic particles or waves. It also forms the basis for our modern understanding of how cosmological events like the Big Bang, and very large objects like stars and galaxies, can be explained and analysed. Quantum mechanics can be used to accurately describe and predict the physical behaviour of systems at the atomic scale or smaller, at the lowest temperatures, or at very high or low energies. And as a result of more than 100 years of experimentation and applied science, quantum mechanical theory has not only proven to be very successful but practical as well.
What will the second quantum revolution bring?
Quantum technologies promise exciting benefits. And the second quantum revolution – like the one before it – is expected to impact many aspects of our society, such as healthcare, the military, finance, cybersecurity, weather modelling, and much more. Harnessing quantum technology could, for instance, help us build computer systems that are unhackable. We could also rapidly solve complex science questions in high-energy or nuclear physics, create incredibly accurate quantum GPS, and solve complex optimisation challenges – such as in traffic congestion, logistics, and fraud detection. Harnessing quantum computing could also help us advance even further in artificial intelligence. Quantum technologies will likely transform the life sciences sector as well, to help us explore novel medical treatments and improve our health. Emerging quantum technologies could also transform the energy sector by optimising power grids and predicting the environmental effects of certain types of energy production.
In the not-too-distant future, powerful quantum computers could also quickly render the digital security we use to protect us online useless, causing untold chaos. With post-quantum encryption we could, however, protect data from quantum cyberattacks, and quantum random-number generators could instantly produce nature’s most unpredictable encryptions.
Quantum computers could serve the needs of the world
In comparison to our current computers – which use bits to store information that only has two states: zero or one – quantum computers enable subatomic particles to exist in more than one state at the same time. This means that they can exist either as a zero or a one, or as zero and one simultaneously. Quantum bits or qubits, therefore, can handle much more information at much greater speeds than our current computers. Quantum computers are not expected to replace our normal computers. They are more likely to be used as separate machines that can solve data-heavy, complex problems. Quantum computers will make use of machine learning, improve with time, and eventually even be able to make predictions.
Quantum computing power could, among other things, disrupt worldwide healthcare by enabling the extremely rapid development of vaccines and drugs. Large quantum computers could also be used to solve huge societal and environmental problems such as resource scarcity and climate change by helping to develop sustainable materials or produce sustainable energy. Quantum industrial development could enable a new branch of the tech industry that could serve the needs of the world and generate thousands of jobs.
Companies and organisations developing quantum technology
Organisations investing in quantum computing claim increased efficiency and productivity, accelerated business intelligence, and improved AI capabilities. And more and more companies and investors are jumping onto the quantum bandwagon.
“To bring industry, government, and academia together to speed quantum technology development and emerging practical applications,” the California Institute of Technology and US multinational conglomerate holding company AT&T, the world’s largest telecommunications company and the largest provider of mobile telephone services in the US, have recently formed the Alliance for Quantum Technologies (AQT). And various other technology companies, like for instance Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, have already released quantum tools for their cloud platforms. Roche, Airbus, and BMW are among many companies worldwide trying out quantum computers.
Here are some other companies and organisations that focus on quantum computing:
D-Wave’s quantum machine debuted in 2011 and was a special kind of commercial quantum computer called a ‘quantum annealer’. The company was the first to offer developers real-time cloud access to quantum processors with its quantum cloud service Leap. D-Wave’s approach to quantum computing is particularly suited to the optimisation of tasks in fields like materials sciences, AI, cybersecurity, logistics, fault detection, and financial modelling. And according to the company, to date more than 250 early quantum applications have been built with the use of D-Wave’s technology. In 2020 D-Wave announced the launch of Leap 2, introducing new tools and features that enable developers to build bigger applications. The company also offered researchers working on responses to the COVID-19 pandemic free access to Leap, and launched their quantum system, Advantage, designed for businesses.
This month, D-wave announced that it’s building a universal quantum computer, a so-called ‘gate model’, which means that its qubits act as ‘gates’, control the flow of electric current in a traditional electrical circuit, and perform logical operations that are part of a computer program. D-Wave CEO Alan Baratz said: “We are absolutely committed to developing and delivering enhancements to the annealing system. But there are important questions that annealing cannot address in non-linear differential equations, in quantum chemistry, and physics simulations. So if we could also bring a gate model system, we would be the only company in the world with an annealing and a gate model system, and we could address the entire total addressable market for quantum computing.”
IBM was the first company to put a quantum computer on the cloud in 2016 and it’s extensive community now comprises hundreds of thousands of registered users. One year later, IBM was the first to offer universal quantum computing systems via the IBM Q Network. This network currently includes more than 125 organisations, including educational institutions, research labs, startups, and Fortune 500 companies. According to IBM, companies like JPMorgan Chase, Daimler AG, and ExxonMobil use its quantum computers to model portfolios and financial risk, simulate new materials for batteries, and simulate chemical reactions for new energy technologies. In the beginning of this year, during an event at its German headquarters, IBM unveiled one of Europe’s most powerful quantum computers. It will be operated by Germany’s Fraunhofer research institute and is IBM’s first quantum computer in use outside of the US. The machine is housed in a 2.7 metre-tall glass cube to shield the qubits from physical disturbances such as noise, to which quantum computers can be sensitive. “The Q System One is Europe’s most powerful quantum computer in the industrial context,” said an IBM spokesperson.
ColdQuanta manufactures instruments, components, and turnkey systems for various applications, such as quantum communications, quantum computing, radiofrequency sensors, navigation, and timekeeping. The company’s clients include major organisations and institutions, such as the US Department of Energy, NIST, NASA, the US Department of Defense, and universities. Last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) selected ColdQuanta for the development of a cold-atom-based, scalable quantum computing hardware and software platform that can demonstrate the importance of quantum technology for real-world challenges. “Today, we provide products that enable quantum computers and quantum lab environments. Soon we will offer high precision clocks and cloud-based quantum computing. In parallel, we are collaborating with our customers to develop prototypes for quantum positioning systems, quantum radio frequency receivers, and quantum memory devices.”
Microsoft Azure Quantum
Microsoft recently introduced Azure Quantum to the public, bringing quantum computing to the world’s second-largest cloud computing service. Azure Quantum includes quantum computers built by IonQ and Honeywell, and provides a one-stop-shop to create a path to scalable quantum computing. It offers developers an open ecosystem that enables access to quantum hardware, software, and offerings from Microsoft and its partners. It also offers developers built-in applications that run on our current computers. Azure Quantum is the latest step towards the commercialisation of quantum computing, which promises solutions to challenges that are out of reach of conventional computers. Paul Edlund, chief technologist for Microsoft, says: “I’m excited. I really do think some amazing things are going to come out of this. It’s just like regular computers: People have used them to do some amazing things, and then your heart breaks because of some of the ways that it’s hurt whole communities like children, like people who don’t have access to the technology. It’s a barrier for them. You would hope that we would not put our hand on that same hot stove twice, like we did with classical computers. Time will tell.”
The Quantum Inspire platform
In April 2020, the Netherlands helped launch Quantum Inspire, Europe’s first public quantum computing platform. QuTech, the advanced research centre for quantum computing and quantum internet, a collaboration between Technical University Delft, and TNO, the Dutch organisation for applied scientific research, developed Quantum Inspire to make the quantum computer accessible to everyone. It is the first in the world to use a quantum processor made of scalable spin qubits. Ingrid van Engelshoven, the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science, says: “Quantum computing is a key technology for the future. The Netherlands is a scientific leader in this field. I am extremely proud of the researchers and engineers from Delft, who combine research with innovation, entrepreneurship and the training of talent. Quantum Inspire is a first step, the intention is to further scale up the platform within the Netherlands and Europe. Even in times of crisis, it is important to share knowledge and continue to work on tomorrow’s innovations.”
How will quantum sensing impact industries and society?
Our knowledge of the world and our technological progress is limited by what – and how accurately – we can measure. Quantum sensing technology will push our measurement capabilities far beyond what has ever been possible. Quantum sensing technology is expected to improve significantly in the next five to ten years and has the ability to transform the world as we know it. Imagine the possibilities if we could look through walls into rooms and around corners, or detect the slightest meteorological, seismic, or environmental changes and get advanced warnings of earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Quantum sensors could make it possible to see what’s in the ground under our feet – such as the location of mines, sinkholes, pipes, or mineral deposits. These types of sensors could theoretically probe all the way to the centre of the Earth. Detailed underground mapping for seismology, geographical surveys, and mineral prospecting is already becoming a reality thanks to quantum gravity sensors based on laser-cooled atoms. Instead of sending a signal through the ground, these sensors measure density variations.
The research field of quantum sensor tech is vast and encompasses various types of sensors with a seemingly unlimited number and variety of applications. In healthcare, quantum sensors will most likely be used to analyse vital signs like heart rate and temperature, and to improve the accuracy of imaging tools like MRIs, which could map our brain to the smallest detail. Quantum sensors will also enhance our ability to monitor the efficacy of cancer treatments or get early diagnoses on diseases like multiple sclerosis. Relying on how subatomic particles behave, quantum sensors can make all of this a reality. According to Professor Kai Bongs of Birmingham University, “Quantum physics is said to be ‘spooky’, with particles being in two places at once, but it might be less spooky if you think of them as waves – and waves can be in several places at once.”
The potential impact of quantum sensors is as vast as it is incredible. Think ultra-high-precision clocks, positioning systems, microscopy, and electrical, gravitational, and magnetic field sensors. In transportation, quantum sensors could significantly improve positioning and navigation technology. For instance, to improve its navigation systems, Airbus is already exploring the use of quantum sensors to measure things like acceleration, frequency, temperature, magnetic and electric fields, and rotation rates more accurately. In the near future, using quantum sensing technology, aeroplanes could locate the right runway and land perfectly without any GPS tech at all. Through quantum sensors, quantum physics – the science of the minuscule – could in fact improve our lives in a humongous way.
Risks, challenges, and constraints of quantum tech
While there are many opportunities for quantum technologies, including improved measurement, secure communication, solving complex computational problems, and even the possibility of creating a quantum internet, this technology also has its downsides and can even pose significant threats.
The jobs that are hot in quantum computing don’t seem all that different from the tech roles we know, or at least at first glance. Think data analysts, software engineers, and system architects. The reality is, however, that quantum computers are fundamentally different from the devices we use on a daily basis. And to build, programme and maintain a quantum computer is a totally different kettle of fish. In addition to data analytics, modelling, and programming skills, being able to work with quantum computing requires knowledge of quantum physics – a level of specialisation that mostly exists at the PhD level.
And the problem is that there aren’t enough candidates that possess a combination of all of these skills. “Finding someone with the right skill mix is the biggest challenge,” says Ross Duncan from Cambridge Quantum. “It’s happened only a handful of times among the people that we hired to get someone who was ready to start when they walked in the door. It’s putting together a physics background with a computing background and trying to find candidates who have both.”
Online privacy and security considerations
With quantum computing still being a relatively new concept, security threats haven’t become all that widespread yet, but experts warn that this will change very soon. “Quantum will change the landscape with respect to computer security, leaving many of the traditional algorithms used for encryption and digital signatures nearly useless,” says Chris Hickman, chief security officer at digital identity security vendor Keyfactor. “IT leaders need to build a strategy to protect their businesses and have a practical plan to mitigate the inevitable arrival of quantum.” According to a DigiCert report, for which 400 enterprise organisations in the US, Japan, and Germany were surveyed, the majority (71 per cent) of organisations across the world see quantum computers as a major security threat, predominantly because of encryption and privacy-related risks. Almost 95 per cent of respondents said they are exploring various ways to protect themselves from the dangers of quantum computing.
Quantum technology predictions
Technologists around the world are exploring the power of quantum computers that are 100 million times faster than our current ones, and might be able to solve computation problems that would now take us decades to solve. Quantum computing is expected to help us gain a much more in-depth understanding of evolution and biology, enable us to slow or reverse climate change, and even find cures for cancer and other deadly diseases. The worldwide market for quantum computing is estimated to reach a value of almost $65 billion by 2030. It’s estimated that, between 2026 and 2030, quantum computers will be used in various industries and quantum sensors will enable applications in autonomous machine imaging and long-range data communications protected by quantum technology.
Between 2030 and 2040, quantum computers are predicted to be used more and more widely, enabling significant energy savings in, among other things, drug development and production processes. European companies are estimated to increasingly export quantum sensors, quantum computers, and data communication components. By 2040, we will likely have many amazing quantum computing applications that are impossible to predict today. What’s for sure is that advances in this incredible computer power will lead to exponential improvements in worldwide productivity and prosperity. Peter Chapman, CEO of quantum startup IonQ, says: “The differences between quantum computers and classical computers are even more vast than those between classical computers and pen and paper. Because quantum computers process information differently, they are expected to be able to address humanity’s greatest challenges.”
Some important ethical considerations
During the past couple of years, quantum science has rapidly evolved from hypothetical ideas to commercial realities and new technologies everyone can make use of. And with the second quantum revolution around the corner, we need to ensure that it will indeed benefit all of humanity, and not just a select few. As we have learned in this article, quantum technologies will probably impact most aspects of industry and our society, and they do promise impressive benefits. At the same time, we can’t simply assume that these new developments will automatically be in all of our interests.
How will the quantum development choices we make today impact how we live in the future, and what exactly will a quantum society look like? The exponential developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and the manner in which these technologies have already been deployed, provide us with compelling examples of why we need to be very mindful. As with all advanced technology, ownership of quantum computing will probably also be concentrated among the wealthiest countries and corporations, which could worsen already escalating inequality between the haves and the have-nots on a global scale. Other considerations include even further reduced online privacy.
In line with these considerations, the quantum community has issued an urgent call to action to develop solutions to balance the transformational impact of quantum technology. It’s important to establish a framework – one which could be based on existing rules and requirements for AI – and expand this with the integration of ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) associated with nanotechnology. Various international research and development policies have been drawn up, such as the Australian CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research) government organisation, which released a roadmap addressing social risks. And the WEF is establishing a set of ethical principles for quantum computing, “bringing together a global multistakeholder community of experts from across the public and private sector, civil society, and academia, to formulate principles and create a broader ethical framework for responsible and purpose-driven design and adoption of quantum computing technologies to drive positive outcomes for society.”
It will probably take another ten years before quantum computing will actually be able to deliver any kind of meaningful value. This is partly because there are still many challenges to overcome in terms of the physics of quantum computing. This and other drawbacks discussed in this article, along with questions surrounding worldwide policy, will be an important determining factor in the future of quantum technology development. But once it takes off, we will likely see an exponential curve regarding its possibilities and applications. Quantum tech could strengthen security, improve business, accelerate machine learning and decryption technologies, play an important role in medicine and health, and address many of our current societal challenges.