A new wave of technology is set to take the world beyond binary 1 and 0.
The advent of quantum mechanics and its many experimental confirmations during the 20th century was by most measures the greatest revolution in the physical sciences since Copernicus put the sun at the centre of the solar system. This first quantum revolution underpinned many technologies which are now essential components of our modern world: transistors for microprocessors, lasers for broadband data and high precision manufacture, not to mention a wealth of scanning techniques for medical diagnosis.
However, our active application of quantum mechanics has previously been constrained by our ability to engineer and control systems at the small scales where quantum effects predominate. This has now changed. Scientists have reached first base on a set of enabling technologies that allow us to routinely manipulate atoms of matter and photons of light at individual level. This has unlocked our ability to create a new generation of devices that deliver unique capabilities directly tied to the novel properties of quantum mechanics (1). This is the Second Quantum Revolution.
The First Industrial Revolution was based on steam power.
The Second Industrial Revolution was based on oil and electicity.
The Third Industrial Revolution, or the Digital Revolution, is based on electronics and is ongoing.
Taken together with advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, and the Internet of Things, quantum technology is one of the driving pillars of what many expect to be the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Like its predecessors, 4IR is set to transform human society and the global economy.
Quantum Mechanic Basics
What is it that’s different about quantum mechanics? Business executives don’t need to understand the detail of the science, but understanding how some of the key concepts fit together can help:
Indeterminacy – Quantum mechanics is an intrinsically probabilistic theory. The uncertainty principle tells us that it is not possible to precisely measure all properties of a quantum system at the same time; this leads to the No-Cloning Theorem: it is not possible to create an identical copy of a quantum state. This is central to quantum cryptography.
Superposition – A quantum object can be in two or more states at the same time; only when a measurement is made does it fall back into a single state. If the coherence of the system is carefully maintained, superimposed states can interfere with each other with measurable consequences. This key feature enables quantum computers to go beyond the power of digital 1 and 0. It is also the source of the remarkable sensitivity of quantum sensors.
Entanglement – When two quantum objects are entangled they behave as one system. Measurements on the two objects can yield results that are correlated more strongly than possible in classical physics, even if they are physically separated.. This is intrinsic to the operation of quantum computers, and also to advanced forms of quantum cryptography.
An equivalent way to understand why the quantum world is different is to approach the explanation from a mathematical point of view . The quantum world follows probabilistic rather than exact deterministic mathematical laws. However the rules of probability that it uses are very different to the ones that we are used to.
Amplitude – In everyday life probabilities range from 0 to 100%. In the quantum world we need to work with probability amplitudes that can be positive, negative or even complex numbers. Because negatives cancel positives these amplitudes can add-up and ‘interfere’ with each other in complex ways. Controlling and interpreting these interference patterns underpins the unique power of quantum computers.
Quantum Technology Sub-Sectors
Five emerging sub-sectors of quantum technology are most discussed:
Quantum Computers – Devices that use the novel properties of qubits (quantum bits) to tackle problems unfeasible on conventional computers. This includes universal quantum computers (able to tackle any quantum problem) and quantum simulators (optimised for specific classes of problem). Large scale fault tolerant quantum computers are still many years off, but noisy intermediate scale quantum (NISQ) devices are now close to realisation.
Quantum Information Processing – Quantum computers offer no advantage in and of themselves. Their true potential is only realised when they run new quantum algorithms. Shor’s algorithm is often cited as its use will threaten current internet cryptography standards. However algorithms for enhanced search, sampling and optimisation will potentially have even greater impact, not least because of their prospective application in big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Quantum software promises to be a diverse and highly active field.
Quantum Safe Cryptography – Commercial transactions on the Internet and routine cyber security depend on the effectiveness of public key cryptography. Quantum computers will make existing standards obsolete. The search for new quantum safe cryptographic techniques encompasses the conventional maths-based algorithms of post-quantum cryptography as well as the new physical devices of quantum cryptography.
Quantum Sensing & Imaging – Quantum technologies are unlocking a new generation of measurement, sensing and imaging devices of unprecedented precision and capability. Initial devices of are already reaching market. Many more will follow.
Quantum Internet – Enhanced quantum communications technologies will ultimately do much more than just cryptography. In the end the Internet will be radically transformed.
The Quantum Landscape
A wide variety of players are already seeking advantage in this new sector:
Quantum Majors – with large investment programmes building quantum computers or major new quantum software platforms.
Quantum Startups – specialising in bringing enabling technologies out-of-the-lab, or in initial industry applications.
Scientific Institutes – the leading edge of quantum know-how and progress, increasingly spanning across traditional boundaries in physics, maths, computer science and engineering.
Government Programmes – many governments have recognised the future importance of quantum technology and are making large co-ordinated investments seeking national strategic and economic advantage.
Fact Based Insight has a range of resources and services to assist clients across the opportunities and risks posed by this fast moving sector.