Early this summer I spoke to a number of individuals in the field of quantum computing to get a gauge on how quickly this technology is coming. What leapt out most strongly was that even though there is some debate about timescales for quantum computing in its true form other associated “quantum technologies” are definitely emerging.
“The new breed of quantum technologies go beyond classical manipulation of quantum states,” explains John Leiseboer Chief Technology Officer at QuintessenceLabs. “These new technologies operate at the quantum level itself.”
Richard Murray, lead technologist of emerging technologies and industries at Innovate UK, adds that “many existing technologies exploit naturally arising quantum effects”.
What are “quantum technologies”?
Murray provides the example of quantum dots - found in top of the range television screens - which are a grown structure to confine electrons and make use of the quantum properties. “Improvements in the stability and control of laser devices, electronics and nanotechnology has meant that we are able to not only find and understand naturally occurring quantum effects, but we can actually create, manipulate and control them as well. This allows us to create quantum states when we need them in order to use them to measure magnetic or gravitational fields, to transmit information very securely or to form a qubit, the fundamental unit of a quantum computer.”
“Superposition is a strange quantum phenomenon where things can be in the same place, or state at the same time. Entanglement is a quantum link that connects the properties of two particles that might be separated by a distance. When we create superposition states, it is useful, because they are very sensitive to the outside environment, and therefore can be used to make very accurate sensors. Entangled states are very useful, because they are impossible to copy or read without destroying the state, so that they are useful to transmit secret information.”
Leiseboer of QuintessenceLabs also highlights the quantum principle of uncertainty. “The probabilistic description of the state of matter and energy means that there is always uncertainty when measuring a quantum system,” he explains. “This uncertainty is an ideal source for a quantum random number generator - random number generators being one of the most basic, important and fundamental components of a cryptographic system.”
This is exactly what QuintessenceLabs uses in its own technology. “Our products come with an embedded quantum device, streaming at extremely high speeds truly random numbers by measuring the inherent randomness of quantum phenomena,” he says.
“Random numbers are a foundational part of any security solution, but all too often solutions rely on weak pseudo random numbers generated algorithmically, constituting a weak link in a security solution. True random numbers generated at high speed allow organisations to solve this issue, strengthen their encryption solution, and enable it to perform at its full strength.”
How are “quantum technologies” being used?
There have been a number of developments recently in the field of quantum technologies. As Leiseboer points out many of these are in the arena of security where China has released a quantum enabled satellite and the National Science Foundation in the US has just announced it awarded $12 million to the development of quantum technology for secure future communications.
Overall he says: “Quantum cyber-security is a rapidly growing field, and is already being used to enhance data security from today's attacks, preparing a strong foundation to protect it from the upcoming threat of quantum computers.”
Yet beyond quantum-enabled cyber security, quantum technologies are also being developed for a range of other applications. In 2013 the UK government announced a £270M ($360M) investment to establish the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme. QuintessenceLabs participates in this program while Murray of Innovate UK has been involved in coordinating the investment and brokering interactions and academics and interested companies.
Murray says it is early days at the moment but early applications of quantum technologies are likely to be in quantum clocks, quantum communications networks, quantum sensors and quantum computers. He describes each on turn.
“Quantum clocks are able to provide much better stability and higher accuracy than current clocks,” he says “which will be essential to help maintain synchronisation and verification of smart networks in the future - such as 5G telecoms networks, adaptable energy grids, or high frequency financial trading networks.”
He points out that quantum communications systems are already available commercially and will help to secure very sensitive data transmission. In fact, these communications systems have already been used to protect the secrecy of a Swiss election vote in 2007.
While quantum sensors will soon be available, and able to measure properties of the environment with very high accuracy, and very good stability. “These will be used to measure gravity, which you can use to detect objects hidden beneath the ground, such as oil and gas reserves, sink holes, archaeological objects or buried infrastructure, such as pipes, without the need for the drilling of expensive boreholes.
“Quantum magnetic sensors are already being used in research to measure brain activity, and there is hope that these sensors will one day provide early diagnosis of mental health problems, such as schizophrenia, or dementia,” he adds.
What is the timescale for the deployment of “quantum technologies”?
Murray believes this kind of technology will be available within three to five years. If you also include the many spin off technologies that arise from the development of very high tech components that underpin quantum technologies, the timescales are even more short-term or even immediate, he adds. “These include detectors which use resonant cavities as microbial sensors, or stabilised laser systems for the remote detection of gas leaks.”
Yet the issue of timescale is an important point as “many companies are dismissive of quantum technologies, because they think that they are many decades from becoming a reality. The reality is that many of the opportunities will arise much sooner than this, so they should start preparing now.”
However, it is still impossible to ignore the technical challenges that need to be overcome for this technology to become commercially viable. “Mostly, this is in the engineering,” says Murray. Who describes just how challenging it can be to take a quantum device that has been developed in a well-controlled laboratory environment, and make it work in the field for use by non-specialists.
“On top of this, quantum technologies are a suite of features that have yet to really find many practical and commercially viable uses - market and sector looking companies still aren’t sure which applications will benefit from using quantum technologies. As quantum technologies are still quite immature, these applications have to be quite niche. At least in these early days, we are looking for cases where the benefit that a quantum technology can bring is so significant that a customer can put up with a bulky and relatively expensive device.”
“At the moment,” he concludes “there look to be some of these niche applications in defence, and perhaps civil engineering and healthcare.”
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