A quantum leap in my learning

There is a new technology that will impact society and the future of sciences: Quantum Technology. Oh, and did you know that apparently a quantum object can be in 2 places at the same time?

Context and background
In 2020 I participated in the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF2020 Trieste). As in previous years not only did I check out some developments in my own specialisms and interests, but I also took the opportunity to get a flavour of some completely different areas.

I have prepared this short blog as a ‘taster’ to share my own ‘enlightenment’ with you and maybe to spark your curiosity.

Quantum technology has enormous potential. ‘It is expected that this will lead to an exponential growth in computing power, allow information to be communicated in an absolutely secure way and, again, allow measurements to be made with extreme precision.’

Some possibilities which were deemed science fiction in the past may become reality.

Computer power
Aspects of quantum computing are moving from the theoretical phase. We were told to watch out for big developments in the next 10 years or even in the next 5 years!

In classical or binary computing (i.e., the traditional approach) computers are said to perform calculations using “bits” of information. Like on-and-off switches, these exist in only two states: either 1 or 0. Quantum computers, however, use quantum bits, or “qubits,” which can exist as both 1 and 0 simultaneously!

To understand the potential of quantum computing requires a different way of thinking about information and also there are concepts that will be new to many people. An explanation provided in an expert panel discussion, at ESOF2020 helped me. This is the gist of it:

Consider the challenge of finding your way out of a very complex maze or labyrinth. With a classical computer you can think of a stepwise process choosing Left or Right until you find the right path. However, with a quantum computer you can explore all paths at once – can be likened to flushing a bucket of water through the labyrinth. That explanation was an ‘aha moment’ for me!

Elsewhere, I have heard that it is like ‘being able to read all the books in a library at once’. The speed and scope of this new technology viewed in this way becomes immediately more apparent to me.

What could the advantages be for users and citizens?

Here are examples of some potential and possible applications:

• Quantum simulation for use in the discovery and development of new drugs
• Quantum sensors and a role at the human brain interface e.g. potential for communication use maybe even for ‘locked-in syndrome’.
• Satellite navigation – the prospect of providing very accurate location.

Secure communications
Communication security is a top priority for governments around the world. There are some collaborations and there are also competitive aspects. The Chinese satellite, Micius, was launched in 2016 and recently reported a secure method of quantum messaging (published in Nature, 2020) which has generated interest. Other countries and regions are very interested in quantum satellites and are at various stages of research and development in this field.

The Italian ‘experiment’ at ESOF2020
The closing ceremony of the conference featured an ‘experiment’; the first Italian public demonstration of encrypted communication using Italian-made optical-fibre quantum technology. Participants and attendees were able to witness the capability of the technology and its ability to detect and prevent attempted ‘hacking’.

Europe is equipping itself with a quantum communication network called EuroQCI, which includes optical-fibre cables and satellites. Italy is at the forefront of this field.

Beyond Trieste
After the ESOF conference I felt it was time for some consolidation of what I was learning. If this is a new subject for you and you want to learn more you will encounter new concepts and new terms such as repeaters, entanglement etc. We need a better understanding of terminologies and basic physics. Of course, there will be many sources of further information. I have provided examples of videos I found helpful (see below).

Phases and progress of quantum technology: Where are we now?
Different aspects of quantum technologies are at different points in this path:

Research → Development → Innovation

Discoveries will be made and facilitated by new investments and collaborations including academia and industry. There is already a lot of knowledge in Europe (and Italy is ‘a big player’ in Europe).

It is a promising field where some things are coming already, or some things may come soon, and there are some things where there are still major challenges.

There are likely to be exciting breakthroughs but also disappointments. There will definitely be A NEED FOR HYPE CONTROL!

Call to action
Do not worry if you find this subject challenging to understand, many people do. It is OK to be still grappling with some of the ideas and terms. I am told even many physicists feel the same way. Working through the confusion is how we learn. Writing this blog helped me and I hope reading it helps you.

Be curious.

A small brave step could lead to a quantum leap in your understanding on many levels.

I hope sharing my learning is useful to others.

by Dr Julie Charlesworth 26/1/21

Further information:

Recent publication about the Chinese satellite (Nature, 2020)
Yin, J., Li, YH., Liao, SK. et al. Entanglement-based secure quantum cryptography over 1,120 kilometres. Nature 582, 501–505 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2401-y

Videos I found helpful:
Quantum Computers Explained – Limits of Human Technology
Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell. You Tube

If You Don’t Understand Quantum Physics, Try This!
DoS- Domain of Science. You Tube

A big thank you to ESOF2020 for the opportunity to learn about quantum technology.
I have written several previous posts about ESOF2020 for example here