Quantum through time

There is a lot of hype around the term “Quantum technology”, with a rapidly growing anticipation of the transformational impact that new developments will have on our lives.  The large media attention means that when people think of quantum their mind often jumps immediately to computers (or to any unexplainable technology in most of the recent movies). However, while the current hype is well deserved, the impact of quantum based technology is nothing new. 

From the point at which a quantum physics understanding of material behaviour first yielded the emergence of semiconductors, technologies developed from effects discovered by quantum physics have revolutionised our world several times already. It is impossible to imagine life today without semiconductors, such is their centrality to our very existence. The laser, also a quantum discovery, enables our daily activity from shopping to taking photos to the sensors in the cars we drive. As much as these technologies advanced and changed the way we interact with the world, so they created tools enabling scientists to further advance our knowledge of quantum physics, giving us new knowledge of the rules governing reality. This knowledge is regarded as the first quantum revolution.  

Today’s hype is driven by the tantalising prospect that we stand on the brink of a second quantum revolution. Our new knowledge of these rules is enabling us to develop new technologies, which go far beyond the current standards and allow us to use the characteristics of particles to our own advantage.  

The highest profile focus of the current hype rests on the promise shown by the quantum computer, which brings a new way of performing computations at a speed that is orders of magnitude faster than the current state of the art. All computers work on the basis of manipulating and storing information. While conventional computers work with binary information (using 1 and 0 states), quantum computers go beyond binary states to use qubits by leveraging quantum mechanical properties. This way of controlling data allows a single quantum computer to eclipse the performance of even the best supercomputer. 

Today’s hype is driven by the tantalising prospect that we stand on the brink of a second quantum revolution

Because of quantum technology’s unprecedented performance characteristics we anticipate it to usher in and accelerate the possibilities of new medications, scientific discoveries and new materials that were previously unimaginable. Outside of our laboratories, applications of the technology across disparate markets will extend its reach across almost every other aspect of our life. 

However, whilst the allure and promise of the quantum computer has captivated attention today, we still have years to wait until we will see it in action in daily life. Fortunately, that is not the only show in town. Current quantum technology can be categorised in three well-defined areas: technology based on simulations of particles, technology based on light particles (photons), and technology that uses actual particles. 

The first category, using simulations of particle behaviour, has proven to be an extremely efficient way to make quantum computations. That is why the most popular design of the quantum computer is to create qubits using a superconductor set to simulate the behaviour of a particle.  

The second category, based on light particles, is a popular method of manipulating single photons of light for quantum applications. This method has high applications in cryptography and communications as we can send photons through optical fibres and use their quantum properties to our advantage.  

The final category, using actual particles for applications, currently gains far less attention and yet it shows the most potential for a wide section of applications. The challenge, however is the dependence on more complex systems, such as a magneto-optical trap. This is a system that uses magnetic and optical fields to cool atoms down to temperatures close to absolute zero, to achieve a particular state of matter called a Bose-Einstein Condensate, at which point the atoms act as if they were a single atom. No cryogenics involved. In this state the atoms can be controlled with ease and used for extremely precise measurements of almost any environmental parameter. We can use this system to measure time, rotation, gravity, acceleration and even to create a quantum computer. While the other technologies are still in their development stage, following a wave of investments from many government initiatives over recent years there are many labs around the world that host functional cold atom devices, sitting ready to change the world. These instruments can read time to unprecedented accuracy, which means we can achieve data transmission speeds that until now seemed like just a dream. The same instruments can also create new global positioning systems with previously unimaginable performance, capable of circumnavigating the globe with millimetric precision and no need for a satellite connection, thereby enabling new breakthroughs in autonomous vehicle applications. The possibilities are indeed unlimited. 

In summary, the devices work well, really well, but they are bulky, power intensive, complex and require qualified personal to run. Much like semiconductor technology in the 1960s, these challenges mean they are not yet ready for user applications. The next essential step is to miniaturise this technology to enable its wider adoption, which is where the key focus lies today.   

So, when will the next quantum revolution come? While many are quietly waiting for the quantum computer to arrive, the wheels of promise are perhaps already turning through the many other possibilities this technology has to offer, which may come to fruition far more quickly. 

Dr. Andrei Dragomir is the founder of Aquark Technologies, a cutting-edge innovator start-up in quantum technologies that promise to radically multiply our ability to sense, measure and compute on a mass-market scale through quantum hardware that was unveiled at CES 2021. Aquark is one of the start-ups supported by Future Worlds, the on-campus startup accelerator at the University of Southampton.

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