Matter being in two places at once, electrons disappearing into nonexistence then spontaneously reappearing again, particles becoming ‘entangled’, allowing information to be teleported half way across the universe – there’s something almost mystical , and distinctly unbusinesslike, about quantum mechanics.
Yet far from existing only on the remotest edge of theoretical science, quantum physics is, some say, poised to have profound effects on technology, business and society. To find out more, we spoke to Dr Graeme Malcolm, quantum expert and CEO and co-founder of Glasgow-based M Squared.
Why all the sudden interest in quantum?
In a word, lasers.
"Imagine there are six atoms in an eggbox. We use precision light to trap and move these atoms, but also to cool them 3,000 times cooler than deep space – colder than we believe they exist in nature. At this stage, they become perfect quantum mechanical particles. They behave perfectly consistently with the maths that Einstein and Heisenberg wrote about," says Malcolm, whose business supplies lasers to top universities, research institutes and technology companies conducting quantum research around the world.
Once in a quantum state, atoms become qubits, the basic processing unit of a quantum computer. Where regular digital bits have only two phases – on or off, 1 or 0 – qubits have a myriad of quantum states, which allows for an exponential increase in the number of calculations they can perform. Indeed, it would only take 50 laser-suspended atoms, Malcolm says, to make the most powerful computer in the world.
Why does this matter?
The most powerful digital computer in the world – American supercomputer Summit, which sits at the vast Oak Ridge National Laboratory – will have had far less impact on your life or the world than the smart phone in your pocket, so this may seem like a vanity project.
But without a quantum leap in processing power - and remember, a 50-atom quantum computer needn’t take up a lot of space – the economy will sooner or later run into a serious problem. This is because our use of data is exponentially increasing (mobile provider Ericsson has estimated that the volume of smartphone data traffic will have grown ten times between 2016 and 2022), but our processing capacity no longer is.
Moore’s Law, which originally stated that computer chips would double in processing power every year, is starting to fail. "The large scale integration of silicon chips is to make them smaller and smaller and smaller. There are three hundred million transistors in an ARM processor. But we’re going to get a point at which we make things so small we can’t actually see them anymore," says Malcolm.
M Squared is building laser microscopes to see these tiny transistors, which optical microscopes cannot, but in the long term Moore’s Law will not be able to hold using traditional silicon chips.
This could be highly consequential for businesses, and not just those in tech. We’ve become accustomed to digital technology driving rapid change in products, propositions and business models. If it plateaus, we may have to adapt to a fundamentally less dynamic environment, but quantum computing could change the game.
How long will it take?
Don’t hold your breath. Quantum computing will not only require substantial progress on the hardware side (Malcolm describes the task ahead as a "mountain"), but also a whole new type of software.
Yet there are encouraging signs, for example in the world’s first quantum clocks, such as that at JILA in Boulder, Colorado. "It’s accurate to within one in 10 million, million, million seconds – it’s the most accurate clock mankind’s ever built, and the most precise machine mankind’s ever made," says Malcolm, who sees timekeeping as a gateway technology to more sophisticated machines. He’s also not put off by the scale of the technological challenge.
"If you look at a quantum lab right now, it’s just a spaghetti of components and systems, but the good news is that’s exactly what the internet was like in the late 80s."
What else can quantum do?
Other than computing, quantum shows particular potential in sensing technology.
"We can now measure gravity, in a way we couldn’t before, which means we can start to conceive of cameras that can see gravitational fields," explains Malcolm. This would theoretically enable us to detect something based on its mass and density, even looking through other objects in the way.
Possible uses for such a sensor include searching for oil and gas deposits, and in civil engineering. "About half the holes dug in London every year are dug in the wrong place, which wastes millions. We currently only know whether the BT line is this side or that side because of how well the last guy recorded it," says Malcolm.
There’s also research being conducted using quantum sensing to see through smoke and around corners, which could integrate into the autonomous car revolution.
Is the UK a good place for it?
Potentially, yes. Buoyed by its world-class universities sector and deep tech expertise, Britain is well positioned to develop quantum technologies. The government has even called for the UK to lead a second revolution in the field, investing £270m and building a network of Quantum Technology Hubs.
Questions remain over the scale of investments, however, with China reportedly putting $10bn into developing a lead, with US funding also far ahead. Even when dealing with tiny, tiny particles, scale counts.
Image credit: JPL/NASA (Creative Commons)