The next big leap: How quantum physics will shape technology
At one minute to midnight on 31 December 1999, the world held its breath as we entered the new millennium.
The Y2K bug – a computer flaw that was the result of a widely used computer programming shortcut – was expected to cause widespread chaos to computer systems around the world; industries and national infrastructures such as banks, nuclear power plants, transport networks were all on high alert.
But after months of speculation and preparation, the transition to the New Year went largely without issue.
Now the world is preparing once again, this time, for the quantum future. The difference is, in this case, quantum technologies truly will change computing as we know it.
What are quantum technologies?
Quantum information technologies are based on the properties of quantum physics – i.e. at the atomic and subatomic level. Consequently, they will be capable of solving problems far beyond the reach of today’s classical information technologies.
ITU recently caught up with Philipp Gerbert, Managing Director & Senior Partner at Boston Consulting Group, to gain more insight into the opportunities and challenges that quantum technologies will bring.
“Now it’s the time to invest in the intellectual property of quantum algorithms, and to try them out.” — Philipp Gerbert
Gerbert outlined three major sub-fields for quantum technology:
- Quantum sensors: technologies that can measure stimuli, such as the flow of electricity or magnetic fields or high-frequency signals. It can be used to detect early-stage multiple sclerosis; monitor and give advanced warning of volcanic activity; and helping self-driving vehicles ‘see’ around corners.
- Quantum communication: securing data using the laws of quantum physics. Quantum communication can be used for quantum key distribution (QKD), the exchange of secret symmetric keys used for encryption and authentication. These keys are secure, even against eavesdropping attempts powered by quantum computing. Encrypted data is sent as classical bits but the decryption key is encoded and sent in a quantum state using qubits. Any outside activity would ‘collapse’ the quantum state, meaning communications are ultra-secure.
- Quantum computing: using quantum for computation, especially to solve specialized problems that would take traditional computers hundreds or thousands of years. Data is stored as quantum bits, or qubits, particles which can take on multiple combinations of 1 and 0 simultaneously and act as a group – exponentially increasing the information density. Last month, Google claimed that it had achieved “quantum supremacy” after their Sycamore quantum processor took just 200 seconds to solve a specific task that would have taken the world’s best supercomputer 10,000 years to complete.
“Of the three, ultimately, quantum computing is the most important, but currently the least mature,” Mr Gerbert told ITU News.
“This period is so interesting because – while we cannot tell how far we can get over the next five years – there are so many ideas out there and so much progress,” Gerbert said. “Now it’s the time to invest in the intellectual property of quantum algorithms, and to try them out.”
Countries around the world, including China, Canada and the USA, have announced multi-million and billion-dollar research programmes into advancing the technology.
Australia is taking the quantum-enabled future so seriously that in 2018, Professor Michelle Simmons, Director of the Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow, was named Australian of the Year for her work in the field of quantum information science.
Getting ready for the quantum future – hurdles and opportunities
It is clear that quantum information technologies will have a profound impact on ICT systems around the world, but we are just beginning to understand what the quantum future will look like.
“There are two big developments that we’re going to see over the next decade: one is AI and one is climate change,” Gerbert said.
One of the future applications of quantum computing that Gerbert foresees is the simulation of active centers of catalysts – such as those used for hydrogen production, which could be further processed into synthetic fuels, or in nitrogenase, opening a ‘clean’ alternative for ammonia production which is a critical constituent for fertilizers. Both would greatly contribute to effective climate action.
“[Fertilizer production] is responsible for 3-5% of CO2 production today,” Gerbert said. “If we could simulate how plants and bacteria do it, it would be a tremendous benefit.”
But quantum computing also presents significant risks – notably to cybersecurity.
“The big elephant out there is quantum computing will ultimately crack the current encryption,” said Gerbert.
“You can also use quantum technology to secure communication, however, it is quite complex,” said Gerbert.
“Essentially you’d distribute encryption keys via quantum mechanics, but it’s expensive,” he said. “It will help to ensure cryptography but at a high cost.”
“Quantum communication is great for government, and it is great for telcos and financial institutions. It’s not in the realm of everybody else; everybody else, unfortunately, is on the other side, where at one point, cryptography would collapse. So you could no longer have secure internet communication or use a cryptocurrency. You will have to change encryption and standardization bodies are busy distilling such a universal new method.”
ITU standardization is addressing security and network aspects of quantum information technologies.
ITU has welcomed a range of new members with expertise in quantum cryptography and quantum communications.
Their first priority is the development of ITU standards codifying a common set of best practices for QKD network implementations. These best practices will be followed by ITU standards providing for the interoperability of the QKD equipment produced by different vendors.
ITU’s new Focus Group on ‘Quantum Information Technologies for Networks’ will study the evolution of quantum information technologies in view of their foreseen applications in ICT networks. The first meeting will be held in Jinan, China, 9-10 December 2019.