A Future in Quantum

6th July 2018
Dr Neil Alford on how quantum may herald a new science fiction future.

In Conversation: A future in quantum

Quantum: might it herald a new science fiction future? Or are we already using a type of quantum device in our pockets? And what industries may be disrupted?

Dr Neil Alford
The Associate Provost for Academic Planning and former Vice-Dean for Research in the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College London

Q: Why should we care about quantum technologies?

If you are using any technology with a semiconductor, and everyone does, then you are using a quantum technology. When we talk about quantum, we tend to assume that it is confined to research labs, but it is pervasive and present in most modern technology. This abundance is merely the beginning of the potential trajectory of quantum as there are extensive investments being made across the industry by a range of stakeholders.

For example, the UK is investing £350 million for the first phase of a quantum programme that ends in Autumn 2019. This is because the applications of quantum are so varied and we are still exploring the enormous potential that new technologies may achieve. One of the forms of quantum is super-sensitive positioning, which can make our navigation systems extremely sensitive to an error of just one meter and be used in places where GPS can’t work, such as on submarines. Imagine this being used to navigate fleets of autonomous vehicles and how this might benefit the way we guide these fleets.

The big area that may ultimately change how we do business is quantum computing, the way we calculate and work with security may completely change.

What are some general assumption that people tend to talk about when they talk about quantum technologies?

It depends on who is talking and how much knowledge they have. For a practitioner, quantum mechanics is something that is essential and describes the world of the extremely small, where ordinary and classic physics no longer apply. The biggest assumption for the layman is that quantum mechanics doesn’t exist in the world. Even if the real physics behind quantum mechanics may be theoretical and hard to grasp, most of us already own a quantum device. Computers and smartphones, such as iPhones, already includes semiconductors that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for quantum mechanics.

What are the current limitations that need to be overcome? How do you see these changing in the next 5, 10, 15 years?

There is still a great deal of uncertainty around making quantum computing work. Firstly, the qubit has only been observed at extremely low cryogenic temperatures. A qubit is a quantum bit, the counterpart in quantum computing to the binary digit or bit of classical computing. Each qubit utilized could take a superposition of both 0 and 1 which means that it can do more complex calculations in a shorter amount of time.

Secondly, the number of qubits observed would not be enough to run a quantum computer. The challenge here is to start observing more qubits in less extreme environments. I have started working on this in my research, and we’ve been able to construct a MASER (a quantum phenomenon) operating at room temperature and in the Earth’s magnetic field.

A more explorative challenge is that we don’t yet know what we can do with quantum computing. Several universities are now working on simulators that run through models of what we may be able to do if we had quantum computers. We still don’t know the full application of quantum, and there may be new and unique applications that we hadn’t imagined before.

What industries will be impacted first? What will be impacted the most drastically?

ICT will be majorly impacted by quantum computing, as it will herald a step-change in cybersecurity and quantum encryption. With a secure quantum encryption, we will see a world where business becomes devoid of fraud and every transaction will be extremely secure. For businesses, this will enable us to deal with sensitive information without any worries.

Sensors that are quantum-enabled will most likely start entering the market in the next 5-10 years. These will be so accurate that they will be able to pick up the smallest anomalies within densities or even sound waves. This could be revolutionary when needing to find out where pipes or bombs are. They’ll be able to pick up difference in ground cavity – for example in a landmine – even if there’s no metal in the landmine.

If you imagine the world in 20 years, what are some of the changes that may be heralded due to quantum technologies? How would we engage and think about the world differently?

I think that in 20 years’ time we will be living in a different type of world, and quantum will have influenced a number of industries from the core and thus impacted us. For one, in the business world, we will see quantum encryption change the way we do transactions – both with our finances and information. Day- to-day business will be easier without risk of fraud. Perhaps, this might help move beyond the risk aversion structures in place in many industries.

Our computers today are great, but they are restrictive in what they can do. It takes time to do complex calculations. Quantum will move beyond this and vastly improve speed and computing power. I often imagine it as the next big data revolution, but with revolutionary power that can calculate extremely complicated experiments in an exceptionally short time-frame. It will impact any sector that touches mathematics – medical, infrastructure, fluid mechanics, transport – you name it. I believe that what we think quantum can do will further evolve as smart and well-funded research groups push the boundaries of quantum.