The rise of quantum technology

January 2021

The rise of quantum technology

Over the last few centuries classical physics has been well-equipped to explain the natural phenomena we witness in day-to-day life. In fact it was not until the late 19th century that scientists first began to realise that the characteristics of extremely small systems did not actually seem to reconcile with the accepted laws of classical physics. This led to the advent of quantum mechanical theory - more commonly known as quantum mechanics.

The theory of quantum mechanics was primarily developed in the early 1900’s by the likes of Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg to name a few. There is no other way to put it, quantum mechanics is a bit weird. Even some of the greatest scientific minds have opined that “the more success the quantum theory has, the sillier it looks” [1]. It is safe to say that Einstein never fully came to terms with quantum mechanics. This ‘silliness’ manifests itself by making room for the seemingly impossible to happen. As but one example, in the description of the world according to quantum mechanics, objects can actually be in two different places at once – a phenomenon that is contradictory to everything we expect in our everyday experiences. This underlying weirdness, however, also opens the door to a variety of new practical applications based on quantum mechanics.

In fact, nowadays, systems which utilise quantum effects are considered by many to inevitably be one of the cornerstones of many future technologies. It is therefore unsurprising that not only large corporations but also governments and international organisations have been investing heavily in this continuously growing field. For example, in the UK around £200m has been invested into the ‘National Quantum Technologies Programme’ since 2014 [2] whilst the European Commission launched a ‘Quantum Flagship’ programme in 2018 [3].

The global investment into quantum technologies is now paying dividends in terms of commercial realisation and in the last few years several quantum technologies have now begun to reach the market. For example, we are now readily able to head online and purchase a state-of-the-art TV that actively makes use of quantum effects.

Another well-known application of quantum mechanics is in quantum computing. This concept is not new in itself and was first proposed by the late physicist Richard Feynman in the 1980’s [5]. However, back then many people considered the concept a fantasy. It is only thanks to a huge global research effort, with the likes of Google, IBM and Microsoft investing significantly in the field, that vast improvements of the underpinning technology have now enabled us to reach a stage where we are beginning to see practical implementations of quantum computers that can outperform classical computers [6].

One of the reasons quantum computers are such an exciting prospect is that they behave in a fundamentally different way to the classical computers we use daily. At the moment, modern computers perform calculations on the basis that a single bit of data can only ever exist as either a binary 0 or a binary 1. However, quantum computers utilise quantum bits, or ‘qubits’. Unlike classical bits, qubits are not confined to only being a binary 1 or a binary 0 but can in fact hold both of these values simultaneously and can also have any combination of these two discrete values. This is the ‘weirdness’ of quantum superposition in practice. A mere handful of these qubits can allow a quantum computer to perform calculations at a speed exponentially faster than even the fastest known classical computer. This speed increase is often referred to as quantum supremacy and is a target that Google recently claimed to have already achieved [6]. It thus seems that quantum computers have come from the path of fantasy and are now truly approaching reality. Feynman would no doubt be astonished if he could see where we are now.

Another application of quantum mechanics is in secure communications. Conventionally, one of the most widely used methods to encrypt communications is termed public key cryptography. In this conventional methodology the public key is essentially an extremely large number generated by multiplying two, also very large, prime numbers. The original prime numbers essentially function as a user’s private key and so the communications remain secure as long as it is difficult to factorise the public key into the two prime numbers used to generate it in the first place. For now, this ‘prime factorisation’ problem proves too difficult for classical computers. However, a grave concern for the future is that it is expected that a fairly basic quantum computer would solve this problem with ease [7],[8]. There has thus been a considerable amount of research into secure communication methodologies that aim to avoid these security pitfalls. One of these methodologies is known as quantum key distribution (QKD) which utilises the fundamental laws of quantum physics in order to share information between two parties in a provably secure way. We discuss whether QKD might provide data security for the future in another article.

Understandably, in parallel with the extraordinary research efforts that have taken place over the last few decades in order to develop these quantum technologies, there has also been a significant amount of activity in the number of patents that have been filed worldwide in order to protect these technologies. As quantum technologies are often complex, we consider some of the points to take into consideration when preparing a patent specification relating to quantum technologies in another article.

One thing that seems certain is that the next few decades holds lots of promise for the continuing rise of quantum technologies. Businesses operating in this field looking at gaining a strategic edge over the competition should therefore seriously consider the benefits of securing comprehensive protection for their intellectual assets.

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1. Pais A. (1982). ’subtle is the Lord...’: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein. Oxford: Clarendon.

2. UK National Quantum Technologies Hub

3. EU Quantum Flagship

4. Feynman on Quantum Computers

5. Quantum Supremacy?

6. Cracking Conventional Encryption

7. Shor's Algorithm

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