The idea behind quantum technology was first mooted by physicist Gerard J. Milburn in 1997.

He suggested that by harnessing the properties of quantum mechanics, technologies like cryptography, imaging and computing could be vastly improved.

in the system control room technical operator works at his with picture id890154966

Practical research only really started to take off from 2010. Google and NASA are currently testing a quantum computer known as ‘D-Wave Two', the second ever commercially available quantum computer, developed by Canadian firm D-Wave Systems.

Experts say quantum computing is a big step closer thanks to a breakthrough in March 2016 which could pave the way to building working quantum circuits. 

The Fredkin gate

Scientists from the Griffith University and the University of Queensland managed to build a 'Fredkin gate', where two 'qubits' (the quantum computing equivalent of bits) are swapped depending on the value of the third. 

There are government-backed programmes to explore quantum tech in Singapore and the Netherlands. But it is still viewed as a cutting-edge, far out area within tech.

Here in the UK, a year ago the government launched a five-year, £270 million initiative to take quantum tech from the realm of academics and labs into commercial, practical use, led by four ‘hubs' in the universities of Oxford, Birmingham, York and Glasgow.

The project's leaders say the UK could become a world leader in this emerging field.

But firstly: what is it? [You might also like: What is microservices?]

Quantum tech explained

Take a deep breath. This is about to get a bit complicated.

Quantum mechanics is ‘the science of the very small': a roughly century-old field of physics which explains how matter behaves at the atomic and sub-atomic level.

There are about four properties within quantum theory that classical physics has traditionally struggled to explain. For the field of quantum tech, two are particularly important: superposition and entanglement.

"Superposition is the idea a particle or object can be in two places or states at the same time," explains Dr Richard Murray, technologist at the UK government's science and tech innovation agency Innovate UK.

In the field of quantum computing, this means that rather than a bit being either a 1 or 0, you can have ‘qubits' which can be a superposition of both a 1 and a 0 simultaneously.

Thanks to qubits, quantum computers can hold more information and crunch through data much faster than traditional computers.

The second effect is entanglement, a phenomenon where two objects can be connected by a quantum state, even though they may be physically separated by some distance.

The reason it is useful, according to Murray, is that if you try to transmit information using this entangled state, if anyone tried to look at it, the quantum effect would be destroyed, and the person at the other end would see someone had tried to intercept the data.

"That makes for a very secure comms network," he explains.

Still confused? Here's Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau explaining quantum computing like a boss...

How quantum tech could be used

Quantum tech can theoretically be deployed in an number of different ways. Some examples include the microprocessor, imaging devices and lasers, which all derive from quantum physics.

Read next: Meet M Squared, the Scottish laser specialists "selling the shovels" for the quantum computing gold rush

As a field of science, quantum mechanics could transform the healthcare sector, including in radiotherapy and imaging.

For example, with quantum sensors, MRI machines can be improved to gather ultra-precise measurements. This means that the MRI will have the capabilities to look at single molecules or grouped molecules.

Quantum communication devices could be a way to transmit medical records, defence data or secure government records without worrying they would fall into the wrong hands.

And of course, the "holy grail" of quantum tech is quantum computing.

In fact, IBM has said it plans to roll out the world's first commercial universal quantum computing platform, with the full SDK being available this year. Partnering with Samsung, JSR, Honda, Hitachi Metals, Canon, and Nagase, IBM has aims to create quantum computing applications across many industries.

"Because of their exponential power, a universal quantum system with just 50 qubits may be able to perform certain complex calculations at a rate that today's top multi-Petaflop supercomputers can't yet emulate, nor can any other class of quantum computers," stated Dario Gil, vice president of science and solutions at IBM Research in a blog post on Forbes.

"Our goal is to provide businesses and organisations with access to a new realm of computational power, before unachievable, to solve real-world and societal problems," he added.

Could the UK be a market leader in quantum tech?

So what's next? Naturally the UK is looking to position itself as a leader in quantum tech.

The government predicts that quantum tech will be worth £1 billion in the UK economy in the next ten years. Already, in 2017 the University of Bristol announced plans to build the world's first Quantum Technologies Innovation Centre.

Although the centre is not expected to open in full until 2021, the UK remains the first country so far to have begun planning towards such investment. It is anticipated that the centre will provide 9,000 new jobs, while generating almost £300 million for the economy.