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.
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.
What is Quantum tech? 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?]
What is Quantum tech? 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
“By integrating these two quantum effects [superposition and entanglement] into each bit of information, we can make a computer much more powerful than a normal computer.
“We can make other tech using quantum effects such as really specialist laser and vacuum equipment,” Murray says.
Other applications could include quantum sensing devices (measuring gravity, for example), brain imagining, microscopes and very accurate magnetic sensors or clocks.
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.
“Quantum computers have the potential to solve problems far better than any current computer can. They will let you do tasks very effectively that existing computers are not very good at: those that require a lot of processing,” Murray says.
Currently there are one-qubit quantum devices in the UK. The main issue facing development of the technology is scaling. However Murray believes this can be overcome. He says “we may have 30-qubit devices in 30 years”.
“It’s very easy to think they [quantum computers] are very far away but they are closer than you expect,” he adds, pointing to big investments from numerous tech giants.
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 or Science and Solutions at IBM Research in a blog post.
"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?
Murray firmly believes so.
He claims we are just three years away from seeing some quantum tech products go to market: specifically timing and gravity devices.
Murray admits it will be quite some time before you see any of this tech in your mobile phone.
“Very few companies are willing to invest in something to reach market in 20 years’ time, so it’s about how early wins might transform into revolutionary stuff further away in future,” he says.
However when quantum tech starts to become more widespread and mainstream, Murray believes the UK will be at the vanguard.
“We [in the UK] do have a head start. In fact a lot of the work we do is with other countries looking to the UK to ask what we’re doing, what’s working and what’s not. We really are setting the way forward,” he says.
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