Why the Future is Quantum
Begun as curiosity-driven research, it is now accelerating advances in everything from computing to medicine and finance.
BELOW THE SIZE of atoms, the world functions strangely: particles can be waves, waves can be particles, and particles can jump vast distances without traversing space. Yet, these strange phenomena, known as quantum mechanics and discovered just over a century ago by academics, are now embedded in technologies we take for granted, like computer memory, lasers, and solar cells.
Now that same research field — thanks to decades of persistent work by scientists and engineers — is ushering in what has been called the ‘second quantum revolution’. The first rewrote the rules that govern physical reality at the subatomic scale; the second relies on this very weirdness to create whole new technologies.
“Quantum technology — harnessing the strangest effects in quantum physics as resources — will be as transformational in the 21st century as harnessing electricity was in the 19th,” says Prof Michael Biercuk, director of the Quantum Control Lab at the University of Sydney, Australia.
“Quantum computing in particular promises to totally upend the way we process information, rendering previously incomputable problems manageable, from the chemistry underpinning pharmaceutical discoveries to major challenges in codebreaking and materials science.”
His lab is a node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems, or EQUS, one of six such university-led centres in Australia either wholly or partly focused on quantum technologies. EQUS itself is a partnership between five universities — Sydney, Macquarie, Queensland, Western Australia, and the Australian National University (ANU) — along with Australia’s government-run Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) and industry partners like Microsoft and Lockheed Martin.
Biercuk also serves as CEO of Q-CTRL, a quantum engineering company with major Silicon Valley backing that grew out of research at the University of Sydney. It is developing custom quantum control solutions for devices being created by industry and research groups and designing advanced quantum sensors for defence and mining.
Another spin-off company is Silicon Quantum Computing (SQC), borne out of research done at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), also in Sydney. It is backed by the Australian Government and the State Government of New South Wales, as well as the country’s telco giant Telstra, and the country’s largest financial institution, the Commonwealth Bank. Its aim is to build a full-scale quantum computer in silicon.
Most of the world’s quantum computing efforts are based on more exotic technologies, such as superconducting loops and ion traps; nevertheless, since the world’s US$380 billion semiconductor industry — led by the likes of Intel and Samsung — has been based on silicon since the 1950s, SQC is thought to be strong contenders.
UNSW is also the home of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T), a collaboration of almost 200 researchers across six universities — UNSW, Melbourne, Queensland, Griffith, Sydney, ANU, and the University of Technology Sydney as well as DSTG, the Australian Signals Directorate and another 17 universities and four corporate partners overseas.
“A quantum computer would be able to solve problems in minutes that would otherwise take thousands of years,” says Prof Michelle Simmons, head of CQC2T and a former Australian of the Year who also sits on SQC’s board. “Problems where computers work on large databases or consider lots of variables … such as predicting the weather, stock markets, optimizing speech, facial and object recognition such as self-driving cars, looking at optimizing aircraft design, targeting drug development to the patients DNA,” she says.
Simmons, who had been a research fellow at the University of Cambridge working in quantum electronics, was attracted to the Australian university system by its openness to pursuing challenging science. “I wanted to build something that could prove to be useful,” she recalls. “Australia offered the freedom of independent fellowships and the ability to work on large-scale projects.”
She joined UNSW in 1999, became a founding member of CQC2T, and eventually took over as director in 2010. While Simmons doesn’t underestimate her team’s chances against global behemoths, she does believe silicon will win out. “I’m not out there to recreate Intel, but I honestly believe our devices will win in the long term.”
These two centers of excellence may be fervently focussed on quantum technologies, but there are another 20 Australian research institutions and 14 universities working in the field, and 16 private companies — either university spin-offs or offshoots of overseas giants like Microsoft or IBM, all looking to bring quantum technologies to market. That’s according to a new roadmap produced for the Australian government by the CSIRO, Growing Australia’s Quantum Technology Industry.
Due to Australia’s strong research base in quantum technology, the report predicts that — with the right support for university research and collaborations with business — the country can grow the field into a $4 billion-dollar industry by 2040, creating some 16,000 high-value jobs. This assumes Australia capturing only 5% of the global market for quantum computing, for example, and doesn’t factor in the improvements quantum technologies will bring to society and industries like mining, finance, health, and energy.
“It’s exciting to see that the strength of the research sector which drew me to Australia 10 years ago is now transitioning into a world-class industrial base,” added Biercuk, who was lured to Australia from the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology. “I truly believe that quantum technology represents Australia’s most promising technological and export opportunity of our generation.”
Take cryptography, for example: essential to both military and civilian networks, it relies on scrambling data with complex mathematical formulae that would take decades of computer time to crack. Until quantum computers arrive, that is. Luckily, Australian universities have impressive theoretical and experimental expertise in quantum communications technology, including quantum cryptography, which both rely on the spooky properties of quantum mechanics to make communications impossible to decode.
In 2006, ANU was the first to commercialize quantum-enhanced cybersecurity solutions, creating Quintessence Labs. Problem is, quantum cryptography works best over short distances and on secure fiber networks. So ANU physicists are developing a quantum-encrypted laser communications system that would allow quantum cryptography via satellite. These would depend on ‘quantum memories’ — also being developed at ANU — that capture and store information encoded in laser beams without reading or tampering with the data, keeping its quantum cryptography state intact.
Already, global cybersecurity and secure communications are worth $254 billion a year and forecast to grow at 10% annually. Even assuming slower growth, snapping up just 5% of the market with quantum-enhanced cybersecurity and network technologies would, by 2040, generate $820 million in annual revenue and 3,300 new jobs in Australia, according to the quantum roadmap.
Defence is another arena. Submarines preparing to attack a coastal target are exceedingly difficult to spot: they emit less noise than ambient ocean sounds, yet can still hear a surface ship approaching long before the ship can detect the submarine, allowing the submarine to change course or stop. But, thanks to quantum technology, that advantage may not last.
Researchers at the University of Adelaide’s School of Physical Sciences are working to create tiny atomic detectors, known as quantum magnetometers, that, anchored to the seafloor, could detect the passage of a nearby submarine and alert coastal defences. In fact, a slow-moving metal object underwater is exactly what a quantum magnetometer would excel at.
“Submarines are actually giant metal objects, so they’ve got some magnetic field associated with them,” says physicist Dr. Ben Sparkes. “They can never really get rid of that — you have to use metal to make a submarine.
“The great thing about these detectors is they have no power requirements, they’re just atoms in a glass cell. Changes in the gradient of magnetic fields over a 2D array tell you something is passing by … [and] you work out what direction it’s moving as it crosses other detectors in the array.” What’s more, it’s especially sensitive at low frequencies, which is exactly what you want in a submarine detector, he added.
Then there’s quantum sensing, which is already delivering dazzling applications in healthcare and medicine — such as enabling early disease detection and the imaging of human biology with exquisite precision, relying on the quantum effect of fluorescent nano‐diamonds.
A leading player is the ARC Centre of Excellence in Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) — a consortium led by the universities of Adelaide, Macquarie, RMIT, Griffith, and UNSW — with 260 university researchers and 13 partners in industry and academia in Japan, China, US, Germany, Canada, and Britain all working at the ‘nano-scale’, or 100 times smaller than a single bacterium.
“We ask questions at the nanoscale of biological life because it’s at the nanoscale where we see the inner workings of cells,” says the University of Adelaide’s Prof Mark Hutchinson, director of CNBP. “It is at the nanoscale that we can observe life begin, watch the triggers of pain be activated, and observe disease evolve. And that’s delivering really bold science.”
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