Since the advent of personal computers, the name of the game has been miniaturization.
How small can we shrink down transistors? How many of those transistors can we cram onto a computer chip? This is one of the main strategies in making our computers faster and more powerful.
But we’re quickly approaching an inconvenient plateau — very soon, the idea of shrinking down computer parts just won’t be possible and won’t make any sense. When an electronic component is just a few atoms wide, how do you improve on that?
We recently spent a week in Moscow surrounded by some of the world’s brightest scientific minds to learn all about quantum technology — what it is, where it’s heading, and how it can make our lives better. The International Conference on Quantum Technologies, sponsored by the Russian Quantum Center, saw professors, theorists, and physicists of all stripes come together to present their ideas to each other. The results were astounding.
“We’re running out of ways to make computers faster and quantum technology is clearly the next step,” Professor Vladimir Shalaev told Business Insider.
“Quantum technology” is a blanket term for technology that makes use of the weirdness of the quantum world to accomplish tasks. Some classic examples of this “weirdness” are most readily found in electrons, which are part of essentially every atom in the universe. They can move forwards and backwards in time, exist in two places at once, and can even teleport by way of a process called quantum tunneling.
This smacks of magic, but it’s very real, having been confirmed by countless experiments over the past hundred years or so. Quantum mechanics, for all its quirks and idiosyncrasies, is one of the most tested and verified theories in physics.
In practical terms, quantum weirdness is already laying the foundation for u
nbreakable codes, computers that can crunch numbers at an unbelievable rate, and super-speedy database searches. We asked Sergeui Beloussov, serial entrepreneur and senior partner of VC fund Runa Capital, what it would take to get the average person to care about this stuff.
“The average person shouldn’t care about quantum technology!” he said. “Do you care how your microwave works, or do you just care that it works?” He’s a proponent of quantum technology that disappears into the background of whatever device you’re using, leaving you free to enjoy its capabilities without worrying about the complicated maths and physics that make it work.
Beloussov seems most intrigued by how quantum technology can change hardware companies. He used MRI design as an example: “If you’ve ever been in an MRI, you know it’s not fun. It’s noisy and you have to lay perfectly still for a long time. There’s no reason for MRIs to suck like this. We could use quantum technology like an atomic magnetometer to shrink down the components of an MRI machine until they’re so small and affordable that there’s one in every doctor’s office.”
Perhaps the sexiest application of quantum technology is in computing. A quantum computer is one that uses quantum bits, called qubits, instead of standard bits to interact with information. Where the bits in your Mac or PC can only represent a one or a zero, a quantum computer’s qubits can represent a one, zero, or a one and zero at the same time. This enables the computer to perform many calculations at once, significantly reducing the time required to solve a problem.
A computer that can carry out multiple operations at a time represents a great leap forward. Suddenly artificial intelligence can be a little less artificial. Huge numbers can be factored nearly instantly, an important development for code-breaking and Internet security.
There’s an obvious and slightly cliched question to be asked here — when will we have quantum computers on our desktops?
“I don’t think people need their own quantum computers,” said Beloussov. “Not everyone needs their own power generator. They’re expensive and complicated. I imagine we will be interacting with quantum computers over our mobile devices in the future.”
It might not always be clear where quantum technologies will find their most pertinent applications, but scientists are staunch advocates that they should be fervently investigated.
Nobel laureate Wolfgang Ketterle put it this way during a conference panel: “People in the entertainment industry didn’t discover lasers for DVDs and BluRays. That was the work of scientists. Dentists didn’t discover X-rays for improved medical imaging. That was the work of scientists.”
Harvard professor Misha Lukin told us that “not only should scientists be allowed to investigate technologies that might not have an obvious application, they should be encouraged to do so. Improved clocks are an important part of driverless cars. Improved sensors make it easier to find cancer. When you build a bridge to an uninhabited island, people move there, build houses, and start an economy. We’re building these bridges.”
It’s obvious that quantum technology will radically transform a number of fields from medicine to cryptography to others that we haven’t even anticipated yet. The only question: will you be ready for it?
Disclosure: Our trip to Moscow, including travel and lodging expenses, was sponsored by the Russian Quantum Center.