What's going on in quantum technologies?

Innovate UK and the EPSRC have just announced a £19.5 million funding competition for quantum technologies. But what are quantum technologies, and why are Innovate UK, and the UK government supporting them?

What are quantum technologies?

Google and other companies are looking at integrating Quantum technologies  within electronic circuit boards, to unlock remarkable new performance.
Google and other companies are looking at integrating Quantum technologies within electronic circuit boards, to unlock remarkable new performance.

Quantum was invented by scientists around the turn of the 20th century to describe how particles, such as electrons and light behave on the smallest scale.

At these scales, particles are not hard, tennis-ball like objects, but waves that can pass through each other, interfere with each other. They commonly come as a sequence of oscillations, rather than on their own. Most importantly, they require an extra variable when describing them, which is known as phase.

Our understanding of quantum physics and the quantum world has been phenomenally successful, and today it underpins many devices that impact our daily lives.

Intel employs thousands of quantum scientists to develop its microchips, and the laser, a quantum device, underpins all modern telecommunications that the internet is built from.

So in many ways, quantum technologies are already everywhere around us.

What’s new, and what can they do for us?

Over the last 20 years, scientific discovery in this area has taken a new and very exciting direction.

Based on the phenomenal accuracy and control of modern day electronics and optics, we now not only understand quantum effects, but are also able to create, manipulate and control them as well.

Using this control, we are able to harness two effects, which are not exploited in current devices. These effects, now at our disposal are known as ‘superposition’ and ‘entanglement’.

‘Superposition’ and ‘entanglement’

Very generally speaking, superposition is the concept that quantum things can be in two states, such as two places, or two energy states, at the same time. It’s the atomic equivalent of being in both Glasgow and Edinburgh at the same time.

It is weird, and quite frankly no-one can truly understand it, but trust me, it’s real.

This is incredibly useful, because while in two states at the same time, these objects can be made to be very sensitive to the outside environment.

The second effect is known as entanglement. This was described by Einstein as:

spooky action at a distance.

It describes a quantum effect that ‘spookily’ links the superposition properties of two particles, despite them being separated.

Entangled states are famously impossible to copy or measure, without destroying the entanglement. This means that if one encodes information using entangled states, it becomes impossible for a hacker to read or copy that information, without destroying the effect.

If that information is a key that protects secure data, you know that a key which is not entangled has become compromised. At this point you throw away the key, and warn the sender not to send the encoded message, and your secret information never gets out.

Why have we suddenly become aware of the great potential of quantum devices?

Firstly, scientists and companies have started to see that the majority of the complex laboratory equipment that is required to do this can now be produced relatively cheaply, in robust, miniaturised and easy to use packages.

Crudely speaking, over the last few years, it has become apparent that the time is right to turn these quantum devices into new, affordable commercial products.

Secondly, over the last 24 months, there have been a number of very large, and significant investments from governments and companies around the world. Examples of this are:

  • €1 billion investment in a quantum technologies flagship by the EU
  • $50 million for investment for quantum computing in Canada
  • $26 million for quantum computing at the university of New South Wales
  • €130 million investment by Microsoft in quantum computing
  • $50 million from Intel

This is not to mention significant undisclosed investments from the USA and Singapore governments, Google, Bosch, Lockheed Martin and other large and small companies around the world.

What can quantum technologies do that current technologies can’t?

The Hub for Sensing and Metrology, testing their quantum gravity sensor outside
The Hub for Sensing and Metrology, testing their quantum gravity sensor outside

There are many advantages that quantum technologies are expected to bring over existing devices. A few key applications include:

  • Sub-surface imaging- quantum technologies measure gravity so accurately and quickly that you can start to build up a picture of the density of the ground beneath you. This is important to avoid unforeseen issues in large construction projects like High Speed 2, to find and monitor oil, gas or mineral deposits or to help identify forgotten infrastructure such as plastic pipes or archaeological ruins.
  • Navigation- quantum devices could help you to navigate without satellites, enabling better navigation inside of buildings, underwater or in other hostile environments.
  • Secure communications- data transmission, which can be protected from interception, could help secure future autonomous vehicles, bank transactions, or health records.
  • Quantum computing can be used to calculate very large, very important, highly parallel computing problems, such as machine learning, image recognition very large optimisation or search algorithms.

What are we doing in the UK?

In 2013, the UK government provided a £270 million investment to set up the UK Quantum Technologies Programme.

Its vision was to:

make the UK a world leader in the development and exploitation of new quantum technology devices.

This investment was used to turn four UK universities (Oxford, Glasgow, Birmingham and York) into quantum technologies ‘hubs’ of translational science, technology and innovation. These universities were tasked with driving technology (not science!) forward, producing demonstrators and engaging with companies.

In addition, Innovate UK and the EPSRC have been working together to provide grants to companies in this area. These grants fund joint development projects between companies and academics.

They help companies to take on, influence and steer the development of these devices, which is a crucial component to ensuring the devices that are delivered meet real commercial opportunities and are grounded with a good business case.

The UK programme is also engaged with the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), who are acting as government early adopters for this new technology.

Their activities are significant for two reasons. They’re:

  1. funding the development of these devices for only a few key uses
  2. providing a significant market pull for these new capabilities.

Interested in finding out more?

The £19.5 million funding is the second of a tranche of innovation funding to help companies start the journey towards commercial products.

If you are a company, academic or civil servant interested in hearing more about the benefits or opportunities, make sure that you come along to one of the briefing or networking events, or the 2016 National Quantum Technologies Showcase, at the QEII centre in London on the 3rd November.

You can contact me on Twitter: @Richard_murray6

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