The next generation of quantum technology will require not just new physics but also new engineering.
The current generation of quantum tech is mostly a testbed for basic research. The consensus in the field is that while the gadgets we have now are nice, they’re not yet good enough to change the world. The next generation of quantum technology will be different. To make better gadgets, we’ll need more than just new physics. We’ll also need new engineering.
What will happen when quantum tech moves from the lab into the world? Nobody knows, but there’s one thing we can say for sure: it won’t be what you expect. Quantum technologies are often unexpected in the way they work, and their successes and failures can’t be predicted from first principles. When engineers have worked with a particular technology long enough, they develop a “feel” for how it behaves in tasks related to its original purpose—and they often use this knowledge to build gadgets that were never imagined by their predecessors. If you had asked an electrical engineer in 1890 whether it was possible to turn a light on by pressing a button, you would have received an affirmative answer. But if you had asked whether it was possible to transmit speech across a continent using electricity, you would probably have been told that this was
Every day, more quantum technologies are becoming commercially available. Quantum technology is based on the principles of quantum mechanics, the physics that governs how nature behaves at the atomic scale.
Quantum technologies enable dramatic performance improvements in a diverse range of applications, from healthcare to environmental monitoring and from security to defence.
Now is the time to get involved in quantum technology. There are many ways for you to become part of this exciting new technology:
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In quantum computing – the technology of the future – everything is simultaneously 0 and 1. A quantum computer can be in many different states at once. It could be running an infinite number of algorithms all at once.
This is weird even by the standards of computing, which has always been a bit weird. The abstraction and strangeness of computers has long been a barrier to entry for non-techy people, but this is too much even for geeks. Just as tech innovators have succeeded by making technology less strange for the masses, so quantum computing will succeed by making it more strange – both stranger than other technologies and stranger than itself.
Superposition is one of the defining characteristics of quantum technology, but it’s not enough on its own to make a device truly quantum. For a start, you need to make sure that your object exists in one state while being measured, otherwise you can’t measure it at all; and if you can’t measure it, you can’t use it for anything useful. It also needs to remain coherent for long enough to do something useful with it: quantum effects tend to decay very quickly when exposed to the outside world, which puts a limit on how fast a quantum computer can work.
Quantum technology is the application of quantum mechanical phenomena such as superposition and entanglement to engineering, computing and other practical endeavors. Quantum technologies are expected to lead to new applications in sensing, metrology, communication and computation.
Quantum sensors use the principles of quantum mechanics for measuring physical quantities that cannot be measured using conventional techniques. They have the potential to improve the sensitivity or resolution of a measurement by several orders of magnitude, opening up new applications in a wide range of scientific fields.
Quantum computing, as a field, has existed for 30 years. Yet quantum computers—which in theory could be exponentially more powerful than today’s most advanced machines, capable of processing vast amounts of data all at once—remain largely theoretical.
The stumbling blocks are many: Quantum computers need to operate at extremely low temperatures, and keeping them there is expensive and difficult. Building the structures and circuits that could enable quantum operations is an enormous challenge. Even if these problems are solved, programming a quantum computer will require a major paradigm shift.
Now, with the rise of machine learning, the field is starting to feel new urgency. The next generation of artificial intelligence will likely rely on accessing vast new amounts of data—and exploiting the parallelism of quantum computing could be key to making that possible. Researchers are also exploring how machine-learning tools could be used to accelerate the development of quantum computers themselves.
It’s unlikely that there will be a functioning general-purpose quantum computer in our lifetime, says John Preskill, a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech who has been studying the field for decades. But companies like Google and IBM have been making steady progress toward creating specialized quantum chips that could solve particular classes of problems more easily than classical computers can.
Quantum technologies are already beginning to revolutionize fields such as cryptography, sensing, and computing. The next generation of quantum-based technologies will be transformative. For example, a quantum computer could efficiently solve certain problems that would take a classical supercomputer billions of years to compute.
Quantum technology is an umbrella term that covers the use of quantum phenomena to perform technological functions. Quantum phenomena include behavior such as superposition and entanglement, in which multiple quantum states can exist in one physical system. Superposition allows for very sensitive measurement systems, while entanglement enables long-distance interactions with unprecedented speed and precision. These characteristics have applications beyond atomic scales in areas such as high-precision clocks, sensors, and communication technologies with enhanced security measures.
The NIST Quantum Information Program (QIP) fosters research in the science and technology of quantum information, which applies the principles of quantum mechanics to realize new ways to encode and transmit information. QIP activities at NIST include both fundamental research on the physical mechanisms enabling these technologies and applied research on practical tools for industry and government users.
There are two kinds of technologists. Some are “techies,” who develop new tools and products. Others are “techies who use tech.” One is the kind of person who builds a better mousetrap, and the other is the kind of person who knows how to make good use of one.
It’s easy to confuse these two things. We tend to ascribe to technology itself any good that comes of it. But technology is not a unified force that bends human nature in one direction or another; it’s just what we make of it. Some technologies are obviously dangerous, like nuclear weapons, but others can be used both for good and for evil.
For example, social media can be used to organize revolutions or sell soap. The distinction between those two uses is not inherent in the technology, but rather in how people use it.
The internet is another example. The internet has been called “the nervous system of the planet,” linking people all over the world together with unimaginable speed and efficiency. But so far most people have used this power for trivial purposes: gossiping about celebrities, looking at cat pictures, and posting their own unsolicited opinions on everything under the sun. So far we’ve only scratched the surface of what this new medium can