Quantum Applications

Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Applications, Quantum Computing

Hand-washing, social distancing and quantum computers? Lessons for tomorrow from today’s global pandemic


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Feature image via NPR

Lately, I have begun to wonder how many times the word “unprecedented” can be used in the news before it loses meaning altogether. As society is inundated with stories, numbers, and graphs, detailing the spread and mortality rate of the novel COVID-19, it is important to remember that parallels can be drawn between previous global pandemics and lessons learned for the challenges we are now facing. In fact, health pandemics occur at a disturbingly regular rate. Most recently in 2013, Ebola affected large swathes of Africa, in the late 80s to early 90s the ongoing AIDS epidemic hit the U.S. hard, and if we look even a little further back in history, the Spanish Flu of 1918 presents a similar case study to Coronavirus. Further back still, the Bubonic Plague wiped out between 30-60% of human society in the 1300s, and even biblical times tell stories of widespread plagues. Similarities exist as well between our current state (and our predicted future state) and war-times—when large-scale, global, social and economic impacts have closed shutters, necessitated isolation, and strained resources and economies across the globe.

While a pandemic of this scale or severity may be nothing new, there is one important, unprecedented factor we are experiencing with COVID-19 today: The role that modern technology is playing in the fight against it. Never before has the world been equipped with the level of advanced technology currently at our disposal. With two of the world’s technological giants, China and the U.S., epicentres of COVID-19’s infection and spread, it is interesting to see the ways in which technologies are being used to combat the spread of the virus, diagnose cases, control information, and develop treatments. While quantum technology is still too immature to contribute significantly to the current effort, there are signs pointing to how useful it will one day be in a similar scenario, which we can be sure will eventually arise again. This moment presents a stark opportunity for emerging technologies to take the stage and for the humans behind them to demonstrate how they can be used for the good of society.

China presents a COVID-19 case study characterised by stark contrasts. The country has been on the receiving end of global vitriol and applause within the span of a week for its handling of the situation. Its approach to managing the outbreak has been characterised as draconian, a serious infringement on its population’s civil liberties and human rights—but apparently, it worked. The numbers coming out of China indicate that the country has achieved something few others have yet been able to: a dramatic decrease in cases. While nearly everywhere else, cases continue to skyrocket. It appears China has gained an upper hand over the situation, a battle in which a slew of emerging technologies quite literally held the frontline. Notable among these are China’s use of robotics, drones, Big Data and artificial intelligence (AI).

China’s supercomputer Tianhe-1 has also been put to the job. Using an AI system to compare hundreds of chest scans of potentially infected patients, Tianhe-1 was tested as an alternative to the scarce COVID-19 test kits in China. The results produced by the supercomputer are reportedly ready in seconds—not days—allowing for rapid diagnoses and enabling quicker action to be taken to isolate the ill. This is a function of critical value in the case of a virus where many otherwise “healthy” people act as carriers, manifesting little to no symptoms but remaining highly contagious. According to the source, this technology has a success rate higher than 80% and is able to assist doctors in coping in an inundated healthcare system by doing what a doctor can do in 15 minutes, in just 10 seconds. This system is now employed in over 30 hospitals across China, where supercomputing power combined with an AI system and access to vast amounts of data are empowering it to improve every day.

In the U.S. as well, the most powerful supercomputer in the world—IBM-built, 200 petaflop, Summit—is being employed to help researchers find a treatment for Coronavirus. In February, researchers used Summit to screen a library of 8,000 drug compounds already approved for human use, searching for those most likely to be effective against COVID-19 by simulating reactions with the virus’ own component structure. As with China’s Tianhe-1, Summit was used by researchers to complete a job in two days that would have otherwise taken the team months to complete using classical computers. Over two days, Summit identified 77 small-molecule drug compounds for further research and trial from the original list of 8,000. While Summit is not being used to discover a new drug to cure Coronavirus, it is hoped that this system can speed up trials for the use of existing, approved drugs to combat COVID-19.

These initiatives, empowered by humans but powered by modern supercomputing technology, endow us with the critical component of exponential speed, giving the world’s researchers precious time to diagnose and potentially treat infected patients before healthcare systems become overwhelmed. Both the Chinese system powered by Tianhe-1 and IBM’s Clinical Development system have been made available free of charge during this time. These systems are of critical support in the processes of enabling exponentially quicker diagnoses and anti-viral identification, however they cannot immediately provide what is most sought after: a cure.

Novel drug development is a time-consuming and expensive process, often requiring up to 10 years and billions of dollars. Project Q has previously investigated how quantum computing can be a critical tool in speeding this process up and making it cheaper. With news of the role supercomputers are taking in diagnosing and matching of an existing treatment for COVID-19, it becomes ever-more apparent that quantum computers will be of great value in aiding researchers to discover new drugs to treat and protect against future viral outbreaks. As supercomputers dwarf classical computers in processing power, so too will quantum computers provide an exponential edge over supercomputers to rapidly process mass amounts of information.

Quantum computers will be able to speed up the process of drug development by providing researchers with the ability to compare the combination of any number of compounds, much like what has been done with Summit—but much faster. Unlike Summit, which is bound by its ability to only model a certain level of molecular complexity, quantum computing with be able to simulate a greater array of potentially life-saving compounds. Further, according to early experimental results from recent research by IBM, quantum computing will be able to do so with far greater speed and accuracy than currently possible.

Paired with deep learning AI technology, quantum computing could also help to accurately model exactly how an infectious disease like COVID-19 spreads. This capability requires vast amounts of data, which is something the U.S. government is currently calling on social media companies like Facebook to provide. During this pandemic, it has become clear how valuable and important accurate modelling of the virus’ spread has been to governments and health officials for creating visual representations of the “what ifs”. These models help us to understand not only projections for transmission, but also to simulate and demonstrate how well certain interventions might work. Machine learning algorithms paired with quantum computing power could eventually provide us with more accurate models, helping to both simulate various interventions and help society to understand our own role in prevention, as authorities have tried to communicate through the “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 discourse.

We are learning that in the case of COVID-19, time is of the essence. The spread of the virus is unique in its ability to manifest as asymptomatic in many—creating perfect carriers in a highly globalised, mobile and crowded society. Specialists such as Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert, renowned virologist Robert Webster, Jeremy Konyndyk, the former director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, and even Bill Gates have warned society of the next global health pandemic for years. And yet, as is the case with global warming, preparing resources, the public, and responders for a future assailant (no matter how deadly) has never risen to the top of any government’s list of priorities. Now facing this reality, governments are finding their hospitals poorly equipped, society failing to respond to emergency directives, and frontline workers preparing for disaster.

Modern computing technologies are helping to quicken the pace of human ability to cope with COVID-19 and ultimately empowering researchers to beat it in innovative ways. One example of this is the new public-private AI research consortium, c3.ai, which has vowed to put its mission—combining top researchers with a focus on using AI to battle insidious social problem— to the job of combatting the spread of Coronavirus. Social networks and platforms, including Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube have a joint statement on their efforts to combat the spread of misinformation about the pandemic. While these companies already have machine learning algorithms in place to moderate feeds, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube in particular have stated that they will be relying heavily on their AI algorithms at this time, having sent workers home in order to help keep them safe. This moment ostensibly defines a test for imperfect AI systems, where they will be held almost entirely responsible for making human (or, it is hoped, superhuman) judgement calls in moderating information at such a critical time.

There is certainly ample hope that these emerging technologies can be applied to the effect of great social gain. However, we should always be weary that letting modern technologies run at the lead of progress may come at a heavy and unretractable cost to society. China has applied the widespread use of high-surveillance technologies, including a color-coded health-risk rating system that tracks millions of citizens daily and controls the spaces they are allowed into, and hovering drones equipped with facial recognition technology. These technologies are used in a society where most citizens already accept that their technological benefits come with an increased level of surveillance and high levels of government control. However, in the U.S. and elsewhere, COVID-19 has brought this debate to the table. Emergency discussions between America’s Big Tech and the government are underway, where anonymized personal data held by tech giants like Google and Facebook are being requested to help health officials to track and map the spread of infection.

As ever, the line between technology as a help or a harm is complicated and blurred. The case of its use in the battle against COVID-19 is no exception. However, we have the opportunity to look at the choices we face in applying these technologies today in order to inform how we make our decisions tomorrow. If anything, the Coronavirus pandemic can show us that while history might not repeat itself, it does produce both positive and negative feedback loops, leaving us with the ability to make choices as a society that allow us to move forward rather than in circles. It is worth pointing out as a stark reminder of our own humanity during this epidemic, the fact that the most effective tools put forward against combatting the virus are incredibly low-tech, to say the least: hand-washing and social distancing. So, for the moment—we should wash our hands, practice social distancing, be kind to others and, when the time comes, make the right choices about how we might best apply quantum computers for the public good.

Quantum Applications, Quantum International Relations, Quantum Internet

The quantum internet should be space-based—or should it?


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Feature image via Vice

Satellites have become critical tools in infrastructure and defence. They control GPS systems, enable international communications, allow us to watch the news “live” and track and relay information about the weather and other natural events. They facilitate business and financial communications, as well as radio and telephone capabilities. Satellites have become utterly vital to state infrastructures, making them fundamental assets for competing global powers. Now, we learn that new satellite constellations are being presented as the best way forward to empower a global quantum internet. As the use-value of satellites broadens and we become ever-more dependent on the networks and systems they support, two critical threats loom large. One, the physical threat of space debris; and two, the threat posed by the increasing militarization of space. These challenges to the implementation of a space-based quantum internet have not yet surfaced in the developing debate but must be addressed as we stand on the brink of the quantum age.

New research conducted by a Louisiana State University team led by Sumeet Khatri suggests that satellite-based technology is the best way forward to build a global quantum internet. According to the researchers, a quantum-enabled satellite constellation would be the most cost-effective approach to realise the next big application in quantum communications. Khatri’s team suggests that the most effective and logistically coherent system for a space-based quantum internet would require a constellation of at least 400 satellites, circling the globe in mid-Earth orbit, at an altitude of around 3,000 kilometres. On its own, 400 may not seem like a huge number of satellites, however, by way of comparison, GPS only needs 24 satellites to operate effectively. The nature of quantum entanglement—the essential property of non-locality utilized in quantum-satellite communications—is incredibly fragile, thus requiring a relatively high number of satellites and base stations to allow quantum information to travel without loss of signal.

Space Debris

Currently, there are around 2,000 active and 3,000 non-operational satellites orbiting Earth. Aside from these, National Geographic reports that there could be up to 500,000 pieces of what is known as space debris—man-made bits and pieces separated from rockets, space stations and satellites or simply left behind in space—littering Earth’s orbit. Space debris can vary in size, from a fleck of paint to an entire defunct satellite. It does not float idly through space, but rather, travels at a speed of about 17,500 miles per hour (approximately 28,163 km/h). At such great speeds, even a piece of debris as small as a pebble could cause serious damage in a collision with other Earth-orbiting objects such as space stations or satellites. As such, these collisions not only pose a risk to astronauts and space stations (powerfully depicted in the 2013 film, Gravity) but also to critical satellite-based communications infrastructures.

The challenge posed by space debris has not only made its way in popular culture but is heavily monitored by NASA, as a satellite and space-mission security issue. Today, NASA and the U.S. Department of Defence use ground-based telescopes and laser radars to monitor and report on the locations of more than 1,700 pieces of space debris in order to help prevent collisions with operating spacecraft and satellites. These efforts have so far proven sufficient—only a few collisions have occurred that have caused considerable damage to either spacecraft or satellites, but the potentiality for collision events is becoming increasingly common. At the same time, plans to launch more and more satellites are announced regularly by both state and non-state actors. While the situation is currently manageable, a predicted influx of over 50,000 satellites in orbit over the next decade would certainly tip the scales. A satellite-based quantum internet would, of course, add to this crowded milieu.

As a now poignant 1998 article, The Danger of Space Junk, for The Atlantic warned: “over time everything in Earth’s orbit will be ground into celestial scrap”, creating “a mausoleum of space technology”. Scientists now warn that if we do not manage existing space debris and ensure that future satellites and spacecraft are fitted with de-orbiting mechanisms, this reality will soon come to fruition. Most space-bound objects have no built-in function for de-orbiting and will continue to float (or rather, zoom) through the congested low- and mid-Earth orbit as they break into smaller and smaller fractions through degradation or collision with other orbiting objects. Each collision, no matter how small, exponentially compounds the problem.

This problem, which we are now beginning to witness, is known as the Kessler Syndrome. The eponymous Kessler Syndrome was posed by NASA’s Donald Kessler in 1978 in a co-authored quantitative study on the issue. The theory argues that the continued launching of satellites without a plan for de-orbit will lead to exponential collision frequency, creating a “debris belt” in low-Earth orbit that could render future space exploration and the use of satellites impossibly risky, creating a huge setback that could last generations. This leads to a concerning prognosis for the maintenance of entire space-borne infrastructures, which, among other critical functions, transmit national secrets and protect society from incoming natural and man-made disasters like hurricanes and missiles.

There are a variety of niche innovations underway that aim to confront this encroaching challenge, including Japan’s giant space whip (known as the electrodynamic tether, or EDT), which intends to swat debris out of earth’s orbit, causing it to incinerate as it falls toward Earth. The most effective technology for the job, however, is for future satellites to be built with a functionality to end their own lives once their tasks are complete, using their last bit of power to head back toward Earth where they will burn up in the atmosphere in order to self-decommission. This is currently a rapidly evolving space where new innovations are being applied and tested regularly. Projects like D-Orbit’s purpose-built, de-commissioning cubesat and the World Economic Forum’s 2019 project to create a space sustainability rating look hopeful. These types of conscious industry advances are necessary in order to ensure we avoid the Kessler Syndrome, so we can continue to use space sustainably to host novel satellite applications like a quantum internet.

Security

As we have reported on previously, space itself is no sanctuary from geopolitical rivalries. The implementation of a space-based global quantum internet will present a challenge for the grey area of international space development. Quantum satellites straddle the fine line between non-militarised and militarised infrastructure. Quantum technologies are heavily invested in by military-state apparatus—especially in China and the U.S. For either of these countries, the large-scale deployment of quantum-satellites could push us over that line and into an uncertain future of a highly militarised outer space. Already, U.S. President Donald Trump has initiated the development of a dedicated space arm in the U.S. defence forces with Space Force. In China too, the space and military programs are the same entity. Satellites are the centrepieces in both U.S. and Chinese space-security programs, both in offensive and defensive capacities. Recently, Russia, France and Norway have also invested heavily in satellites for a variety of security motivations.

While the conversation around space-military fusions sounds like the stuff of futurist, sci-fi fiction, it is very much a real and unfolding topic in the meta-geopolitical debate. Meta-geopolitics, untethered from traditional geographic constraints, refers to a new phase of international relations contextualised by the rise of border-defying security threats, like terrorism, cyber warfare and espionage, and global warming. It also extends to outer space, where our ever-growing dependence on satellite-based infrastructure is at increasing risk of interference and jamming by state or non-state actors.

China has been a demonstrated leader in both satellite-based quantum communications and offensive security since 2007, when the country tested its anti-satellite missile—a move that thrust satellites to the top of military agendas, especially in the U.S. In 2016, China launched Micius, the first quantum satellite that would soon facilitate ground-to-space quantum-secure communications across the globe. Since then, as we heard at last year’s Q Symposium from Jingyun Fan of China’s University of Science and Technology (watch his presentation here, from 1:10), China has been hard at work, refining the quantum communications capabilities of Micius. Aside from China and Europe, satellite-enabled quantum communications efforts are also underway in North America and the Indo-Pacific, including in Australia. The development of this new wave of satellite technology is only just beginning in earnest and promises to see more and more purpose-built quantum-satellites launched into earth’s low and middle-orbit in the coming years.

From a security perspective, achieving global quantum communications has long been a target, as it promises to enable hack-proof security for long-distance information transmission. While the achievements have so far been narrow, a space-based quantum internet is the next step in ensuring the tamper-proof transmission of vital information across the globe. It is easy to understand the benefit of these capabilities to any national or allied security apparatus. It is equally clear to see how the targeted destruction of quantum-satellites could become an immensely effective tactic in war. Enter space as a new “operational domain” of war, as recently declared by NATO in November of 2019. The inclusion of space as an operational domain acknowledges both the alliance’s critical reliance on satellite infrastructure and the growing threat posed by anti-satellite weaponry capabilities.

We are witnessing a rapid cluttering and securitization of outer space, a “frontier” that once seemed boundless, beyond human reach. Before state and non-state actors continue to dive head-long into this process, they should pause to consider the reality we are facing—a global, quantum space-based effort would put new pressure on an already saturated and precarious potential field of combat. Maintenance of the status quo will push the world into a grey area in both quantum and political science, where the path forward presents risks we are only just beginning to witness and understand. As our satellite capabilities expand and our tethered dependency on these orbital-objects grows, so too does the severity of the threat of their potential interference, blocking or destruction—by accident or by design.

Project Q, Quantum Applications, Quantum Internet

Project Q Interview: Stephanie Wehner on Building a Quantum Internet


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Feature image via Quanta Magazine

Stephanie Wehner has an impressive resume, to say the least. The German physicist and computer scientist is currently leading Europe’s Quantum Internet Alliance on its mission to build a quantum internet. She is the Roadmap Leader of Quantum Internet and Networked Computing at QuTech, a research centre for quantum computing and the quantum internet at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Co-Founder of QCRYPT (the largest annual international conference on quantum cryptography), and Coordinator for the Quantum Internet Alliance of the EU Flagship, as well as an Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Professor at QuTech, Delft University of Technology. And that is not even mentioning her previous accomplishments and accolades.

We recently sat down with Stephanie to discuss the project’s advancements, future use-values for a quantum internet and the challenging ethics of building a network that will enable un-hackable communications.

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

 

Why are you building a quantum internet?

We are working on building a quantum internet because you can do things with a quantum internet that you cannot do on the internet that you have today.

Of course, the most famous application of quantum communication is secure communications. That’s proof that you can have security that even a quantum computer can never break. But that’s not the only reason why we do it. There are a few other cool things you can do with a quantum internet. For example, if you can imagine that in some years we actually do have quantum computers, then people think the first application of such a quantum computer could be to simulate, say, a new material design. But maybe we will only have this technology here at QuTech and a few other places. One way for you to use such a quantum computer would be to send your material design to us, then we would do the simulation for you and then tell you what the result is. But maybe you don’t want to tell us your material design, given that it might be proprietary. And so the question is, can you perform such simulations and can you use the remote quantum computer in such a way that you don’t have to give away your proprietary design or any other secrets that you want to involve in this computation? And the quantum internet makes it possible to use a very simple quantum device, a quantum terminal, to access a remote quantum computer in such a way that this quantum computer cannot learn what you’re doing. So, it cannot learn what your proprietary material design is, it cannot even learn if you’re doing a simulation or factoring a number—it cannot tell the difference.

There are a few other nice applications. For example, one can synchronize clocks more accurately. One can keep data more efficiently in sync in the cloud. That’s maybe something that is not so obvious to you actually as a user, but you would certainly know if it goes wrong.

Let’s imagine an extreme example: let’s say that you have a million euros in the bank. And the data is, of course, stored somewhere. So, somewhere there’s a database that says that you own that one million euros. So, you can imagine that if you went to the A.T.M. to withdraw money, maybe the system crashes when you withdraw. And usually for redundancy purposes, of course, the data does not exist only in one location because, you know, if the computer burns down, then no one remembers who owns any money. It’s replicated in a few locations. But it might happen that if you don’t employ such consistency protocols, that if your system crashes during withdrawal, then computer one now says you own one million euros and computer two now says you own zero euros. So now the question is, who is correct? So, it’s a very important problem actually to keep data consistent in the cloud so that you don’t run into these kinds of issues.

I understand that one of the most important aspects of a quantum internet is that it will enable ultra-secure communications, which is obviously a huge benefit for state-actors, banks and big corporations. But what are some impacts a quantum internet might have on broader civil society?

I think keeping data consistent, for example, is not something totally big business. I think it’s very difficult to predict the future. The internet that we have today was originally meant to share some files around. And that’s great, but then you might also ask why would I, at home, ever share a file? At that point, in fact, people didn’t even have a personal computer at home, so, what are these files that you’re talking about?

So, we cannot predict all the applications that a quantum internet will have. People have used it also, for example, to cheat an online bridge game with entanglement. Which, of course, is a bit obscure but it may hint that there are many more things one can do with it. But I think if people don’t have access to it, then this will also not come.

A lot of the applications that we run on the internet today were not developed by people somewhere in the 60s where they wrote on the whiteboard and said, “these are all the applications, and now we’re going to build this thing”. But rather, there were people who were engaged with their technology and played around and wanted a social forum and to see whether it could be possible.

To begin with, I know the quantum internet you’re building will have a very limited scope but do you envision this being something that will be accessible to everyone in the future?

I certainly hope so, absolutely. I think the question is just a little bit, when? So, we’re building a small demonstration network here in the Netherlands, where we also have an effort to make it accessible for people. But that will only happen in two or three years because it’s very difficult to have something stable enough that you can begin to do that.

We also already have a quantum internet simulator. It’s a little program that you can install on your computer and you can have something like a pretend quantum internet. And we are using it, actually for a Hackathon next week, together with RIPE NCC (RIPE is the regional internet registry in Europe), and this time it’s actually a pan-European version. So, there will be a few teams across Europe—one here, one at CERN, one in Dublin and a few other places across Europe. And they’re going to basically work together on our “pretend quantum internet” to explore a few things one can do with it.

Given the lessons that we’ve learned from the development of the classical Internet, what sort of legal or ethical challenges do you think future frameworks and regulations for a quantum internet might consider? And are these unique from the challenges that are posed by the classical internet?

To be honest, I think there are other people who are more capable of answering this question. I’m a researcher, I’m not a lawyer and I’m also not a specialist in ethics. Given this position, I can give you a few issues, even though maybe I am partially critical about them myself.

On the one hand, there’s a lot of discussion about standardising various technologies. Which, of course, is very important eventually. On the other hand, I’m also a little bit critical about this because if you start to write standards too early, you constrain the development. Another aspect is the impact of having fundamentally un-tappable communication. That is a question that is maybe not even totally unique to quantum networks. Of course, only quantum networks can deliver fundamentally un-tappable communication, but it also arises to a lesser extent with existing encryption technologies that people might be using.

So, is that a good thing or a bad thing? On the one hand, it’s a very good thing because one can protect government secrets and everyone’s secrets with absolute security. But of course, security always has two sides. If you have a mechanism to make something more secure, it can in principle be used by anyone. It can be used for good, but it can also be used for bad. So that is a little bit of a trade-off between these two things.

I am personally of the opinion that you cannot stop progress. So, you can say, “I’m going to forbid this.” But then people will do it anyway. It’s not possible to forbid technology.

The reason I think a lot of us maybe have some mixed feelings about this is the sense that it’s already super hard to realise that technology. It’s already so hard! So, putting some extra barriers is a very scary thing, right?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about Google’s claim to have achieved quantum supremacy, as you know. But, of course, the reality is that for the most part, quantum computers will work in concert with classical computers, not replace them. In what ways will the quantum internet interact with or rely on existing “classical” technologies?

So, maybe to talk about the term quantum supremacy? In quantum communication, quantum supremacy has been achieved many years ago. Because any QKD implementation basically shows quantum supremacy. So, a quantum internet is not supposed to replace the classical internet but rather, supplement it with some extra functionality that you otherwise don’t have. Because, if you say I’m watching a movie on Netflix, there’s no reason why we would send it via qubits. Maybe in the far future when everything is so far advanced, we could need to do everything in one system. But in my lifetime, I don’t expect this. In all known application protocols for quantum, with a secure communication or say secure quantum computing in the cloud or everything else, you need the quantum network, but you also need to send some classical data around.

So, do the networks overlap or do they sit separately?

That’s a good architecture question. Do they follow sort of the same pattern? They don’t need to follow the same pattern on application level, not at all. On the elementary level—on the control level—whenever you have two quantum nodes that wants to make quantum entanglement, for example, they also need to be able to talk to each other classically, to synchronize.

And is this done using hardware or software?

It’s done through hardware and software, actually, on what is called the physical layer. So next to a quantum channel you always have a classical control channel but it is not visible for the user. But this sort of user-level communication classically could be done also by the standard internet and next to the quantum topology.

What kind of support has this project received on a local, national and regional level as well as privately?

We have a lot of support from the from the Netherlands, actually, both through QuTech, which is a national Icon program from the Ministry of Economic Affairs in the Netherlands and also NWO, which is like the Dutch NSF of the U.S. We also have some amount of research funding from the EU, both from the European Research Council and to a lesser extent from the quantum flagship, which is the EU initiative. We are also the coordinator of the European Quantum Internet Alliance where we work together with some other nodes in Europe.

We also have various industry engagements, for example, we work together with KPN, which is the Dutch Telecom. We also talk to a lot of parties in the classical domain. For example, The Hague Security Delta, which is sort of an umbrella organisation of 80 security companies in the Netherlands. That’s very convenient for us because we don’t have to talk to each of them individually. So that’s very valuable for us. We also talk to a few other private entities in the Netherlands. We also have relations with industry partners on the component level, for example, with Toptica who makes laser systems. Then there’s OPNT that does timing control, JPE that does stabilisation. So, this is on the component level where we work with a lot of industries to do specific things for our quantum network. We also work with industry which is more interested in the use case if you were to go to the other extreme of the spectrum. For example, with SAP, which is a German software company. With these companies, the interest is more about what you can do with the technology.

Another useful thing to mention is that there is also RIPE NCC, which is the regional internet registry of Europe. And that’s actually pretty cool for us because they’re an organisation that brings together all the large telecom operators and internet providers in Europe. They are responsible for managing the numbers on the internet and there cannot be a computer anywhere in Europe that does not have a number from RIPE. But they also do a lot of community development and education of their members.

I know you set the deadline for end of 2020 to have this completed, how’s your progress tracking now?

So, we will have one link by 2020 but we do not have the four nodes yet. We want to have three in 2021 and maybe all four in 2022.

Have there been any surprise challenges that have created this delay?

Of course, there are some technical challenges which took us longer. And, of course, there were also some mundane challenges. We have also decided we would like to deviate from the four-city plan because we would like to put one node somewhere we can physically access it. Previously, we had said we’re going to put it in Leiden, Amsterdam, Delft, The Hague. But then we were thinking that somewhere in the building in Leiden there could be a node, but that it would be in one of these KPN-style buildings where no one can go in. So, this is why we want to put one of the nodes somewhere where you can actually see it. That might happen either here [in Delft] or in The Hague or in Rotterdam, we haven’t quite decided yet. The idea is that you would really have a terminal where you can see the node, otherwise you just have to believe us, right? We tell you, we promise that the node’s over there!

Quantum Applications, Quantum International Relations, Quantum Internet

The ‘Who, What, Where, When and Why’ of a Quantum Internet


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With all of the recent hype about quantum supremacy, it’s easy to forget that quantum supremacy in communications was demonstrated years ago. One of the most exciting developments on the horizon for quantum communications is a quantum internet, which will securely transmit quantum information. Like most things quantum, the label of “quantum internet” has been slapped on to a quantum technological application, establishing a concept that is easily consumable for the masses, which helps to create the hype that keeps funding for that application flowing. The reality, as is often the case, is much more complex.

In fact, just about the only thing that scientists agree on is that the term “quantum internet” does not have an agreed-upon definition. That is because the technology required to manifest this reality is still in its infancy. Scientists around the world are working hard to change that. Perhaps the most well-known is Stephanie Wehner of Delft University of Technology. In preparation for the release of Project Q’s interview with Wehner on this topic, we reflect on the current stage of global development of a quantum internet.

Since 2004, the security afforded by quantum communications has been proven superior by a method known as quantum key distribution (QKD). QKD is a system employed to produce and distribute a secret key that can then be used to encode classical information. This method has since been employed by a number of actors across both private and public sectors, including banks and national security networks. It does not, however provide a secure link by which quantum information can be transmitted. Enter one important motivation for a quantum internet: to create a network of quantum nodes that enables the secure transfer of quantum information. Of course, there are a diversity of useful applications for such a network and many more still which will develop as the technology matures. One needs only to recall the history of the classical internet, for which the first projected use-value was extremely narrow, to imagine the breadth and depth of applications that will surely follow once the technology is functional.

However, a salient challenge for researchers working on a quantum internet remains. Like the classical internet, a quantum internet requires a physical infrastructure in order to function. There have been a diversity of approaches to this complex problem, from diamonds to crystals and drones to satellites. For the most part, however, the emerging dominant systems rely heavily on land-based fibre-optic cables, with some major differences between them.

In 2016 China launched their quantum satellite, Micius, as part of their Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) project. Within a year of the satellite’s launch, major goals paving the way for a quantum internet had been achieved by a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, led by Professor Jian-Wei Pan. These ground-to-satellite quantum communication advances included the impressive feat of establishing a quantum-secure communication spanning the longest distance yet between two different points on the globe (Beijing and Vienna) via Micius. Recently, China has also constructed the largest fibre-based quantum communication backbone, known as the Beijing-Shanghai quantum link, which stretches a distance of over 1,200 miles. However, while the link is already in use by some of China’s biggest banks to transfer sensitive data, it is not fully quantum-secure (more on that shortly).

While we have known that quantum communication is theoretically possible for some time, China has been the first country to focus its research apparatus on the challenge, building the first dedicated, large-scale infrastructure for the task. From a security perspective, this is a strategic move on China’s part. The focus on quantum communications is a pre-emptive defence mechanism to combat U.S. advances in the quantum computing space. Regardless of the development of computers, which will be capable of hacking any classical communications, a quantum-secure network will be act as a safeguard against prying eyes and ears. As a result, China continues to be a world leader in this space. However, Europe is hot on its heels and lining up to take the cake for the next big development in quantum communications: creating a functioning quantum internet.

You may have heard of the work being done to build a quantum network in the Netherlands by a team of researchers at the Delft University of Technology. Much like China’s Beijing-Shanghai quantum link, the Delft team is constructing a link between four major cities in the Netherlands, stretching from Delft to Amsterdam.

The main difference between the China quantum link and the one being built by Wehner and her team is that the Chinese infrastructure, while greatly improving upon most current cybersecurity capabilities, is still susceptible to hacking. Theoretically, a genuine quantum link will provide un-hackable connection across large distances. The Chinese system relies on 32 nodes across the link in order to transport quantum information, which is carried in photons, or light particles. Each of these nodes is susceptible to hacking because they serve as points where the information must be decrypted and then re-encrypted before the information continues its journey along the link. The system was constructed in this way because quantum information carried in photons can only travel through about 100 miles of fibre-optic cable before it begins to dim and lose data.

A solution to this problem, which Stephanie and her team have incorporated into their design from the outset, and which the Chinese team is beginning to work with as they improve their own link, is the use of quantum repeaters. This is how they work:

A quantum repeater essentially serves the same purpose as an ordinary relay node, except it works in a slightly different way. A network using quantum repeaters is shaped more like a family tree than a linear chain. In this family tree-shaped game of telephone, the quantum repeater is the parent who distributes identical pairs of quantum keys between two children, therefore doubling the possible distance between users. Moreover, these “parents” can also have their own “parents,” which can then double the key-sharing distance between the children at the bottom for every extra level created atop the family tree. This in effect increases the distance a quantum message can be sent without ever having to decrypt it.

An illustration of the type of quantum network being built by the Delft team.

Alongside their use of quantum repeaters, which provide an infrastructure to teleport the quantum entangled information across the link, the Delft team incorporates the use of quantum memories as an essential element in ensuring the information’s hyper-secure journey. Quantum memories store the entangled information in between the repeaters. They are critical because they enable the network to store the quantum information while the next entangled link is prepared, rather than measuring it and thus potentially destroying it. A system enabled by quantum repeaters and quantum memories eliminates the need to incorporate weak security points in the system where the quantum information is decrypted and then re-encrypted, or potentially destroyed.

Though significant challenges remain for researchers working to build a quantum internet, international efforts become more and sophisticated with each passing day, bringing the world closer to potential quantum network connectivity. While it is being built to supplement certain capabilities of the classical internet, some believe that eventually, the quantum internet will even overtake the classical. Most agree, however, that this will not be a reality even in our lifetime. After all, as Wehner commented in a recent interview with Project Q for our upcoming publication, you don’t really need a quantum internet to watch Netflix.

Tune in next week to read our exclusive interview with Stephanie Wehner, where she updates us on the project’s advancements, answers questions about future use-values for a quantum internet and addresses the challenging ethics of building a network that will enable un-hackable communications.

Quantum Applications, Quantum Computing

Transforming Drug Development: A Critical Role for Quantum Computing


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Feature image via Nature

With news of Google’s possible achievement of quantum supremacy, quantum computing’s promise in a diversity of fields grows ever-more tangible. Drug discovery is just one of a number of areas in which quantum computing is expected to play a disruptive role. On average, it takes over ten years and billions of dollars to bring a potentially life-saving new drug to market. Quantum computers promise to revolutionize the currently expensive, difficult and lengthy process of drug discovery and development, by expanding the search for new chemicals to treat some of the world’s most deadly diseases, speeding up the creation of new drugs and cutting the costs of their development. At this prospective turning point in the advancement of quantum computing, Project Q takes stock of quantum applications in drug research and development.

Currently, researchers rely on computer models and simulations (M&S) to analyse how atoms and molecules behave, in order to develop drugs that will have optimal positive effects and minimal harmful ones. However, while of critical value to this process, today’s M&S tools quickly reach their limits of utility in the complex and computationally intensive process of molecular simulation. The goal of molecular simulation is to find a compound’s most stable configuration, known as its ground state. In order to do this, researchers use M&S systems to simulate the interactions between each of that compound’s electrons, in each atom, in order to test how they will react to one another. This is a fairly straight-forward task, as long as the molecules being tested are simple enough. However, even today’s most powerful supercomputers are only capable of simulating molecules of up to a few hundred atoms, limiting their calculations to only a small fraction of all chemicals that exist.

For a whole host of larger molecules that could be used to make new, life-saving drugs, researchers currently have no better option than to approximate how a molecule may react and then test its behaviour in trials. This process is incredibly inefficient and about ninety percent of drugs that do reach clinical trials fail during the first phase. Adding to this complexity, M&S methods are unable to calculate the quantum interactions that contribute to determining the characteristics of a molecule. A technological update in drug discovery is long-overdue.

Ultimately, the main technological limitation facing drug research and development today is that classical computers lack efficacy in what is known as optimization problems—finding the best solution by testing all feasible solutions—a process which is incredibly time and energy intensive. Quantum computers, in theory, are extremely good at optimization problems. This is due to their ability to leverage parallel states of quantum superposition, which enables them to model all possible outcomes of a problem at once, including the quantum interactions that happen on a particle-level. Theoretically, as they reach their promised computational capacity, quantum computers should be able to rapidly process mass amounts of data.

In 2017, IBM Q researchers achieved the most complex molecular simulation ever modelled on a quantum computer, proving the potential use-value for quantum computers in the pharmaceutical industry. The research suggests that if applied to drug discovery, quantum computers could model and test new drugs through molecular simulation far more comprehensively and much quicker than classical computers, effectively slashing the costs of novel drug research and development. Aside from empowering researchers to discover new treatments for a range of diseases, quantum computing could also help bring new drugs to trial more quickly and improve the safety of trials.

Already, innovators and researchers working on quantum applications in drug development are making waves in the pharmaceutical industry. Abhinav Kandala, part of the IBM Q team that simulated the largest molecule on a quantum computer back in 2017, has continued to push the boundaries of quantum computing in order to make it more applicable to industry, faster. His work focuses on a major challenge in quantum computing: improving accuracy. Quantum computers are still drastically error-prone in their current stage, hampering their utility for application in drug discovery and development. One of the MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35, Kandala has demonstrated how quantum errors can actually be harnessed in order to boost accuracy in quantum computations, regardless of the number of qubits. General advancements in quantum computing like this could help to bring the benefits of quantum computing to industry sooner.

There are number of young companies emerging in the pharmaceutical research space, looking at the computational boost and projected accuracy that quantum computing could lend to a range of challenges in diagnostics, personalised medicine and treatments. As quantum computers are not yet advanced enough to stand alone, most of these global start-ups rely on a blend of emerging and classical technologies. Especially prominent is the blended technological approach in machine learning and quantum computing, a topic we have previously explored here.

Another of the MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35, Noor Shaker leads a company that is harnessing these two e(merging)-technologies in order to speed up the creation of new medicines. Her company, GTN LTD, is producing technology that layers the processing power of quantum computing with machine learning algorithms to sort through mass amounts of chemical data in search of new molecules that could be used in disease treatment and prevention. Using this method, GTN (a Syrian female-run company) hopes to build a critical bridge in healthcare that could help to lessen the gap in access and quality of healthcare for people living in developing countries. GTN LTD’s application of these two technologies is just one example of the numerous ways in which they could be used to create and spread benefit across global healthcare systems.

Machine learning projects are already being implemented as part of a growing trend in digital healthcare, providing a helpful starting point for discussion of how other emerging technologies like quantum computing could also impact the sector. A recent article in Nature explores how even the most well-meaning of artificial intelligence (AI) applications in healthcare can lead to harmful outcomes for certain vulnerable sectors of society. The examples investigated by author Linda Nordling demonstrate the need to apply a careful social-impact and sustainability methodology throughout the process. As Nordling explains, many machine learning-based projects in healthcare can reinforce inequalities rather than help to level the playing field, if equity is not a factor that is thoroughly considered and addressed throughout the entire research and development process.

Of course, every technology is different. The challenges confronting AI applications in the healthcare sector may not translate directly to the risks that quantum computing could pose. However, there are certainly lessons to be learned. For all emerging technologies, there is equal potential to help lessen the gap between the rich and the poor as there is to widen it. The direction of development toward the helpful or the harmful hinges on many factors, including accountability and regulation. Fundamentally, the incorporation of a methodological focus on equity and inclusion, from the inception to the employment of an emerging technology, is critical.

The application of quantum computing in drug discovery is no exception to this rule. The development of this emerging technology, both alone and in concert with other technologies, has the potential to make a significantly positive impact on society. With proper care taken to ensure ethical research, development and application, the trickle-down effects of the quantum revolution could improve the lives of many. It is thus imperative that we seek to understand the impacts that quantum computing could have in the pharmaceutical industry if we want to ensure its potential to help discover cures to intractable diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s becomes a benefit that is distributed equitably across the globe. This is not a problem for quantum to solve, but for society.

Quantum Applications, Quantum Computing, Quantum International Relations

Quantum Policy Priorities for the 46th Australian Parliament


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Feature image from Quintessence Labs

Gabriella Skoff

Ahead of this weekend’s Australian election, Project Q presents our top four quantum related policy priorities for the 46th Australian Parliament.

The Australian government has been invested in the long-term development of quantum computing since 2000. A 2016 investment boost, to the tune of $70 million AUD over five years from business, academia and the Turnbull government, has helped solidify Australia’s position as a real competitor in what has been dubbed the “quantum race”. By relying heavily on support from the private sector and brain-power from NSW knowledge institutions like the University of Sydney’s Nano Institute and UNSW’s Centre for Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T), Australia has become recognized as a world leader in silicon-based quantum computing research. But while financial support for quantum computing has been strong, a comprehensive strategy that prioritizes benefits and minimizes harms from these technologies is not at pace.

While Australia is not alone in this position, it is at risk of falling behind. Global quantum competitors are rapidly formalizing proactive policies, in hopes of securing a position on the world stage with this technological development. In the U.S., the government is beginning to think systematically about quantum technology development and enacting policy to match this approach. China, meanwhile, has wasted no time in the coordination and execution of its national quantum policy. The E.U. has also advanced its quantum policy approach and represents the only region to do so with equity and ethics as the backbone of these policies. Whichever party is victorious on Saturday, the 46th Australian Parliament will be presented with the challenge – and the opportunity – to introduce progressive tech policies that will not only boost industry and research, but will protect citizens and pave the way for other countries to follow suit.

For Australia to remain competitive in the quantum race and be prepared for the new reality that will form in the wake of its fulfilment, the 46th Australian Parliament should prioritize the following to create a comprehensive quantum policy:

Security

The coming age of quantum computing will result in a drastic transformation of cyber-security needs. Whether or not Australia wins the quantum race, whoever wins tomorrow’s election will need to address the reality that with the realization of a fully functioning quantum computer will come the ability to hack any system. The Australian Department of Defence is already investing in quantum cryptography, supporting Canberra-based quantum cybersecurity firm Quintessence Labs (QLabs) with AU$528,000 in funding for the further development of quantum key distribution (QKD) technology. This was the largest of eight Defence Department Innovation Hub grants in 2017. It is clear this need has already been recognized by the government in relation to national defence. What is not clear, is how the Australian government will support the keepers of Australians’ most sensitive data—including healthcare services, banks and businesses—to adapt to these new challenges. A lack of quantum cryptography preparedness across even these non-military sectors could result in dire security consequences for Australia.

The Australian Government should consider emulating the forward-looking policy approach stipulated by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC). The JRC stresses the importance of equipping both military and non-military service providers with a plan toward implementing future, quantum-encrypted capabilities. The report urges: “Cryptography is indeed important for applications such as preventing interception of classified information, providing governmental services, protecting critical infrastructure, and in the military field. Banks and financial institutions, data centres providers, and players in the health sector can also be potential users. A home-grown industry mastering a technique that potentially guarantees future-proof communications security can hence be seen as an issue of national security.”

Chinese Collaboration

Chinese investment and influence plays an important economic and cultural role in Australia. This is a relationship that most parties have vowed to protect, enshrining it in trade and regional-relations policy. In the quantum race, however, there are concerns that Chinese collaboration on Australian quantum projects could present a national security risk. According to the aforementioned JRC report, this challenge has been identified and is being addressed by the European Commission through their quantum technologies flagship initiative.

The depth and scale of this issue has also been reported by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), in their report, Picking Flowers, Making Honey. The title of the report is derived from a description by the People’s Liberation Army of Chinese-Western collaboration (especially in the Five Eyes countries), as “picking flowers in foreign lands to make honey in China”. The report details how the PLA strategically deploys military researchers to universities in Western countries, obscuring their affiliation, and then brings them back to China so they can use the knowledge and information gleaned from their collaborations to further China’s own national technology development efforts. ASPI reports that this practice essentially aids Chinese military development, especially in the emerging field of quantum computing.

While it remains unclear whether or not the Australian government and domestic research institutions are informed of this practice, no action against this strategic transfer of knowledge has so far been taken. In fact, “Among universities in Five Eyes countries, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has published the most peer-reviewed literature in collaboration with PLA scientists.”. This information should concern the incoming Australian government, as UNSW is one of the leaders in Australian quantum computing development. If Australia seeks to remain a leader in quantum computing, this is an issue that must be tackled, albeit with a delicate approach that will not impact negatively on the many positive effects of Chinese interests in Australia. According to the ASPI report, many of those who participate in this practice presented with false records, a challenge that could be tackled simply with a higher level of scrutiny over the visa application process for incoming researchers collaborating on high-value projects.

Focus on the Development of Promising Environmental and Renewable Energy Applications

Climate change is a big-ticket item in the upcoming election, and one that may play a decisive role in inducing government change. Regardless, all parties have stated a commitment to investing in renewable energy. Quantum research outside of communication and computing presents promising potential for renewables. However, quantum applications in this space require an increased level of attention and support in order to develop. The Australian government should be investing in a far broader spectrum of emerging quantum applications, such as quantum dots, which could revolutionize the solar energy industry, and quantum tunnelling, which could help to capture and transfer wasted energy. These will be the green energies of tomorrow, presenting Australia with the unique opportunity to be a global leader in this space.

Quantum Business

Already, Australia has grown and attracted a number of powerful tech start-ups and international funding, bolstering its position as a hub for quantum research. There is momentum building to make Sydney the destination for quantum investment and to cement Australia’s place as the Silicon Valley of quantum development in the Southern hemisphere. Further focus on supporting the growth and development of this ecosystem could create a competitive advantage for Australia, boosting business investment and drawing the brightest minds from all over the world to solve quantum’s biggest challenges.

This, in turn, could allow the Australian quantum industry to broaden the scope of its focus, expanding to the areas of research and development mentioned above. Government investment in building the desirability of Australia as a world-class quantum destination would not only help to attract critical private sector investment but could also serve to attract the talent that is now sorely needed.

All contenders on Saturday’s ballot claim varying levels of commitment to prioritizing issues that the coming age of quantum computing will impact, such as cyber-security, defence, innovation and science, business, energy and environment, healthcare and regional relations. Yet no party on the election ballot has explicitly mentioned a dedicated policy for the further development and adoption of quantum technologies. Australia now has the chance to produce an agile national quantum policy that could complement and support some of the most important policy agendas already being pursued. It is clear that quantum technologies will carry a number of social and economic benefits, which will require the keen attention of government representatives in order to realize their potential. As demonstrated by the actions of Australia’s global competitors in quantum development, this can be done in a number of ways. We recommend a human-centric approach that weighs the threats and benefits of quantum development with a critical eye and seeks to not only maximize the benefit of these technologies for all Australians, but also presents an example for other countries to follow suit.

Quantum Applications

Can quantum technologies help save the world?


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Image via United Nations University

Part 3 of 3: Modelling 

Gabriella Skoff

The final instalment in this series explores the modelling capacity that quantum computing promises to unlock. Modelling is a key tool in environmental security, enabling scientists and researchers to explore how the natural environment will react to changing conditions over time. It is well-known that quantum computers will enable advanced modelling technology by exponentially expanding the rate and scope of mathematical modelling capacity well beyond that of today’s computers. While the impact of this is most often cited with regard to chemical reactions and the pharmaceutical and health industries, environmental security, too, will be a great beneficiary of this quantum application.

Quantum computers will enable wider and more in-depth analysis of complex problems with more variables than ever before, a perfect tool when observing and predicting environmental challenges posed by the multitude of human and natural forces that abound. Quantum computational modelling will be exactly suited to sorting through these types of complexities that classical computers struggle with. The potential impact for this application will reach through weather forecasting to disaster preparedness. As one researcher writes of the promise quantum computing holds for numerical weather prediction (NWP):

The seamless systems based on the unified technology will process observational data, produce weather, climate, and environment forecasts on time scales from several minutes to decades; they will compute the probability of the occurrence of meteorological, hydrological, marine, and geophysical severe natural phenomena for many spatial scales.

The importance of that potential is not to be undervalued. While the practical value of this technology is obvious, the hidden impact this holds for environmental policy is immense.

No other stress contributes as much to environmental insecurity as that of climate change. This macro-level problem has so far proven to be “too big” to tackle effectively on a global governance scale, with climate change deniers and sceptics in both lay and science communities. The main reason for the lack of a complete scientific consensus on climate change, which can be argued, significantly validates climate change denial on the lay-level, is the lack of power in climate change forecasting and models. Of course, with the immensity of variables and factors at hand on a timescale of years or even decades, it is no easy task for our current computers to process all of this data and create accurate climate change models. Even on a daily basis, this presents an incredible challenge, with weather conditions varying from hour to hour. There is always uncertainty in weather modelling due to the changeability of a variety of meteorological factors. How many times you have heard on the morning news that heavy rain is forecasted and packed your umbrella only to carry it around uselessly with you as the sun shone all day long?

Although accurate climate change modelling may flummox a classical computer, this job may prove exactly the sort of task that a quantum computer would excel at. Provided with accurate and reliable modelling of climate change, perhaps the remaining 3% of climate change sceptics in the scientific community could be convinced of the urgency and need to promote sustainable environmental policy in order to combat climate change. Of course, even with 100% consensus amongst the scientific community, climate change deniers will still resent the government funding and lifestyle changes that will inevitably be needed to induce mass change. However, achieving the consensus may prove to be the impetus society needs in order to prioritise that change.

Quantum technologies hold immense promise for confronting the multifaceted challenge of environmental security. As with most things quantum, we cannot predict with certainty; but time—along with an appropriate prioritization of resources to our greatest collective threat— will decide just how helpful these applications will truly be.

Gabriella Skoff is a Researcher with Project Q and collaborates with Dr Serdar Turkeli of the United Nations University-MERIT, where she continues her research on the topic of emerging quantum technologies and environmental sustainability. 

Quantum Applications

Can quantum technologies help save the world?


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Part 2 of 3: Energy

Gabriella Skoff

Part two of this series explores how, in the field of renewable energy, quantum technology has been quietly pushing ahead to improve the efficiency and cost of green energy. Quantum qualities hold vast promise for commercial applications in solar power and other cutting-edge, sustainable energy technology. These emerging technologies could hold the key to shifting renewable energy into the mainstream, finally making it cheaper and more efficient than traditional energy sources for the general population.

Quantum dots, used to convert sunlight to energy with increasing efficiency, are quickly becoming the new material of choice for solar panels. Due to their nanoscale size, quantum dot sensitized solar cells (QDSSC) have unique properties which allow them to convert more energy from the sun than traditional materials. These third-generation quantum solar panels have reduced weight, improved flexibility and, importantly, are cheaper to make than previous generations of solar technology. This application of quantum technology could be a huge breakthrough in the solar market, enabling it to be more competitive, both in terms of cost and efficacy, than traditional energy sources.

While this technology is still in the pre-commercial stages of development, quantum photovoltaic systems are expected to make a big impact on the renewable energy sector, promising to reduce global reliance on fossil fuels. Before this can occur, however, there is a significant amount of troubleshooting still to be done. As with most nano-products, the impacts of QDSSC on the human and natural environments are still largely unknown and potentially toxic. Another issue is the durability of QDSSC across the weather spectrum. Unlike issues of negative human and environmental impact, which receives very little research funding or government interest, research into the all-weather question is moving along swiftly in answer to commercial needs.

While quantum technology is applied for the purpose of augmenting the amount of energy that can be harvested from solar radiation, it is also being explored as a method to capture what is referred to as “wasted energy”. Wasted energy is the name given to infrared energy produced by the sun that is not absorbed by solar panels or through photosynthesis into useable energy. This unused energy does not disappear but spreads out and is absorbed into the earth’s surface, making it incredibly difficult to collect and use.

By employing a method called quantum tunnelling, scientists have created a proof of concept antenna that can detect this wasted energy in the form of high-frequency electromagnetic waves and transform it into usable energy. Unlike solar panels, this quantum-enabled device could operate 24-hours a day, under any weather conditions. This application of quantum technology presents an entirely new method of energy transfer that would be completely green and again has the potential to revolutionize the renewable energy sector.

While the promise is great, this technology is in its infancy, with many technical problems still to surmount. Still, quantum technology opens many doors into the renewable energy space for technology that holds great potential for the coming years.

Don’t miss the final instalment in our Environmental Security series tomorrow.

Quantum Applications

Can quantum technologies help save the world?


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Part 1 of 3: Monitoring

Gabriella Skoff

The first instalment in our Environmental Security series examines how quantum sensing can help to better monitor our natural environment, a function for which we already heavily rely upon satellites. Quantum technology promises to extend these capabilities, providing greater accuracy and security. As with all things quantum, the capabilities of quantum sensing applied technologies go far beyond what has traditionally been possible.

Quantum sensing allows us to monitor, detect and study the environment by gathering large amounts of data, enabling us to make more reliable decisions with the vast amounts of information in hand. These capabilities can have a vital impact for disaster preparedness especially, by enabling us to detect even the smallest meteorological disturbances that could ultimately lead to catastrophic natural disasters. Some budding applications in this space include the ability to accurately detect potential earthquakes and volcanic activity.

With other applications that promise to improve telecommunications and navigation, quantum sensing may be first to reach the commercial market. However, with the immense promise this technology brings to the monitoring and sensing of environmental data, it will also bring legitimate threats and challenges. The further development and application of this technology will undoubtedly see higher levels of surveillance, sure to solidify its position as a supremely valued military tool. On the other side of the coin, this same technology will enable quicker and more effective search and rescue procedures in a post-disaster context, natural or otherwise.

The field of quantum sensing or quantum metrology is largely reliant on earth-orbiting satellites for the monitoring, collection and transmission of data. Satellites are absolutely critical to environmental security infrastructure. They are responsible not only for the gathering of key data about the environment such as air temperature, wind, sea surface temperature and soil moisture, but also the monitoring of arable land, deforestation and urbanization. The constant and reliable monitoring of these environmental factors allows populations an increased level of environmental security.

With the advent of the quantum age, satellites—this crucial component in the internet of things—will become vulnerable to hackers and ill-doers. In this future scenario, all data produced by satellites will be susceptible to corruption or complete obliteration. This would have a disastrous impact, not only for issues of environmental security but for our entire infrastructure, including electric, water and transportation. Luckily, another quantum application in the development stage promises to confront this threat. Quantum cryptography allows for a quantum-secure communication, a feat that has already been provisionally achieved by China via its Micius satellite.

Responsible innovation will be paramount in quantum sensing technologies. Satellites have long been considered a security apparatus, but their militarization is only just beginning. In order to ensure that quantum-enabled satellites deliver as much on their promise for environmental security as for military security, it is crucial that their development for this purpose be prioritized and that the full scope of their potential impact be intelligently understood.

Don’t miss the second instalment in our Environmental Security series tomorrow.

Quantum Applications

Can quantum technologies help save the world?


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A three-part examination of quantum applications for environmental security

Image via United Nations University

Gabriella Skoff

From drinkable water sources to arable land, healthy seas to clean air, reliable rainfall and predictable seasonal changes, humans depend entirely on the environment to provide the resources and conditions necessary for life. When access to vital resources is impeded or weather conditions become erratic, the equilibrium of life becomes unstable. It is little wonder then, that the threat posed to human populations by catastrophic environmental events, the degradation of the natural environment, the impact of climate change, and the growing force of overpopulation, has seen environmental security emerge as a serious priority for national and global governance.

In response to these threats, environmental technologies aim to create solutions to some of the major challenges presented within the scope of food and water security and sustainable energy. Although they appear far less frequently in headlines than some of their flashier applications, quantum technological advances in sensing, communication and computing present promising solutions for issues of environmental security. In light of the great uncertainty that surrounds the qualities of quantum technologies, an ambiguity which often invokes anxiety and fear, it is of great value to explore the positive impacts of quantum innovation that the future may hold.

The multifaceted threats to environmental security outlined above contribute to the disappearance of natural resources and to the advent of more frequent, extreme weather conditions. Indeed, climate change has been identified in the security space as a “threat multiplier” and a “catalyst for conflict”, with the power to destabilize social, economic and political conditions. Environmental insecurities may manifest in food and water scarcity, which can cause the inflation of prices for basic goods, provoke mass migrations, cause civil unrest and incite chaos. These conditions create the perfect breeding ground for conflict.

Likewise, global dependence on fossil fuels, apart from being urgently unsustainable, poses national security threats that have already resulted in war on numerous occasions. While many of the current effects of environmental insecurity are experienced in already volatile or susceptible nations, it is inevitable that these effects will spill over borders and into countries which boast more resources and reliable infrastructure to support climate change refugees and migrants fleeing conflict.

The role of technology in supporting initiatives across the entire spectrum of environmental security is more critical now than ever before. Quantum technologies promise to have an impact in several fundamental areas, including disaster preparedness, monitoring of deforestation and urbanization, green energy and in the creation of predictive climate change models. These applications extend right across the disciplines of quantum sensing, communications and computing.

The potential contributions of quantum technologies for increasing environmental security can be categorized into three main groupings: monitoring, energy and modelling. As with any technology, promise does not come without limitations and risks. While many of the potential quantum solutions for issues of environmental security are in their nascent stage of research and development, it is crucial that these limitations and risks too are understood.

In this three-part series, Project Q examines the bright hopes and the shadowy promises of the quantum applications that could help confront the threats posed by environmental insecurity. Join us over the next three days as we ask the question: can quantum technologies help save the world?