Extremely faster computers, hypersensitive sensors and ultra-fast secure communication: These are the big promises of a new generation of technology that is currently under development: quantum technology (QT).
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Imagine that within a day we would have found a new cure for coronavirus. that we a unfortunate has internet that cannot be tapped. We could tackle climate change in a more targeted way because we can calculate exactly how the climate responds to greenhouse gases, atmospheric changes and plants and buildings on earth? And that we can detect letter bombs while still lying in the mailbag in a truck?
That technology is expected to take at least ten more years to become commercially available. Nevertheless, companies and governments need to start preparing now and make their information security future-proof.
What is quantum technology? Quantum technology makes use of the special properties of very small structures of few atoms and smaller. For example, a quantum computer can simultaneously perform calculations that a normal computer must perform one after the other. Quantum computers therefore have the potential to perform calculations extremely much faster than today’s supercomputers: in minutes instead of thousands of years, or ‘never’.
Last fall, Google demonstrated a quantum computer that could perform a calculation in minutes that would take ordinary supercomputers ten thousand years. Critics indicated that this was a bit exaggerated, but estimated the computation time with current supercomputers and optimized algorithms to be 2.5 days at best. A definitive proof that quantum technology is superior, according to Google. After all, quantum technology (QT) is still in its infancy, so performance will only increase further.
The promise is that quantum computers will make great strides in solving complex problems that require calculations with a lot of data and a lot of variables. Such as how the climate is created and with what unique substances certain diseases can be cured very precisely, for example by intervening in the DNA.
You can try the effect of all combinations of substances on the body in the computer
You can try the effect of all combinations of substances on the body in the computer. The development and application of artificial intelligence can also make a big leap forward. And with quantum computers, the shortest route to travel between 25 cities could be calculated at once, the so-called ‘traveler salesperson problem’.
Measurement through smog
Other applications of quantum technology are ultra-sensitive sensors that can detect very weak signals. For example, you can measure through smog or make very accurate positioning based on the Earth’s magnetic field without satellites.
In addition, work is underway on the development of a quantum internet that enables communication between quantum computers and which cannot be intercepted. Although some scientists dispute it.
The first promising results have now emerged from the laboratory, but a number of obstacles still need to be overcome before we can take advantage of quantum technology on a large scale. The biggest obstacle is the vulnerability of technology: current quantum computers are only stable at extremely low temperatures and without sound vibrations. In the event of a small disturbance, the quantum computer loses its information and becomes ‘unreadable’.
A Dutch invention (the ‘Majorana particle’) could provide a major breakthrough in stability. This will be further investigated and tested in the new Microsoft Quantum Lab at TU Delft, which opened last year.
In addition to hardware, software is also a big challenge
In addition to the hardware, the software is also a big challenge. Because quantum computers perform calculations in a different way, new software (algorithms) are needed to make the most of the possibilities. With ‘bad’ software, you lose the profit you can make with the hardware.
Due to all the technological challenges, a commercial quantum computer is expected to take at least ten more years.
China vs USA
Although the scientific origins of quantum technology lie in Europe, over the past ten years there has been a competition between China and the United States over who comes first with working applications. By being at the forefront of technology, both countries hope to be able to (continue) dominate the further development of ICT and everything related to it (due to digitalisation, this is virtually all sectors). Both countries have attracted talented researchers with grants and are investing hundreds of millions in national research programs and laboratories.
In 2018, China had almost twice as many patent applications as the United States and 16 times as many as Europe for quantum technology including sensors, communications and cryptology devices.
Large US investments
However, the United States is at the forefront of quantum computer patents, which many consider to be QT’s most important domain. IBM, Google, Microsoft and Amazon have invested heavily in this.
In addition to commercial interests, there are also military interests and the importance of state security: With quantum technology, all existing encryption can be decrypted at once, stealth aircraft could be detected as well as explosives in passing trucks. China, in turn, wants to build a quantum Internet that can no longer be used by the United States, and the sensitive quantum sensors can make positioning possible without satellites like those from the US GPS currently used in smartphones.
The US government is considering excluding Chinese researchers from certain research programs
China has urged Chinese researchers doing their PhD in Europe and the United States, to ‘return’ afterwards. The US government is considering excluding Chinese researchers from certain research programs.
Europe and the Netherlands
Given the current investment and the number of patents, China (Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu) and the United States (IBM, Google, Microsoft, Amazon) are likely to benefit most from the development.
As with artificial intelligence, Europe was early on with a strong scientific position, but few large companies are involved and research groups and start-ups are recruited by the major American players. Europe is primarily a partner for American companies that develop their own technology and do most of it in the United States.
Become a key player
With major research programs such as ‘QT Flagship’ worth one billion euros, Europe wants to become a key player in the application of quantum technology. She focuses on areas that others have focused even less on and that are crucial: control and software. Here are still major challenges that must be overcome in order to roll out quantum technology on a large scale.
In terms of funding and number of research projects, the Netherlands is in the middle of Europe, led by Germany, the United Kingdom and France. Universities, TNO, Microsoft and the Amsterdam Internet Exchange (AMS-IX) work together through the National Agenda for Quantum Technology, and the Dutch government is investing in research and development of quantum technology. The Netherlands has caught an interesting ‘research fish’ with Microsoft’s laboratory, but that says a bit about how the Netherlands will benefit financially from the development of QT.
Companies adapt information security
What to do with quantum technology? Quantum technology is a very promising technology that will give a ‘boost’ to digitalisation and will affect all sectors and domains in our society. It will probably take at least another ten years before commercially available applications become available and quantum technology can be widely rolled out. Nevertheless, the current development and proliferation of technology means that companies and governments must already prepare for the advent of quantum computers. This would make it possible to crack the existing information security at once.
Current encryption can be decrypted by quantum computers within minutes
Today’s encryption is often based on ‘keys’ that are so complicated that today’s computers would take years to decrypt them and try all sorts of combinations. With quantum computers, this could be reduced to a few minutes. Therefore, new encryption methods are already being developed that can withstand the computing power of quantum computers: post-quantum cryptography called.
In addition to implementing these new security methods, companies will also need to take into account that in the future they will be able to adapt and vary their encryption more quickly in order to be at the forefront of new developments in quantum technology. If you thought the current digitalization was going strong, then get ready for the quantum future.