Beyond the far-fetched realms of science fiction, quantum technologies have leapt into reality and promise to upend the way we live and work. Here’s what you need to know.
From measuring and warding off climate change to thwarting cybercrime or detecting cancer at a cellular level, quantum technologies could revolutionise numerous aspects of our lives. The scientific race to harness quantum’s massive potential to deliver formerly unattainable insights or solve seemingly intractable problems has already stretched over decades and there’s no finish line in sight. But there’s currently a very loud roar from the crowd as the development of quantum in Australia hits a critical point.
Just ask Australia’s chief scientist, Dr Cathy Foley. She’s talking about a $6.1-billion industry and more than 19,000 new jobs by 2045. Her delivery of the National Quantum Strategy in May shone a light on Australia’s many firsts and achievements as a global leader among 16 quantum-active nations that are pursuing world-changing advances.
On Foley’s bold agenda is accelerating the move by quantum technologies and their mind-boggling applications from the lab into the real world. Australia has done much of the groundbreaking research, she emphasises. “We’ve reached a level of maturity now where there’s a lot of opportunity. Everyone needs to understand why quantum technology is important to them and if you’re serious about your business, it’s time to get involved.”
Top of the chief scientist’s strategic list is building an ecosystem to support the rapidly growing number of startups emerging from 22 quantum-related research institutions across the country. Some are already making sales, she points out, and several are operating internationally.
Foley is seeking stronger business engagement beyond the tech sector, where brands like Alphabet, Microsoft, IBM and AWS are already deeply involved. Vital in the mix is keeping investor dollars surging, along with bringing on future generations of quantum-skilled workers, researchers and entrepreneurs to make it all happen for a global industry that’s tipped to grow by 30 per cent a year for the next five years.
So what is quantum technology?
Very simply, quantum technologies use the laws of quantum mechanics to create powerful new technologies by harnessing subatomic particles – electrons and photons – to store and process information. Broadly, they fall into three categories.
Quantum sensing and imaging can detect minute changes and measure gravity and magnetic fields with hitherto impossible precision. Quantum imaging can pick up cellular changes in the human body or detect deeply buried minerals. Quantum communications covers advances in encryption and can beat (or, more ominously, facilitate) cyber hackers and keep networks secure.
Most talked about, more complex and less mature is quantum computing, which will enable calculation, modelling, data management and optimisation in ways that will stretch the upper limits of today’s supercomputers.
Where are we at?
An error-corrected, scalable quantum computer is the nascent industry’s holy grail. At the forefront is the work of Professor Michelle Simmons. The 2018 Australian of the Year is the longtime director of the Australian Research Council Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology at the University of New South Wales and, more recently, director of Silicon Quantum Computing (SQC), the country’s first quantum computing company, which was founded in 2017. Globally, she’s lauded for a multitude of firsts – an atomic-scale transistor and the narrowest conducting wires, for starters.
SQC is unique because it has created the ability “to make devices in silicon with atomic, the highest degree of precision,” she says. “No other company can do that.” The process uses two atoms, silicon and phosphorus, and claims the fastest operation time. Simmons’ team makes quantum hardware chips on an atomic manufacturing line and has a foundry where they build, design and test. There’s a quantum server farm that brings together the chip with the control and software layers to create a full stack. “So we’ve figured out how to scale it, how to make it high yield and reproducible,” she says. “Then we look for people with problems that need solving and run them on our processors in-house.
“Bank of Australia is one of our investors and they look at how to optimise the banking system for their customers. We’re looking at Telstra’s network and how to improve communications. There’s a raft of applications out there and everyone is trying to figure out which ones are the most commercially relevant.”
Among the quantum computing technologies being developed, including SQC’s, most require special cryogenic (yes, super-cold) vacuum environments or complex lasers to operate with stability and accuracy.
Quantum Brilliance (QB), a company spun out of the Australian National University and now operating across Australia and Germany, uses nitrogen atoms inside synthetic diamonds to operate its qubit (classical computers work on binary bits to store or process information and quantum computers use qubits) and produce a circuit at room temperature. Its unique selling point is a quantum computer the size of a lunchbox, which can be mass deployed anywhere.
While quantum computers promise exponentially more computing capacity, QB puts the focus on size, weight and energy use. “You could have hundreds of them inside a supercomputer or data centre and power consumption would be reduced dramatically,” says CEO Mark Luo. “It’s better for the environment.”
Synthetic diamond quantum computers will be widely distributed within three to four years, he predicts. “Quantum utility – doing something useful with quantum computers, compared to same-size traditional computers – as well as saving power, is coming much sooner than people expect.”
What about a personal quantum computer? Applications for edge computing – which puts it close to the user and source of data – are also being explored by QB. Its devices can be adopted by computer facilities and AI companies, logistics, aerospace, defence, pharmaceuticals, cybersecurity and researchers.
How will we use quantum?
Use cases for quantum technologies look set to be ubiquitous. Consensus among the experts is that everywhere information technology goes, quantum is expected to follow.
Foley’s sights are on the early detection of diseases and injuries. In August, a CSIRO-led Quantum Meets Sports event brought physicists together with the Australian Institute of Sport to explain how the new technologies might benefit athletes, from sharper logistics to analysis of biomarker data from trackers and the impact of head injuries on brain health. “Wouldn’t it be great if we’d predicted [Matildas’ captain] Sam Kerr’s calf muscle injury and pulled her out of training before it happened?” muses Foley about the early FIFA Women’s World Cup setback.
The global pharmaceutical industry is eagerly eyeing quantum’s potential to produce novel medications, speed up drug trials and solve supply chain issues. (We can only wonder at the quantum effect on the 200 days it took supercomputers across the world to test the COVID-19 vaccine.)
Foley is also talking about the modelling of catastrophic weather events, while Simmons is convinced of the power of quantum analogue simulation to create new materials and make existing ones more effective in the manufacture of solar cells and nitrogen fertiliser.
What’s already in play?
So much of the talk is future-facing but a range of homegrown applications are up and running. The optimisation of complex logistics and distribution networks is already live. Transport for NSW has been honing data management efficiencies, wrangling the 657 million public transport trips taken annually and congestion hotspots, with a host of local quantum firms, beginning with Sydney startup Q CTRL in 2021.
The finance industry is facing the threat of quantum adoption by cybercriminals, who are also getting prepped with Harvest Now Decode Later tactics. Quantum will allow security systems to be broken in minutes, warns Vikram Sharma, founder of Canberra-based QuintessenceLabs, which is marketing quantum key generation and distribution and “crypto-agile” key management for the counteroffensive.
In defence, better sensing and measurement is saving the day, with the Australian Defence Forces’ surveillance network, JORN, having a quantum precision upgrade with a Sapphire Cryogenic Clock that might gain or lose a second – but only every 40 million years, thanks to Adelaide company Quantx.
Not surprisingly, mineral exploration is one area where Australia is out there on several fronts, with Canberra startup Nomad Atomic already in the market with its single-atom gravimeter. Big players like BHP and Woodside, meanwhile, are hiring quantum-qualified graduates.
Why is Australia ahead of the game?
Australia’s trailblazing status is traced back to early work in photonics in the 1950s and superconductivity in subsequent decades. From the mid-1990s, investment started to flow to develop early quantum systems. More than $400 million in federal funding for quantum has been leveraged by state and international governments and industries, notes Foley. “Our success comes down to patient, long-term investment. We have the infrastructure and the people.”
Some 2500 PhD graduates in quantum physics have emerged from Australian universities, a disproportionate number for the size of the population, and the diaspora of founders and researchers who have worked or trained here are leading the way around the world.
A g lobal quantum d rive is now on, with the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and China forging ahead, prompting some concerns that Australia may fall behind. But Simmons is characteristically confident, saying that SQC is leading the world. “All our intellectual property is owned in Australia. There’s a tremendous amount of talent that allows you to build a whole system here.”
What will happen to classical computing?
The emergence of a viable quantum computing industry raises many questions, including what that means for traditional computer power. At Western Australia’s Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, where capabilities run to huge international radio astronomy telescope projects – such as the Square Kilometre Array that aims to look beyond galaxies to the moment just after the Big Bang – the viability of bringing classical and quantum computing together is being explored.
Can they be integrated? Early indicators suggest they can. After Pawsey developed a prototyping pathway earlier this year, it managed to process what’s known in the business as a simple “Hello, World!” algorithm, using a QB accelerator connected to the centre’s Setonix supercomputer. “A quantum accelerator sitting next to a supercomputer like ours opens up another realm of possibilities to solve problems,” says Pawsey executive director Mark Stickells. “I don’t think anywhere else has done it at room temperature. It’s not commercial yet and the challenge now is to work with the ecosystem to develop the path for this technology.”
How will the ecosystem ramp up?
In August, conversations began for the National Quantum Collaboration Initiative aimed at bringing academia, government and industry together to make plans for Australia’s ongoing quantum success. The Initiative is being run by the Sydney Quantum Academy (SQA), established in 2019 by the NSW government and four Sydney-based universities.
In line with the National Quantum Strategy, the initial focus will be on talent, skills and workforce, says SQA CEO Professor Peter Turner. “We’re listening to business about the quantum skills they are looking for.”
An inkling comes from the SQA’s advisory board – where representatives of big business rub shoulders with quantum startup leaders – about the need for quantumtrained graduates to have transferable skills. For business, it’s about getting those bright graduates into internships and jobs for quantum use-case development and combining the new quantum kids on the block with classical experts in industry to speed up progress.
The nation’s chief scientist can’t curb her enthusiasm, not least for the fifth and last theme of the recently launched strategy, which calls for “a trusted, ethical and inclusive quantum ecosystem” focused on “economic prosperity, while safeguarding national wellbeing”. It aligns well with the mindset of Australians, Foley believes. Moreover, it’s essential, due to the pervasiveness and strength of the new technology.
“We have to bring the region with us and make sure it’s implemented in a balanced way,” says Foley, who is intent on blending researchers with startups and the wider community to de-risk the adoption of quantum technologies. “Everyone must be lifted by this tide. It should be part of the way we develop technology in Australia. We don’t want to be looking back once the genie is out of the bottle.”