What is quantum tech - and could it take off in the UK?

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While we regularly hear about artificial intelligence, the internet of things and blockchain, quantum technology has received less public fanfare lately, despite the tech's potential to revolutionise computing as we know it.

The idea behind modern quantum technology has its roots in the work of renowned physicists Paul Benioff, Yuri Manin, Richard Feynman and David Deutsch. This was advanced by Australian quantum theoretical quantum physicist Gerard J. Milburn, who suggested that by harnessing the properties of quantum mechanics, technologies like cryptography, imaging and computing could be radically improved.

However, practical research into this sphere only really started to take off in 2010. Today, many companies and governments are experimenting in the field, with firms including IBM, Google, and smaller competitors such as IonQ, Rigetti Computing and Quantum Circuits all racing to develop their own quantum computing systems.

At present IBM is leading the charge, with the unveiling of the world's first commercial quantum computer, IBM Q System One, in January 2019. It's a 20-qubit system (read on for an explanation) that incorporates both classical and quantum computing systems, all neatly packaged in a nine by nine foot suitably-futuristic-looking airtight box. This isolated environment is essential to keeping the hardware cool.

This quantum computer is the first that is able to operate outside of the research lab, and will be used to solve some problems in areas such as financial services, pharmaceuticals and artificial intelligence, according to the company. However, IBM stressed that this is only the first iteration of a still highly immature form of technology, and as such is not powerful enough to carry out most of the commercial tasks predicted as one day possible.

The new model can maintain the quantum microstate for 100 microseconds, which although an improvement on the 90 microseconds achieved in 2017, means the system is still far off being viable for more advanced uses.

Google and NASA are also currently testing a quantum computer known as 'D-Wave Two', developed by Canadian firm D-Wave Systems.

The Fredkin gate

In 2016, scientists from the Griffith University and the University of Queensland managed to build a 'Fredkin gate', where two 'qubits' (the quantum computing equivalent of bits) are swapped depending on the value of the third.

There are government-backed programmes to explore quantum tech in Singapore and the Netherlands. But it is still viewed as a cutting-edge, far out area within tech.

Here in the UK, a year ago the government launched a five-year, £270 million initiative to take quantum tech from the realm of academics and labs into commercial, practical use, led by four ‘hubs' in the universities of Oxford, Birmingham, York and Glasgow. However, the plan's expiration date is 2019, so the government will need to decide soon whether it will re-invest.

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) say that quantum technology could become a billion dollar industry for the UK.

However, the UK will face stiff competition from China, who aims to be a pioneer in this area. The country has drawn up plans to direct billions of dollars into this blooming area of technology.

For example, a $10 billion national lab for quantum research is set to open in Hefei, in 2020, and the Chinese company, Alibaba is also building its own lab.

But what eactly is quantum technology?

Quantum tech explained

Take a deep breath. Thing are about to get complicated.

Quantum theory concerns ‘the science of the very small': a roughly century-old field of physics which explains how matter behaves at the atomic and sub-atomic level.

There are about four properties within quantum theory that classical physics has traditionally struggled to explain. For the field of quantum tech, two are particularly important: superposition and entanglement.

"Superposition is the idea a particle or object can be in two places or states at the same time," explains Dr Richard Murray, technologist at the UK government's science and tech innovation agency Innovate UK.

In the field of quantum computing, this means that rather than a bit being either a 1 or 0, you can have ‘qubits' which can be a superposition of both a 1 and a 0 simultaneously.

Thanks to qubits, quantum computers can hold more information and crunch through data much faster than traditional computers.

The second effect is entanglement, a phenomenon where two objects can be connected by a quantum state, even though they may be physically separated by some distance.

The reason it is useful, according to Murray, is that if you try to transmit information using this entangled state, if anyone tried to look at it, the quantum effect would be destroyed, and the person at the other end would see someone had tried to intercept the data.

"That makes for a very secure comms network," he explains.

Still confused? Here's Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau explaining quantum computing like a boss.