What the quantum revolution means for us

Fabio Sciarrino
Full Professor, Physics Department; Deputy Rector for International Competitive Research Strategies, University of Rome la Sapienza
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This post is part of a blog series with Young Scientists ahead of the Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2015, which takes place in Dalian, China, from 9-11 September. In this blog, Fabio Sciarrino, Associate Professor at Sapienza University, talks about where quantum technologies may take us. 

Quantum photonics is nothing new but tell us about Quantum Supremacy

Quantum technologies promise to improve the way we do various things – from trading over the internet to performing powerful simulations for chemistry, and even engineering nanotechnology. There’s a quantum revolution going on, but it’s still a work in progress. While we can expect to develop simple quantum machines that perform specific tasks in a relatively short time, the real holy grail for us quantum physicists is quantum supremacy – the scenario in which, for a specific computational task, quantum machines unambiguously surpass any conventional (classical) hardware. If we can achieve quantum supremacy, the world will at last be able to fully profit from the power of quantum mechanics, something that has not been possible up until now.

Sounds powerful: any risks attached?

There are no physical, biological or ecological risks, but I can foresee an indirect geopolitical impact, with geographical areas able to increase their computational power accumulating a disproportionate amount of power and influence. On the other hand, quantum technologies have been proven to lead to cryptographic systems, which allow a reliable and unbreakable secret communication between two partners. This achievement could avoid the recent spying controversy between different countries.

Who’s winning the race for quantum supremacy – what are businesses doing about it?

Unsurprisingly, there’s a huge worldwide effort underway to demonstrate that the computational capabilities of technologies based on quantum mechanics can exceed those of conventional systems, with businesses and research institutes from Europe, the United States, China, Japan, Australia and Singapore all active in this area. The overall investment will exceed a billion euros in the coming years, with research targeted at a number of different physical systems, such as superconductor circuits, photons, single atoms trapped by laser beam and trapped ions.

So far, a winning technology has not yet fully emerged, and each different hardware will be more suitable for a specific task. Integrated photonics will certainly be the key player for any form of communication based on quantum technologies, with single photons travelling within the current fiber networks. But it could also be a powerful resource for quantum simulation and, in a not-too-distant future, for quantum computing. I belong to the photonics community, where one crucial goal is to implement a sampling algorithm, known as Boson Sampling, which can’t be replicated by today’s best classical computers.

Any other areas of science that are exciting you a lot right now?

Machine learning – how a computer can learn from data – is a lively research area that has advanced quickly over the past few years. I would be fascinated to find out which computational platform will lead to a machine with self-consciousness. I can foresee a bridge between machine learning and quantum information, something that new fundamental and technological concepts could arise from. The ability to manipulate large quantum systems could speed up machine-learning algorithms.

What do you hope to achieve if anything from your participation at AMNC?

My expectation is to come out from the narrow research point a view and gain more perspective on the long-term future of our society.

Have you read?
Can a computer tell what you’re thinking?
How will graphene change the world?
How can we commercialize touch?

Author: Fabio Sciarrino, Associate Professor, Sapienza University

Image: View of the Brussels’ Atomium during its official inauguration ceremony.

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