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Quantum technologies can transform innovation and mitigate climate change – here's how

A handout picture from October 2019 shows Sundar Pichai and Daniel Sank (R) with one of Google's Quantum Computers in the Santa Barbara lab, California, U.S. Picture taken in October 2019.

Google is part of a growing number of big tech companies developing quantum computers. Image: REUTERS.

Lene Oddershede
Senior Vice-President, Natural and Technical Sciences, Novo Nordisk Foundation
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Quantum Computing

This article is part of: Global Technology Governance Summit
  • Current energy-hungry technologies are struggling to deal with our increasing appetite and need for web-based information.
  • Exciting innovations using quantum technology, in the exploration of vaccines and climate change, have the power to outperform any existing technologies.

“If you can think about quantum theory without feeling dizzy, you haven’t understood the first thing about it.” This quote from Niels Bohr stems from a conversation he had in Copenhagen, in 1952, with Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli, two of his fellow key founders of quantum mechanics. Since this conversation, quantum theory and the resulting technologies have indeed become transformative for our lives, leading to lasers, transistors, and smart phones. We have every reason to believe that future inventions based on emerging quantum technologies will revolutionize computational powers and be transformative for several sectors.

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What are quantum technologies?

  • Quantum technologies are engineered systems which utilize the quantum properties of photons, electrons, atoms, or molecules. Quantum properties essential for such technologies are entanglement, superposition and tunneling.
  • A quantum simulator is a quantum system dedicated to reproducing the behaviour of another system where quantum phenomena are important. One advantage of the quantum simulator is that it does not require control over all components, and it is much simpler to construct than a full quantum computer. Functional platforms already exist for quantum simulators which have proven competitive compared to super computers. Examples of such platforms are trapped ions or ultracold atoms in an optical lattice.
  • The quantum computer is the ultimate and challenging goal for quantum technologies. In a classical computer, information is encoded in bits which can take the value of 0 or 1. In a quantum computer, the memory unit is called a qubit and a qubit can be in a superposition of several states. In brief, n classical bits can carry information on 1 number at the time whereas n qubits carry information on 2n numbers simultaneously. One challenge in realizing the quantum computer relates to identifying and manufacturing qubits, another serious challenge relates to error correction.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The need for a quantum revolution

We are approaching the end of a technological age – Moore’s law for computational power is not valid anymore, and the technologies forming the basis of our information society have almost reached their full potential. At the same time, we are facing severe global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, while expecting a continual improvement of people’s lives and health. In our quest to find solutions for these challenges, we have run into a roadblock of immense amounts of data that need to be processed, requiring an entirely different magnitude of computational power than currently available.

Another roadblock is the energy needed to handle the rapidly increasing amounts of data and information exchange on the internet. Without significantly increasing energy supplies in a sustainable, non-fossil based manner, we simply cannot responsibly provide enough energy with current computational methods.

Standing still means moving backwards

The quantum race is on, and with good reason. The global market for quantum technologies is soon expected to reach €50 billion according to a recent report from KPMG, and the prospects of the technologies are indeed stunning. Those countries not participating in this race, those who stand still, are effectively moving backwards. And then there is also the issue of national security, something that is closely linked to data encryption, which is on the verge of being revolutionized by quantum technologies.

Full-blown quantum computers capable of performing any general computational task might still be decades into the future. Although big tech companies such as IBM, Google and Microsoft are already making emerging quantum computational platforms freely available today, with the privacy of data and a potential loss of intellectual property being the only price paid by the customer.

We should not await the arrival of the full quantum computer before we join the quantum era, because hybrid solutions containing elements from quantum technologies interfacing with classical computer methods have already demonstrated superior computational advantages, when compared to classical super computers. Other quantum-based technologies, such as quantum simulation, also have the potential to successfully predict the complex behaviour of systems which are quantum in nature.

Quantum-based transformation of sectors

The life science sector, and thereby the health of human beings, is likely to be transformed through quantum technologies. Quantum-based technologies are particularly well-positioned to revolutionize exploration of novel drugs. Quantum-mechanical interactions play an essential role for the 3D structure and function of a molecular drug as, for instance, a peptide or a protein. Given the amino-acid sequence of a protein, there are myriad possible 3D configurations, of which the art is to predict which one is chosen in nature and how this interacts in the physiological cellular context and over relevant time scales. Being able to make such explorations and thereby identify lead products in a reliable manner using quantum technologies will save precious and expensive laboratory time and potentially minimize the need for test animals and humans.

The energy sector is also likely to be transformed by the emerging quantum technologies. For instance, quantum computers will be capable of optimizing power grids and predict the environmental effect of various energyproducing and transportation methods. Of course, the much higher efficiency of a quantum-based calculation device will make the energy consumption significantly smaller than if using conventional computers for the same tasks. Also, quantum computation is likely to be superior in predicting material properties, as relevant for instance in the exploration of more efficient materials for batteries or photovoltaics, where the interaction between the light and the material is indeed quantum in nature.

The computational power of a full-blown quantum computer will be transformative in ways that are hardly imaginable. It will allow us to process much more information and much faster, thus allowing us to understand for instance the complex data originating from the COVID-19 pandemic, with the prospects of preparing us better for the next pandemic. Also, being able to process and analyse all climate data will provide valuable insights into the origins of the climate changes which we are currently undergoing, and provide insights that will help us to mitigate these changes and bring the planet back to a stable equilibrium.

Niels Bohr also said, "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. However, quantum-based technologies are likely to make predictions easier and to transform important sections. For these reasons, it is important that we, researchers, industry, politicians, and foundations in unison push strongly to realize the quantum transition.

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