Emerging Technologies

Explainer: What is quantum technology and what are its benefits?

Quantum computer startup QuEra Computing's 256-qubit machine and Florian Huber, one of the team of scientist that built the machine.

The quantum economy is expected to be worth trillions of dollars within the next decade. Image: REUTERS

Andrea Willige
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Quantum technology will speed processing by an order of magnitude compared to conventional computing and impact all key economic sectors over the next 10 years.
  • It could be worth trillions of dollars within the next decade. But what is it, and how do experts view the technology?
  • The World Economic Forum’s Quantum Economy Network aims to raise awareness and understanding of quantum technology and has created a blueprint for building a quantum economy.

“Quantum technology will permeate and impact every key sector of the economy and take us into a period likely to be referred to as the post-quantum era. This collectively creates an economic impact and a distinctive economic ecosystem, which we refer to as the quantum economy.”

This is how Arunima Sarkar, Thematic Lead for Quantum Technology at the World Economic Forum, introduced a panel discussion about the future of quantum technology as part of an exclusive virtual programme for digital members.

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According to McKinsey, quantum technology could be worth trillions of dollars within the next decade, with chemicals, the life sciences, finance and mobility first in line to realize its benefits.

But quantum technology is relatively unknown to a broader audience. As Sarkar pointed out, there is a distinct lack of awareness and understanding of this technology—a knowledge gap that the Forum’s Quantum Economy Network seeks to overcome.

So what exactly is quantum technology, and how can it affect our economy to the tune of trillions of dollars?

Quantum Technology Monitor 2024 overview
Quantum technology could be worth trillions within the next decade. Image: McKinsey

What is quantum technology?

Quantum technology is based on the principles of quantum mechanics. These are the laws of physics that apply to sub-atomic particles, going back to the work of physicists including Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger in the 1920s. Quantum technology is not new. It first came into play with the development of nuclear power, and it’s fundamental to the semiconductors you find in your phone and many other devices.

One of the main areas where quantum technology is applied today is quantum computing, which enables data to be processed fundamentally differently from conventional computers.

At the heart of quantum computing is a quantum bit (qubit), which is the quantum equivalent of a classical bit, the most fundamental unit for encoding information. Where a bit can be in a state of either on or off (0 or 1), a qubit can be in either 0 or 1 – or a combination of both. This is because of a superposition effect in quantum theory, which means that particles can exist simultaneously in multiple states.

Not only can quantum computing provide a significant performance boost in processing, but it also has the potential to solve complex problems much faster than even the most powerful supercomputers today.

In addition to quantum computing, many other quantum technologies are at various stages of development, including highly sensitive quantum sensors and quantum data networks.

“Quantum has been around for 100 years. It's been around for a long time. We’re just now manifesting it in the hardware and software necessary to deploy it,” Paul Terry, CEO of Photonic Inc., told his fellow panellists.

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What are the applications of quantum technology?

While speeding computation is one advantage of quantum technology, it is about more than an upgrade to conventional computing, as Rebecca Krauthamer, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer of QuSecure, points out.

“In these early days, a lot of people think that a quantum computer is going to be a better, faster, stronger classical computer. That's not the case. They don't think in the same way. And so, we're never going to have a quantum-powered spreadsheet, for example.”

Instead, experts envisage some of the biggest impacts in areas such as sensors and communications.

Stefan Leichenauer, Vice President of Engineering at SandboxAQ, told the panel that quantum sensors can be much more sensitive than classical ones.

“There are quantum sensors that can be used today for useful applications, and they’ll get better as time goes on, as the technology matures,” he said. “But even today, they are already being used for next-generation medical devices, geofencing, navigation and mineral discovery.”

A quantum navigation system, for instance, has the potential to overcome current GPS vulnerabilities, such as technical outages, cyberattacks and atmospheric disruptions, locating and navigating with a much higher level of accuracy.

Another area is communications and networking. Quantum communications enables the secure transfer of information, resulting in more secure networking and internet connectivity.

“You're going to see quantum secure networks. You're going to see networks that actually link quantum computers together, the so-called quantum internet, which is one of the mission statements of the UK government,” Terry highlighted.

Public sector investments in quantum technologies worldwide
Governments around the world are investing heavily in quantum technologies, with China in the lead. Image: World Economic Forum

What are the key enablers for advancing quantum technology?

Like the UK government, policymakers and governments worldwide are investing in quantum technology to ensure their participation in a future quantum economy, with China currently in the lead.

As the World Economic Forum points out in its Quantum Economy Blueprint, an entire value chain needs to be built. While there will be crossover with existing supply chains—semiconductors, nanotechnology, and photonics, for example—many more connections will need to be forged. The Forum expects that international collaboration will be vital to lining up all the elements needed for the quantum economy to generate value.

At the same time, the Blueprint cautions that a “quantum divide” must be avoided, especially given the considerable digital divide that already exists and the fact that quantum efforts are currently concentrated in certain countries.

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Another priority for advancing quantum technology is building a quantum-literate workforce across economic sectors. The European Union currently has the highest number and density of quantum technology talent, followed by India, according to McKinsey. However, demand is likely to escalate, and building a strong talent pipeline will be fundamental to benefit from the expected growth in quantum computing.

But there are still technology issues to be resolved, too, not least in terms of cyber security. For example, as Krauthamer highlighted, as the capabilities of quantum computing get better, “quantum computers will be able to break what has been the commonly accepted standard of encryption. And this is the encryption that affects or enables virtually all secure communications across the world”.

However, quantum technology also promises improved encryption and security, not least thanks to a technology called quantum key distribution.

“Quantum key distribution is a very cool way to use quantum technologies to exchange keys that help keep data secure. And then there's post-quantum cryptography and post-quantum encryption. It's a bit confusingly named, but it really means quantum-safe encryption,” Krauthamer added.

The European Union has the highest number and concentration of QT talent.
Building a strong talent pipeline will be critical for leveraging the potential of quantum technology. Image: McKinsey Digital

What should organizations do to prepare for quantum technology?

Because much of the data stored today will have a long shelf-life, it’s important to think ahead to a time when quantum technology will be the standard rather than the exception.

But there is an even stronger reason for organizations to prepare for a quantum future – based on the evolution of generative AI.

"AI is a technology that has been developed for a very long time, and if you ask the experts, they've been excited about it for 10 or 15 years. But for most people, there was this ChatGPT moment a couple of years ago when everybody was suddenly paying attention, "said Leichenauer.

"Those who were driving the change are now leading the pack. And those who didn't see it coming at all, which, unfortunately, is the majority, are now scrambling to figure it out.

"You don't want to be caught in this group of people when, all of a sudden, everybody else starts using quantum at scale," said Leichenauer. Particularly when, as Jerry M Chow, Fellow and Director of Quantum Infrastructure at IBM, pointed out, "quantum computers are getting better at being themselves".

Krauthamer agreed: “My one piece of advice would be to start now”.

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