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

Charlotte Jee | | July 1, 2016
Quantum effects like superposition and entanglement could vastly improve technologies like cryptography, imaging and computing. Here's how.

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The idea behind quantum technology was first mooted by physicist Gerard J. Milburn in 1997.

He suggested that by harnessing the properties of quantum mechanics, technologies like cryptography, imaging and computing could be vastly improved.

Practical research only really started to take off from 2010. Google and NASA are currently testing a quantum computer known as 'D-Wave Two', the second ever commercially available quantum computer, developed by Canadian firm D-Wave Systems.

Experts say quantum computing is a big step closer thanks to a breakthrough in March 2016 which could pave the way to building working quantum circuits. 

What is Quantum tech? The Fredkin gate

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.

The project's leaders say the UK could become a world leader in this emerging field.

But firstly: what is it? [You might also like: What is microservices?

What is Quantum tech? Quantum tech explained

Take a deep breath. This is about to get a bit complicated.

Quantum mechanics is '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.

 

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