This week, quantum technology is one of the news headlines. The Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zeilinger for work “that has laid the foundation for a new era of quantum technology”. But what is this new era about? We asked Prof. Tommaso Calarco, Director of the Institute for Quantum Control in Jülich (Germany), and one of the coordinators of the Quantum Flagship, a European Commission research initiative. He will moderate the upcoming STOA workshop ‘Quantum and Chips: developing European industrial capabilities in quantum technologies’ at the European Parliament on 12 October.
Nowadays you hear a lot about quantum technology. Could you please explain what it is in a short and simple way?
Tommaso Calarco: It may seem difficult, but it’s actually very simple. It’s a technology based on individual quanta: a single atom, a single electron, or a single photon. When you use them individually, these are the components of the second quantum revolution.
Actually, the technology we are using today – for example, a call with a mobile phone – is only possible because we can manipulate and master quantum mechanics. But this is the first kind of quantum technology – ‘quantum technology 1.0’ – the type we use every day. Without this type of quantum mechanics, we would have no transistors, no lasers, no computers, and ultimately no internet.
In every form of communication we use now, there are many, many electrons going around each bit of information. If we go down to a single electron, or a single atom, or a single photon, that’s where ‘quantum technology 2.0’ starts.
What is it that makes quantum technology ‘revolutionary’?
Tommaso Calarco: The reason is that these individual quanta possess properties that are unmatched in the ‘classical’ world and go beyond the current state of the art. For example, if I have one individual electron, I can use it as a quantum bit – a qubit. They can be in states characterised as either zero or one, which is the basis of our information society. But at the same time, qubits can have a new property: they can also be in a ‘superposition’ – zero and one at the same time.
Therefore, if you have many of these electrons, or many of these qubits, you can encode all possible combinations of them at the same time, meaning you can process many different possibilities for your computation in parallel. This gives a parallelism that can accelerate the processing of information by a computer enormously.
Alongside big advantages for sensing, diagnostics and for research as such, quantum technologies also have a big impact on communication. They enable you to send a single photon to someone to convey a message. Currently, we know that foreign powers can eavesdrop on our messages, because they can take a few photons and then read the message. But if you use a single quantum, in this case a single photon, it is impossible to split it into parts or to measure it without disturbing it. So if you don’t get the photon, or you get it in a changed state, then you know it has been eavesdropped on. This gives enormous security in the field of communication.
What other new things could we do with quantum technology?
Tommaso Calarco: I already mentioned secret messages that no one can intercept without being detected. With the aid of quantum computing and quantum simulation, we can also understand the behaviour of different materials or new chemical compounds.
This is not for tomorrow; it’s probably something long-term in ten, twenty years from now. But the dream – the vision – is to understand and calculate the properties of chemicals such as the ones in medical drugs. Something which is impossible to do today.
We will also be able to vastly improve GPS navigators. At the moment they are only precise within a couple of metres. This is not enough for autonomous driving. Navigators, for example, do not know whether I am on the left or the right side of the road, so I could have an accident if I only relied on my GPS navigator.
However, if you measure with quantum measurement devices, such as quantum metrology, using quantum-improved atomic clocks, you have much higher precision. The signal of the satellite is much more precise, so I can know where my car is within centimetres, or even millimetres. This could enable autonomous driving. These are just a few examples of what this new technology could bring for society.
One of the applications of quantum technology is quantum computing. What would be the advantage of this over standard computing and today’s supercomputers?
Tommaso Calarco: A quantum computer consumes much less electricity, but, especially, it is much faster than a classical supercomputer. For example, three years ago, Google demonstrated so-called ‘quantum supremacy’: within two and a half minutes, a quantum computer calculated the solution to a problem which would have taken a supercomputer 10 000 years. Furthermore, the quantum computer at Google ran on 26 kilowatts, while the supercomputer ran on 14 megawatts, which is 500 times more power. Saving so much energy is a big advantage for the environment.
Are there also any disadvantages and risks involved? And if there are, how can we address them?
Tommaso Calarco: One big danger is if these technologies landed in the hands of just a few, such as terrorist organisations or governments that wanted to use them to wield more power, launch attacks, or for other negative purposes. Another risk, in my personal opinion, is if these technologies were ‘non-democratised’ – creating wealth only for the Global North, and leaving the Global South increasingly poor.
So we need openness and international cooperation. In Europe, we have a high degree of international cooperation. We have the largest ERA-Net research network, QuantERA – a consortium of almost 40 organisations from all over Europe – which pools resources together and exchanges knowledge among researchers. There is also cooperation outside Europe and there are discussions going on in order to enhance this.
Another important way to address this risk, aside from cooperation, is through standardisation and regulation. So we develop standards that are under the control of our governments. This is to make sure these technologies are used only for the benefit of society.
What is Europe doing to support the development of quantum technologies?
Tommaso Calarco: Europe is doing a lot, in terms of both research and innovation. In terms of research, under the EU framework programme Horizon Europe and previously under Horizon 2020, we have a research programme called the Quantum Flagship. This is based on a substantial investment from the European Commission as well as the EU Member States, currently totalling over seven billion euros. The so-called ‘ramp-up phase’ started three years ago.
Now that the first projects have come to an end, with a mid-term evaluation last February in Paris, we can see a lot of output from them. We have a lot of companies that didn’t yet exist three years ago and that are now commercialising quantum computing and security etc.
This deployment is exactly what the European Commission is doing as part of the funding programme Digital Europe, while making sure that the output of the Flagship is taken up in European infrastructures. For instance, the European Quantum Communication Infrastructure (EuroQCI) initiative is going to deploy European hardware for secure quantum communication channels across all EU Member States. This requires a big investment in order to bootstrap the market. With this first wave of procurement it is becoming possible for our start-ups to lead the way.
Another initiative in the field of quantum computing is the European Quantum Computing & Simulation Infrastructure (EuroQCS), which is being deployed in the context of the European High Performance Computing Joint Undertaking (EuroHPC JU), under which the first quantum computers and simulators are being deployed in supercomputing centres. Next year we will have one, for instance, in the Research Centre in Jülich, Germany, where I work. Another one is coming to GENCI (Grand Équipement National de Calcul Intensif) in Paris, and another call has just been published to deploy quantum computers across Europe.
So this is the way not only to bootstrap the market, but also to bring benefits to society. These computers and simulators will be available for use by industry, companies and other users, who can benefit from this computing power to solve their own problems.
Do you think it is important that Europe is not left behind or becomes dependent on other regions for this kind of fundamental technology? What needs to be done to ensure this?
Tommaso Calarco: Yes, this technological sovereignty is essential and at the centre of the discussion. In recent years, there have been issues with export restrictions. Previously, when the Flagship was not yet there, we had to procure some components for quantum computers that were only produced in the US. However, because the US administration put restrictions in place for their export, the development of our technologies slowed down.
What the Commission is now ensuring with the Flagship is that we are currently able to produce those components ourselves. Therefore, we are no longer dependent on what other countries export, and we make sure that we keep the know-how and keep developing. So we don’t just have European technology, but also technology that is and will continue to be at the leading edge.
The European Union now has an outstanding opportunity to continue this with the ‘Chips Act’. This Act aims to ensure our sovereignty in terms of the production of computer chips, including quantum chips that are of a different nature than standard chips. This comes at a key moment, because now we have all these start-ups and all this know-how. To industrialise this at a bigger scale, we really need production facilities dedicated to quantum chips. We can then maintain the leading edge for Europe and continue this new development.
Thank you. We look forward to seeing you at the STOA workshop on 12 October!