A quantum of urgency for the industry

A quantum of urgency for the industry

14 May 2021 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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A century after the physics of the quantum emerged at the University of Göttingen, worldwide universities are set to change the telecoms and data centre industries, writes Alan Burkitt-Gray

Prepare for everything you ever knew about digital security to go out of date and become irrelevant. Get ready to rethink your fibre networks, your data centres, your computers, all your techniques to guard privacy.

How long do you have to prepare for this future, when everything you’ve learned and understood over the past couple of decades is overturned? Would three years be enough?

Why should you panic at reading this? To start with, read the interview with Dan Caruso in this issue here: you’ll remember him as the founder of Zayo who finally left the company after handing over to new owners last year.

What he’s doing now is something you should all take notice of. The man who set up Zayo in 2007 and led it until Digital Colony of the US and EQT of Sweden bought it for $14.3 billion is now investing his future in quantum technology.

And quantum technology is going to change how your networks operate, how your data is stored and what sort of computing you can do. If you use it, you’ll be able to do things better, faster and more securely.

If you ignore it, other people – those “bad actors” – will steal your data. I’m not joking here: techniques that have allowed public key cryptography to secure our communications for years will be obsolete. We have been able to rely on it because today’s computers need a stupidly long time to decode encrypted messages. Not so with quantum computing.

If you don’t believe me, ask Jeremy Fleming (pictured), who has been director of the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British equivalent of the US National Security Agency, since 2017. GCHQ’s purpose is to secure UK government messages but also to spy on foreign governments.

Fleming, who has worked for the UK’s security service, better known as MI5, warned about quantum technology in a lecture to Imperial College London in April. It’s online, on GCHQ’s own website: read it there, and you can also watch and hear him speak on the Imperial College YouTube channel.

Back to Caruso, who is now executive chairman and acting CEO of ColdQuanta, a company started by the University of Colorado at Boulder. It is building a cloud-based computer this year and plans to offer a quantum computer for sale in 2022.

This is a whole century since the theory and science of quantum physics first emerged – but that’s not unusual. We like to think that we move fast in telecoms and technology, but it also took almost a century between Michael Faraday setting out the principles of radio transmission on which the telecoms industry relies and their commercial exploitation.

And if you want to argue, transistors and integrated circuits also use quantum physics, or so I dimly remember from my university days.

Albert Einstein famously asked, “Does God play dice?” when confronted with the mathematics conjured up by Erwin Schrödinger when some of the world’s most brilliant scientists – gathered at the University of Göttingen in Germany – created the path to the modern world.

Göttingen was the world’s outstanding university for the new physics and mathematics of the quantum from the early 1920s until that tragic year of 1933 when Germany, and Europe – and the world – began to suffer the Nazi infection that would destroy so much.

It had people such as John von Neumann, one of the pioneers of computing, plus a group of quantum scientists – people such as Hertha Sponer, Nobel laureate Maria Göppert-Mayer, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born and Schrödinger himself.

We didn’t have to wait a century to see all the products of that work in Göttingen: as well as the transistor in 1947 and the integrated circuit in 1959, there was the atom bomb, plus von Neumann’s digital computer in 1945 – parallel with Alan Turing’s UK work. All owe their origins to science pioneered in that institution. But it’s taken until the 2020s for the full might and mystery of quantum physics to make its impact.

And that impact is being felt across the world – from China, where Pan Jianwei of the University of Science and Technology of China is nicknamed “Dr Quantum”, to Australia, where Michelle Simmons is director of Silicon Quantum Computing at the University of New South Wales.

In April the government of the Netherlands awarded €615 million from its national growth fund to accelerate the country’s work in quantum technology. The money went to Quantum Delta NL, which has five major quantum hubs – in Amsterdam, Delft, Eindhoven, Leiden and Twente – as well as several universities and research centres, which are all connected.

In the UK, Ilana Wisby is the CEO of Oxford Quantum Circuits at the University of Oxford.

Across the Atlantic, the University of Chicago – home of the first atomic chain reaction, in 1942 – plans to build a quantum internet. And the University of Colorado at Boulder has that company, ColdQuanta, that is now led by Zayo founder Dan Caruso.

Yes, a lot of it is still in universities – it’s still that sort of science and technology – but all these teams are developing commercial applications.

If quantum computing isn’t keeping you awake at night, it should be. Wisby, according to a recent GlobalData presentation, says its introduction is “like moving from a candle to a lightbulb”. Mike Orme, consultant analyst at GlobalData, compares the coming years of quantum science and technology to the arms race of the 1950s, the space race of the 1960s and “the internet gold rush of the 1990s”.

Do you need to understand it all? Well, do you understand the physics of optical fibres or of computers – right down to refractive indices or how semiconductor gates work? No, probably not. But fibres and computers have changed our industry in the past few decades; quantum physics is already starting to do so.