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Quantum technology - what can it do, and what can you do?

Earlier this year, researchers from the US and China played a trick on 40 drivers. Using a $200 kit of parts, they imitated GPS satellites, feeding bogus information to receivers in cars and fooling the drivers into taking the wrong routes.

The experiment showed, not for the first time, that GPS is surprisingly fallible. They showed how cheap and readily available the technology is to successfully create an attack.  And it was a pointer to the biggest current opportunity for the fast-emerging field of quantum technology.

As the name suggests, quantum is about controlling the inner workings of atoms. In one sense, it’s nothing new, as quantum principles are central to the semiconductors that drive our smartphones, the lasers that carry data across the internet and even nuclear power. The difference now is that engineering can control and harness what’s happening at the sub-atomic level in a way that opens up new business applications.

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It could mean more reliable navigation, timing equipment and imaging sensors, more secure communication or a new generation of computing. Depending on your business, these applications could be truly disruptive. And while some are much closer to reality than others, it makes sense to take them all seriously, discover how they could affect you and decide how to respond. 

You might conclude you don’t have to do anything for ten years. But you might find that a competitor is five years ahead of you, and that action is vital now. 

So, let’s look at the main groups of applications for quantum, starting with the ones most likely to be available first. 

Navigation and timing

GPS may be fallible, but a lot rests on it, from stock market timing systems and power grids to our smartphones, satnavs and sports watches. GPS needs to be synchronised to within a nanosecond per day, but the atomic clocks it relies on can lose this in a month.

In any business that demands absolute accuracy, this matters. Just look at what happens when GPS is accidentally disturbed. In January 2007, US Navy ships in San Diego harbour accidentally jammed GPS signals across the city. Mobile phones lost signal, ATM machines refused cash withdrawals and the harbour traffic management and air traffic control systems shut down. There will have undoubtedly been improvements made after this event, but it shows we can’t assume GPS will always work perfectly.

Quantum clocks promise a super-accurate back-up for GPS systems when signals are weak, for instance indoors or in built-up areas. How important could that be for your business? As a car insurer, measuring where drivers are more accurately could make you better at understanding risk and setting insurance premiums – a valuable advantage in the coming era of driverless cars. As an airline, it could give you a better back-up to GPS than current classical sensor-based inertial navigation systems, whose motion sensors ‘drift’ with time and distance at a rate of about one nautical mile per hour. And it could help your haulage business thwart drivers who get away with using vans and lorries illegally by stopping GPS signals reaching their tachographs with jamming devices.

Small quantum clocks are already available in the US, with others from the UK on the way. Businesses need to work out now whether they offer a chance to disrupt or differentiate.

Quantum can also cut navigation errors by measuring gravity, which varies from place to place. It lets you improve the accuracy of classical systems or navigate by gravity alone. And researchers at Birmingham University have created a quantum gravimeter that can detect voids under solid objects, meaning a week-long surveying task could now take half a day.

Motion and imaging sensors

With quantum technology, magnetic fields become much easier to detect and control, creating possibilities in areas like medical imaging. For example, researchers at Nottingham University are using quantum magnetic field detectors to put magnetoencephalography (MEG) in a skullcap. This revolutionary device monitors how the brain reacts to day-to-day tasks. It’s a technique that could help diagnose various brain disorders, especially those related to movement.

Secure communication

In theory, quantum technology will raise the bar of secure communication. It has the potential to create the equivalent of a tamper-proof seal, which reveals if digital communications have been interfered with in transit. The technique uses Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), where a key is sent and the receiver detects if there’s any eavesdropping. Recently a QKD encrypted link was demonstrated between China and Austria using a specialist quantum satellite. 

Academic research has also explored using a credit card or mobile phone to grab single-use QKD keys from cashpoints for individual financial transactions. Nations like China are investing in the technique and have created over 2000km of QKD protected links, and it’s one to watch. 

Quantum computing

Quantum computing is probably the application that requires the most development. But it’s far from science fiction and has substantial research effort devoted to it. Today’s computing uses a binary system of bits that store information as a ‘1’ or a ‘0’. Computers work through calculations step by step. Quantum computing runs on ‘qubits’ that exist in multiple states – they can be ‘1’ and ‘0’ at the same time. That lets them calculate an infinite number of things simultaneously or in parallel. And that makes them much more powerful. 

So, things that take the most advanced computers years will become much faster. It will transform laborious work like the genome sequencing behind new pharmaceuticals or scheduling delivery fleets most efficiently. 

The flipside, of course, is that cracking some of today’s unhackable encryption will become routine. So new quantum-safe encryption will need to be deployed too. 

Google predicts its quantum computer chip will achieve ‘quantum supremacy’ this year. That’s the point where quantum computing can do calculations beyond what even today’s super-computers can manage. But quantum computers in any usable form are still some way off. Qubits are highly sensitive to temperature and vibration, and prone to errors when they’re disturbed. So incorporating them into circuits is still a feat of engineering. 

Even so, work and testing continues. And the lure of faster processing means quantum computing will be transformational for companies and society as a whole. The trick for organisations is working out what that transformed future will look like, how quickly it will happen and

Now is the time to shape this disruptive future by being part of the development process. The UK Government has already invested almost £400 million in four university quantum hubs. These hubs and industry experts are rapidly creating the first quantum products. Are you ready to partner with such quantum pioneers and improve society and business?

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