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The race towards quantum computation

It’s said that the 21st century will be the quantum era. But how close are we to having quantum computers? And are EU researchers leading the charge?

‘Perhaps the quantum computer will change our everyday lives in this century in the same radical way as the classical computer did in the last century’: these were the words of the Nobel committee in 2012 upon awarding Serge Haroche and David Wineland the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on quantum systems. It’s said that the 21st century will indeed be the quantum era. But how close are we to having quantum computers? What will their capabilities be? And what challenges does the EU research community face along the way? Researchers, industry representatives and policy makers gathered at last week’s Innovation Summit to explore these questions. Unlike conventional computers which store information as 0s or 1s, quantum computer use qubits which can be a 1 or a 0 or both at the same time. This ‘quantum superposition’, along with the quantum effects of entanglement and quantum tunnelling, enables quantum computers to work with all combinations of bits simultaneously. This is what makes quantum computation more powerful and faster than its conventional counterpart. Speaking at the Innovation Summit, Lieven Vandersypen of Delft University of Technology, pointed to what this increased capability would mean: ‘Quantum computers can model complex molecules which can contribute to improvements in health and medicine through quantum chemistry. They are also capable of modelling complex materials which can impact energy through room temperature superconductivity, as well as solving complex mathematical problems which will benefit security.’ John Morton of University College London (UCL) pointed to the new diagnostic tools, novel drugs, new materials for batteries and solar technologies which could be imagined in the age of quantum computing. This means big business. In fact, the high performance computing market was worth £7 billion (approximately EUR 8.8 billion) in 2011. And this is important to the EU because it is a field in which we excel, as Professor Morton noted: ‘In the EU, quantum science is at a global level. We are producing the best science in the world but the challenge is to translate this into market opportunities.’ Professor Morton noted how the EU is leading all of the competition in terms of academic output on quantum technology, but we are falling behind when it comes to patenting. ‘Between 2009 and 2012, China patented five times more than EU in quantum technologies. Meanwhile, US-based industry and defence organisations are very active in quantum technologies. Our goal must be to harness the EU’s world-leading quantum science into technology, address the engineering challenge and cultivate a spirit of entrepreneurship and enterprise in this field.’ Professor Vandersypen reiterated the EU’s leading role in the area of quantum science: ‘More Nobel prizes are coming in this field and they are going to go to Europeans.’ However, he insisted that an EU-wide effort to push research forward is needed, particularly in terms of improvements of fault tolerance and scalability in quantum computation. ‘When it comes to advancing both quantum hardware and software,’ Professor Vandersypen noted, ‘A large-scale EU-wide effort is needed to make the difference. Flagships like those for the Human Brain Project and Graphene, that’s the scale of funding we’re thinking about.’ Again looking at the European level, Professor Morton called for an advisory board for quantum technology with at least 50 % representation from the IT industry to be set up to help define an EU strategy: ‘Let’s place the EU at the forefront of the emerging quantum technology industry,’ he urged, ‘Make the EU the prime destination for researchers and investors aiming to commercialise quantum technologies. Grow ‘quantum valley’ here.’ For more information, please visit: Innovation Summit 2014 Digital Agenda: Emerging trends in Quantum Computing



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