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The second quantum revolution is building the technology of the future

Quantum physics opens the doors to welcome   the disruptive technologies of the future

E  González

The technology of the future is already being built, which opens the doors to computing, teleportation, cryptography, communications and quantum metrology. This will produce important changes in the way information is processed, transmitted, stored and protected. We will be the beneficiaries of an unprecedented technological revolution that will help to face the great challenges of 21st century society.

At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the most significant scientific advances in the history of human knowledge was produced: the quantum revolution. This new paradigm has allowed to develop the instrumental and theoretical capacities to explore the nature and behaviour of atoms and other basic constituents of matter and energy.  Despite the extraordinary scientific and technological achievements derived from this revolution, with emblematic advances such as the laser, the inevitable transition towards an engineering based on the capabilities offered by this fundamental area of knowledge, is still incipient.  The 21st century, hereditary of this first revolution, has hosted a roadmap that traces as a central axis the so-called second quantum revolution, which, together with nanotechnology, opens the doors to disruptive transitions that will drastically affect the areas of information technology, telecommunications, metrology, electronics and robotics, among many others.

The second quantum revolution will have a profound impact on 21st century society.  We are a knowledge society that bases its rational interaction with the world from the consensus acquired from classical science, which gives us the ability to understand phenomena and apply knowledge based on prediction, causality and determinism. From engineering, this has so far been sufficient to reach the surprising state of development from which we are beneficiaries. However, there are a number of unresolved problems and many outstanding scientific and technological needs. When the new quantum technology reaches some degree of maturity, it will be possible to design strategies to meet the energy and environmental challenge. Simulation of systems belonging to the quantum validity domain will be feasible. Contribute invaluable capabilities to financial services and process optimization. It will allow us to solve protein folding, a problem that goes beyond classical computing. The design of new drugs and protocols for treatment and diagnosis in the health area. Strategies to combat the deterioration of materials used in the industrial sector. Atomic and molecular design for the discovery and manufacture of new materials. Development of high quality security systems and protocols.

The science and technology of information and computing, telecommunications and computer security will be some of the main areas affected by the second revolution. Transcendental changes will occur in the way information is processed, transmitted, stored and protected. A large number of countries in the world are committed to the new agenda suggested by this revolution. Europe recently started the Quantum Flagship initiative, one of the most ambitious research proposals of the European Commission on research and innovation for the next 10 years. Together with the slogan “the future is quantum” and a budget investment of 1000 million euros to crystallize the industry of quantum technologies. 5000 researchers involved and 140 research and innovation proposals received, 5 areas of development will be addressed: quantum computing, quantum communications quantum simulation, metrology and quantum detection and basic science. On the other hand, it is worth highlighting a fact of great importance that occurred in 2015. China launched the first quantum satellite in orbit, the QUESS (Quantum Experiments at Spacial Scale), aimed mainly at making protocols and quantum teleportation processes feasible to enable telecommunications quantum and make reality in conjunction with cryptography and quantum computing, the quantum network of the future.

But what makes the new quantum paradigm so drastically new, different, and powerful? The reason is the type of physical approach used to develop the theoretical  foundations and technological developments. Thus, for example, the computers and other conventional technological devices with which we interact on a daily, base their operation on the laws of the so-called classical physics. Classical physics refers to the physical knowledge of the world based on Newton’s laws of mechanics, Maxwell’s laws of electromagnetism, the theory of heat, optics, and other areas of knowledge with which we became familiar in the early formative years. On the other hand, quantum physics refers to the world of atoms, molecules and other entities that belong to the invisible scale of the interior of matter, in which classical physics has no validity. It is often claimed that classical physics deals with the phenomena of the scale to which our perception belongs, while quantum physics deals with the atomic scale.

On the scale to which quantum physics belongs, intelligibility, causality, and other aspects that are part of our worldview, lose meaning. The nature of a quantum entity, such as an electron or a photon, cannot be defined until it is subjected to a measurement process. If the particle has not been disturbed by some measurement process, it can have behaviors as counterintuitive as at the same moment it can have two different states, for example, occupy two different places, something that entities called waves -such as those of sound , light or produced in water- is allowed, but which it is unprecedent for particles described by classical physics.

In the case of computing, the information unit, which is classically called the bit, is encoded in a physical system through two states represented by 0 and 1. These states cannot be simultaneously present. As an example, suppose the bit is represented as a box with two equal and closed compartments (figure 1). State zero could correspond to the presence of the particle in the first compartment, while state one to the presence of the particle in the second compartment. For a wave it would be possible to simultaneously occupy the two compartments, while for a classical particle this is not possible, since this would be equivalent to ubiquity by having the state 0 and 1 simultaneously. In the quantum case and under certain isolation conditions, it becomes possible to have the particle simultaneously in the two compartments, that is, in the two states 1 and 0 simultaneously.

Figure 1.  Bit and Qubit Representation

This superposition of states is associated with the quantum unit of information called the qubit. This “strange” quantum behavior is the basis for making quantum computing viable. It is not the same to operate with a single state, 0 or 1 in the classic case, as to do it with the two states simultaneously 0 and 1.

The great problem that arises with quantum superpositions is the difficulty of interacting with the quantum system without destroying them, since, if you try to observe or measure a qubit, it collapses into a classic bit. In the case of the previous example, if you try to observe, measure or control the system, the superposition collapses or destroys it, leading to the particle being detected only in one of the two states 0 or 1.

It is of paramount importance to be able to control and manipulate a quantum system without destroying it. This was one of the main challenges of experimental physics, until physicists Serge Haroche and David Wineland, with different proposals, found a way to make it possible. For this remarkable contribution, they received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2012.

Professor Haroche’s proposal, a pioneer in quantum optics, is based on controlling the interaction of light with matter. As is well known, when we try to interact with a light particle (called photon), it is destroyed, because it must be absorbed or modified in order to detect it. To obtain information about a single light photon without destroying or modifying it, a light trap was used, a device that keeps the photons confined between two highly reflective parallel mirrors (figure 2). If an atom passed through these photons or a beam of atoms that are very sensitive and with certain special properties in the presence of light, known as Rydberg atoms, these are modified as a function of the state of the photons present in the trap, but without causing disturbance on the photons. This of course is quantum behavior that has no analogy to the classical world. If these atoms interact with a sensor that reads the acquired information, with this knowledge about the photons is achieved without disturbing or destroying them.

Figure 2. Schematic representation of the light trap

This opens the doors to quantum technology, since it will make possible the creation of quantum computers, communication systems and cryptography, among other potential applications that will bring reality to the second quantum revolution.

On the other hand, metrology that deals with everything related to measurements, units of measurement and the corresponding equipment required to make them, will be drastically affected by the new quantum paradigm. It should be noted that quantum theory is behind the new definition of the unit of mass, the kilogram. This definition is based on the Planck constant.

Engineering in the era of quantum hegemony

Engineering makes viable what physics proposes as possible. What is possible for physical science is determined by the natural laws with which we have learned to control and manipulate the fundamental ingredients that make up the physical universe: matter and energy. With these two ingredients and the knowledge inherited from the evolution of human thought, it becomes feasible to engineer the technological developments that physical science makes possible.

Why is the transition to quantum technology inevitable? The evolution of engineering is drastically determined by the development of capacities to manipulate matter and energy at scales closer to atoms. There has been a clear trend towards miniaturization and operation of the different mechanical, electronic, electrochemical components, among others. To mention a specific case, since 2003 the manufacture of processors reduced its scale to below 100 nanometers. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. In 2014, the manufacturing of 14-nanometer-scale processors was achieved, and achievements in the manufacture of 10-nanometers are expected later this year. These manufacturing-10 nm processors will incorporate notable improvements in performance, autonomy, and connectivity for future developments in Industry 5.0, marking an important approach to the validity domains of quantum physics.  On the other hand, the extraordinary advances in quantum computing that are already strategically positioning themselves as the spearhead of the computer industry for the coming years, as demonstrated by IBM’s recent presentation at the first ever CES Technology Fair in Las Vegas computer for potential commercial use Q System One. This type of computer will open an extraordinary field of applications in basic science and Engineering. Like computing, telecommunications and cybersecurity will move toward unprecedented capacity development.

In a report by Accenture Labs, the mapping of 150 use cases derived only from quantum computing is indicated, an aspect that proposes a great advance towards the maturity of quantum technology. The quantum market offers promising expectations. According to Accenture, in 2016 public and private investment in the quantum market was approximately $ 1 billion. As is well known, investment in research and development is one of the main factors that materialize disruptive trends.

Currently, a large number of companies, including Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia, NEC, Hitachi, HP, have created an ecosystem that will generate a significant volume of products and solutions derived from the technologies of quantum information and communication. Some of the potential users who are joining this offer belong to automotive, computer service, chemical and pharmaceutical companies.

The battle for quantum hegemony has motivated the incorporation of initiatives aimed at promoting infrastructure in quantum technology. The United States, based on recommendations from the National Council of Science and Technology, is strengthening infrastructure capacities in Quantum Information Science and has approved an investment of 1.2 billion dollars through the National Quantum Initiative. China is making progress in the construction of the Hefei Quantum Information Laboratory, which has required an investment of close to $ 10 billion. In Russia, the creation of the Russian Quantum Center is taking shape. In Australia, the Sydey Quantum Academy was created, with funds close to $ 360 million. In Latin America, investment in this technological offer is still incipient. In countries like Mexico, there is significant progress in taking up the challenge and integrating research and development centers in this task. In countries like Colombia, it is required to advance in experimental infrastructure for quantum research, necessary to promote a greater opportunity for innovation and endogenous development in these disruptive technologies.

This transition panorama raises the need to prepare the engineer to take on the challenges of the second revolution. On the other hand, it is necessary to increase the opening of quantum training spaces for undergraduate students in Engineering.


We are on the verge of the beginning of an unprecedented knowledge revolution, which will drastically change the technological offer and affect scientific development. There are numerous challenges that must be faced from science and engineering to consolidate this global initiative that will allow building the quantum technology of the future.

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