The first quantum network in the Netherlands will be released around the turn of the year. A so-called quantum link (Q-link) will be established between the Dutch cities of Delft and The Hague, which will enable two quantum systems to be linked and entangled. If this network works, further scaling up to other cities in the Dutch Randstad region will be considered. Dutch scientists and companies are working hard on the development of quantum technology in the form of quantum networks and computers. But what use will this new technology be to us? And how will it change our lives?
The Netherlands aims to become the Silicon Valley of quantum technology, as indicated in the Dutch Government’s National Agenda for Quantum Technology document. Along with several others, QuTech, which is a long-term collaboration between the Dutch Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) and the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), is conducting research into the potential of Quantum Computing and Quantum Internet. It is also looking into practical applications that involve the participation of companies such as the Dutch telecom giant KPN and the American multinational Cisco Systems.
Enormous economic impact
The range of applications seems to be limitless. “The quantum computer makes calculations in a completely different way than the computers we are currently familiar with,” says Ingrid Romijn, program manager at QuTech. “A quantum computer can, for example, calculate the various states of large molecules extremely quickly. This enables researchers to simulate the interaction between substances and cells much more accurately. This enables medicinal drugs to be developed specifically for any given individual who has a particular disease. In addition, quantum technology can contribute to advances in batteries and solar cells. It can also clarify and solve logistical problems much more swiftly,” Romijn explains. The quantum computer can, therefore, have a major impact on the healthcare, energy and logistics sectors, to name but a few. “But that’s not all. Every sector can benefit from a computer with more computational power. Consequently, the economic impact is bound to be enormous.”
It is not yet clear exactly how significant this impact will be. Not all the capabilities of a quantum computer have been figured out by researchers and companies as yet. René Pluis, the cybersecurity leader of the digital acceleration program for the Netherlands at Cisco Systems: “This is more often the case once fundamental research is put into actual practice.” He compares it to the technological revolution of the 1950s. “That’s when electronic appliances and transistors became the norm. Appliances are able to function in more compact, lighter, and cheaper versions. We are completely used to that now,” he says.
“In those days, the transistor radio was invented, but we had no idea at the time that we could also create an MRI scanner based on that same technology. The same holds true for the laser. At first, it was a massive machine. Now it’s tucked away in small appliances like a CD player. We don’t know yet what we can do with quantum technology in the future, so we have to use it and figure it out.”
The two key principles
Quantum technology works on the basis of two principles: entanglement and superposition. These two characteristics make the technology stand out from all others. Quantum technology does not look at bits, but instead, it deals with qubits. The currently used bits are always a 0 or a 1. A qubit can also be a 0 and a 1 at the same time. The way qubits work is based on principles of quantum mechanics, one of the most precise theories in the world. Thanks to major breakthroughs over the past decade, it is now clear that these principles can be applied in new cutting-edge technologies. “By having the quantum computer perform computations using qubits, in principle, several computations can be performed at the same time. Since quantum computers can perform multiple operations all at once, they have the potential to solve problems that are practically unsolvable for conventional computers,” Pluis asserts.
The second characteristic of qubits that makes quantum technology possible is entanglement. This means that two quantum systems, for example, electrons or photons, are connected with each other without actually ever being physically connected. If one quantum system changes, the other one will also sense that, even if they are thousands of kilometers away from each other. “This also sounds almost magical, but it has been proven to work,” Pluis goes on to say: “As a consequence of this entanglement, there is a link between the states of the two systems from a distance. It is as if they are one system, so to speak.”
Romijn adds. ” This allows you to synchronize things much faster when two quantum systems are remotely entangled,” she says. This could, for one thing, result in more accurate positionings and localizations and could be incorporated into astronomy. Pluis: “The more accurately atomic clocks are tuned up with each other, the finer satellites and telescopes can be tuned.”
An entangled connection also provides a higher level of security. “You then have a quantum link to someone else. If someone tries to access or eavesdrop on an entangled connection, the entanglement disappears and it is immediately clear that someone was attempting to read the data,” Romijn explains. According to Romijn, one of the first applications of quantum computers and networks will be to secure confidential information, e.g. that of the government or the military. “For instance, we are working with a Dutch bank to examine the scope for security,” she says.
Not only does the quantum computer offer new forms of security, but it also poses security risks. The current security provided by encryption, a cipher sequence generated by multiplying large prime numbers, is no longer as secure when a quantum computer comes into play. “It is very difficult for a standard computer to reduce this type of cipher sequence down to those two prime numbers. This is why data is secure. But because a quantum computer performs these kinds of calculations far more quickly, it can easily crack these kinds of codes,” explains Pluis, who works at Cisco.
“The quantum computer’ is still a few years down the road. But if someone were to save files now in order to decrypt them sometime in the future, that might pose a problem. Not all documents will still be relevant in a number of years, but government documents often still will be,”, he notes. That is why a new type of security is needed for important – classified – documents. “An encryption system is currently being developed on the basis of quantum network technology that no longer relies on the huge computational power of quantum computers,” Pluis states.
Good or evil
Data security is one of the many applications of quantum technology. As such, the new technology has two faces. On the one hand, it can crack today’s security systems, with all the ensuing implications. On the other hand, it can provide new and more sophisticated forms of security. Romijn: “What if the technology falls into the hands of criminals? The government, among others, is quite concerned about that.” According to the program manager at QuTech, this is a recurring question that always arises where technological developments are concerned. “When the laser was invented, people were also afraid that criminals would make weapons out of it. Now it appears that good things are done with it in the main,” she comments.
“The technology is not good or evil. We have to make sure that it is put to good use.” There is a lot of emphasis on the ethical side of things within the National Agenda Quantum Technology document. “We want to focus on social impact and actually involve society in the development process. Not only technicians but also philosophers and lawyers, for instance”. Romijn thinks that this is a way for Europe to distinguish itself from China and America, which are also actively involved in the development of quantum technology. “Whereas for China and America it is mainly the technological and economic aspects that play a leading role, Europe has also introduced a third element into the discussion: impact and ethics. This element is often essential when it comes to gaining public acceptance for new technology and the regulations surrounding them.”
Cooperation as a guiding principle
Apart from the competition to be the first to realize a fully functional quantum computer, in Romijn’s view it is also imperative that countries and companies work together. “For example, researchers all have their own expertise, but so do companies and even countries. We can subsequently arrive at the most optimal result by working together,” she states. This is why a few months ago, TNO, TU Delft, QuTech, and the municipality of Delft jointly set up the Quantum Delft ecosystem. “Labs run by large companies and start-ups are being brought together here. Everyone is working on their own technology or a component of the computer or network. Because everyone is working on the same campus, people get to meet each other more easily and in turn, more new initiatives spring up from that contact. This enables the development to speed up even more,” Romijn points out.
Jacqueline Schardijn, a business developer in the field of quantum technology for the regional development corporation Innovation Quarter adds: “There is already a wonderful ecosystem set up around Quantum Delft, where start-ups are working with scientists on quantum issues and associated technologies. It is useful for the business community to know who they can turn to when they want to focus on Quantum Technology. They want to stay informed about the possibilities and impossibilities of quantum technology. Like how to run simulations on quantum platforms such as Inspire. The Cronos Group, QuTech, and Innovation Quarter are all working on this; raising awareness about the business side. We are delighted to welcome the business community to the wonderful world of quantum technology.”
Pluis: “It is no longer a matter of whether quantum technology is going to change the world, it is a matter of when that is going to happen. What we now know about the possibilities of this technology is probably just the tip of the iceberg. Only time will tell what the impact of this technology will be.”