Quantum technology: What is it? Why does it matter? Where will it take CT?
Quantum technology is here. It sounds dense, but experts say this field, which specializes in the tiny world of particles, could have big implications for computing, medicine and science.
Math problems that could take classical computers millions of years could be solved in minutes. Dizzying arrays of neurons in our brains could be better mapped. And already, tiny quantum thermometers are being used to measure the temperature of a single living cell.
It’s technology built on the bizarre laws of quantum mechanics – that realm of the really, really small, where the physical laws governing our everyday existence break down and words like “teleportation” begin to enter the scientific lexicon.
“It’s a strange microscopic world,” said Steven Girvin, a physics professor at Yale University. “There are many non-intuitive features of quantum theory, but it turns out to be the single most precise and best tested theory in all of physical science.”
Quantum mechanics, whose development is approaching its 100-year milestone, has already paved the way for major technological advances. The transistors powering our devices, lasers – and even the atomic clock that makes our GPS devices work – were born out of the theory.
Now, nearly a century later, quantum theorists and engineers are chasing the next quantum revolution. Connecticut is working to position itself as a quantum leader.
The University of Connecticut recently received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to partner with Yale University in an effort to jumpstart quantum investment and create more jobs in the state.
On a recent episode of Connecticut Public’s “Where We Live,” Girvin took us on a trip through the quantum world, explaining the promise – and uncertainty – surrounding the technology.
Our journey begins with a tiny, tiny particle: the electron.
Elementary, my dear electron
For 300 years, classical physics has governed the rules of the world we touch and see.
It’s a remarkably durable set of equations. Isaac Newton and Galileo’s work allows us to track the trajectory of a falling apple and also gives us mathematics to land on the moon.
But in the world of the really tiny, those sets of rules fail, Girvin said.
“When you're talking about individual electrons or individual atoms … quantum mechanics is the description of what happens,” Girvin said.
It’s a theory that puzzled some of the greatest minds. Even Albert Einstein, whose thinking was foundational to the field, was (perhaps fittingly) puzzled by quantum quirks.
“Imagine you have a particle,” Girvin said. “Particles can act like waves. And waves can act like particles."
Scientists call that “particle wave duality.”
“It’s not really correct to say that it can be in more than one place at once, but that’s kind of the shorthand language that we use,” Girvin explained.
“That means that the particle is kind of spread out all over the place like a wave,” he said. “It might be here, it might be there.”
It gets stranger.
“There are other weird things,” Girvin said. “Quantum entanglement, which Einstein called ‘spooky action at a distance.’”
In entanglement, when two particles are linked (or “entangled”), what happens to one particle in the pair determines what happens to the other.
“If you measure one of them or change one of them, the other can, even if it's far away, change,” Girvin said.
That can lead to “amazing things such as quantum teleportation,” he said.
“You don't send a physical object from one place to the other, but you can send the quantum state of an object from one place to another in a process which even we professional quantum physicists view as rather magical,” Girvin said.
From bit to qubit
Now, imagine you had a computer. Today, that computer runs on bits, ones and zeros in the classical definition. Bits can be combined to store information (for example, ‘B’ in binary is 01000010). But a binary bit is limited to only one of two possible states: one or zero.
Quantum bits, or “qubits,” are radically different: it has both a zero and one at the same time. Well, kind of.
“That's not literally correct. It's kind of a shorthand, but it gives the idea of sort of the mystery,” Girvin said. “And if that's true, then the computer can kind of do more than one thing at once. And can be, therefore, very powerful for solving certain types of problems.”
While a classical computer could take millions of years to perform certain math problems, qubits could perform such calculations in mere minutes.
“They can be faster at solving some problems, or even solve problems that essentially would be impossible on any imaginable future ordinary computer,” Girvin said.
Engineering challenges remain. But the technology could help unlock new advances in drug development, cryptography and even medical imaging. Quantum technology could also boost our ability to measure very tiny signals in space and help us devise new material applications for chips or sensors.
“It's very, very early days. There's a lot of hype, so I don't want to oversell what's possible. But the potential for many different advances looks very exciting,” Girvin said.
UConn Yale partnership
UConn and Yale are partnering under a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to jumpstart investment in quantum technology in Connecticut.
The idea is to build a regional hub for quantum innovation in the state, to turn the Land of Steady Habits into the world’s next “quantum corridor,” said Mike DiDonato, UConn Tech Park Business Development Manager, and QuantumCT UConn Project Manager.
“We, in Connecticut, have a really strong foundation to support quantum technologies,” DiDonato said. “We have existing major economic clusters in the state – industry – that [are] interested in quantum efforts, like defense and insurance and pharma.”
“When you think about the health care industry, imagine a future where it’s easier to diagnose issues. It’s easier to design pharmaceuticals,” DiDonato said. “To do this more precisely and more accurately than we could currently imagine.”
Funding for the UConn-Yale partnership is projected to extend into next year.
This all sounds complicated. Can I actually learn quantum mechanics?
As the technology leveraging quantum mechanics’ weirdness develops, DiDonato says it’s important for Connecticut manufacturers to understand the implications of the technology.
And, he said, it’s never too late (or early) for the general public to start learning.
“I think kids might actually have an easier time grasping some of this stuff because they're not tainted by preconceived expectations,” DiDonato said. “You can tell them about something – a particle being in multiple places at once – and they don't necessarily discount that as an impossibility, they accept it and move on.”
One book recommendation if you’re looking to get up to speed? “Quantum Physics for Babies,” where pictures represent a lot of the really complicated math, Girvin said.
After all, quantum mechanics is literally at the core of our physical being, so it’s worthwhile to spend some time understanding it, even if the answers haven’t all yet been revealed.
“We have a very precise theory, the quantum theory,” Girvin said. “But the great philosophical arguments begin when we ask: ‘What does it mean? Or what does it say about reality?’”
Connecticut Public's Tess Terrible contributed to this report.