I’ve been doing battle in the lab with quantum effects for close on 40 years, and it’s been mindboggling to see the shift in capability to the point where we can make hundreds of thousands of junctions on a single chip.
A new wave of quantum research was set in train with advances in nanotechnology and the ability to manipulate matter at really small scales, and now quantum has entered the lexicon, not just for people working in the area, and for fans of Marvel movies. Quantum is on the radar of governments, investors and forward-thinking businesses, who understand how transformative it will be in so many areas.
Quantum technologies are already impacting medicine through better imaging. They’re changing our ability to see through barriers, into structures, into geological formations, as well as into cells. Quantum optimisation is already making a difference in freight and logistics. Governments of advanced economies around the world are focused on the potential of quantum.
Quantum is on the radar of governments, investors and forward-thinking businesses, who understand how transformative it will be in so many areas.
So we’re certainly in a good place. We don’t have people worrying about whether we’re going to create mini black holes that will grow to swallow the world like the poor scientists at CERN. We’re not struggling against entrenched positions, as the climate scientists did in the not-too-distant past.
We’re in the sweet spot. This is the part of the quantum odyssey where we should feel optimistic and energised. We have excellent foundations, built on decades of patient, fundamental research funded by government. We have a lively research community and an energetic set of start-ups and multinationals working on some really novel ideas and applications. We have momentum and we have cut-through among decision-makers.
So we want to capitalise on that, and ensure Australia remains a world leader in quantum expertise and clever innovations. It’s time now to widen the conversation, so that educators, businesses and researchers in other disciplines understand how these new technologies will impact what they do. We need to add the language of quantum to our kids’ backpacks, so they’re learning about quantum science and concepts from the get-go. Kids have no problem being in two places at once! They will get this faster than we did. We are even reading our babies books on quantum physics! Education is always the starting point.
We need to add the language of quantum to our kids’ backpacks, so they’re learning about quantum science and concepts from the get-go.
But we’re not progressing quantum in a linear fashion. At the same time as we teach young people the science, quantum needs to be on the radar of industry sectors and researchers outside the immediate quantum disciplines.
We’re living the quantum revolution as we speak, and it’s important that the broader community understands that. If you’re in a business that handles data, the security issues are not something for the medium-term to-do list. They’re for attention now, to ensure data can’t be harvested today for future decryption. If you use data in your research, you need to be thinking about interoperability and also how current platforms that combine classical and quantum computing will impact your research. You need to be ambitious and think well beyond the ways you have considered data in the past. If you’re solving computationally large problems, you’ll be able to do it faster, and with lower energy consumption.
If you’re in any sector that requires super precise measurements, or need to make decisions where time is everything, then you should be thinking about whether this can help you.
We’re living the quantum revolution as we speak, and it’s important that the broader community understands that.
People who work in finance, in mining and mapping, in measurement, in the transport and logistics sector – these are the first cabs off the rank.
But none of us can present the full dance card of quantum applications. This is a task for each sector to consider. And people in industry need to be taking action now.
Specific industries should be asking themselves: What are the killer problems in my day-to-day work that we’ve never been able to solve? Could quantum be a possible solution? This is the right question, and I encourage everyone who is thinking about the shape of their business, or their research, or teaching over the next few years to turn their minds to it.
Dr Cathy Foley is Australia’s Chief Scientist. This is an edited extract from a speech she gave at Quantum Australia 2023 in February in Sydney. The full transcript of Dr Foley’s speech is available here.
Read Dr Cathy Foley’s previous Next Big Thing, from April 2021.