Quantum physics is more than just experiments with particle accelerators worth several million euros or strange phenomena in space. Applications based on quantum physics are already part of our daily life.
However, this is just the beginning.
Quantum computers, quantum networks and quantum sensors are becoming a reality. They have the potential, the ability of mankind to process information and, over time, also massively disrupt our everyday lives.
Nevertheless, quantum physics remains a foreign word for most laypeople.
Sabrina Maniscalco, Professor of Physics at Helsinki University, Associate Professor of Applied Physics at Aalto University and Vice Director of the Center of Excellence in Quantum Technology of the Academy of Finland, is working to resolve this problem.
In a project led by Maniscalco, researchers built an open web platform called QPlayLearn (qplaylearn.com).
This website, created with the help of IBM and the research team's Algorthmiq company, provides information on the basic concepts of quantum physics for high school students.
According to Maniscalco, understanding quantum physics is made difficult by the language we speak. Human language metaphors come from a world of clear cause-effect relationships that we are used to in everyday life.
So a new approach is needed.
"We believe anyone can understand the key dimensions of quantum physics," says Maniscalco.
Playing the quantum
Sabrina Maniscalco says that when we introduce quantum physics, we cannot rely on our everyday experiences. How can we ever understand from our own experience that, before particles are measured, they can be located in many different places at the same time?
"But there are a lot of multimedia tools out there today: interactive digital tools, animation, videos, and of course, games."
According to Maniscalco, this is exactly what makes the QPlayLearn project so special.
The aim is to develop a completely new toolkit for the transmission of complex information. In addition to games, animations, and video presentations, the website also features articles explaining quantum phenomena and related math.
Quantum Playground is one of the video games available on QPlayLearn. The colorful game deals with quantum superposition and the behavior of the wave function. According to Maniscalco, the gaming experience becomes even stronger in the VR (Virtual Reality) version, in which the player is immersed in quantum phenomena that change in the form of light and color patterns.
“That is what experiencing the quantum means. We create and develop a new language that transcends metaphors and becomes an experience. "
Steps towards a real quantum computer
professor Pertti Hakonen shares Maniscalco's view that it would be wise for citizens to keep abreast of advances in quantum technology.
Hakonen and his colleagues at the Aalto Department of Applied Physics are working on, for example, superconducting quantum circuits, quantum computers and quantum thermodynamics.
"Almost all of our research relates to the Planck constant, only the degree to which a quantum aspect applies varies," says Hakonen.
With Planck's constant, Hakonen refers to a value that was defined by the German physicist in 1900 Max Planck this expresses the size of the packets or quanta in which energy can be measured. Planck's breakthrough was the trigger for the development of today's quantum theory, to which Hakonen's own work continues to contribute.
Hakonen's research team recently developed a new thermoelectric method in collaboration with Chinese, Russian and American physicists. This method enables distant metal electrodes to interact through quantum entanglement.
Her article, published in Nature Communications in January 2021, marks a step towards the universal quantum computers of the future.
Recent research at Aalto University's Otaniemi campus also includes more efficient methods of reading quantum bits, or qubits, on which the huge computing power promised by quantum computers is based.
"People should know that the computing power of computers will grow tremendously."
From theory to practice
The idea of general purpose quantum computers was just a theory discussed in university laboratories for years. It was only in the last few years that this theory began to be put into practice.
One of the most significant breakthroughs came at the end of 2019 with the Sycamore quantum processor from Google. Google said its 53-qubit machine took just over three minutes to perform a computation that would have cost the world's most powerful supercomputer, Summit, 10,000 years ago.
In December 2020, China, known for its investments in quantum technology, reported that its Jiuzhang quantum computer had performed a computation in just a few minutes that would have cost a supercomputer 2.5 billion years.
Such performance improvements show the possibilities that the future of the quantum computer can offer.
According to Hakonen, information security is one of the most obvious applications for quantum computing that will affect us all. The quantum computers of the future can crack the encryption methods most commonly used today with the so-called Shor algorithm in an almost trivial way.
All currently encrypted information can then be easily decrypted, Hakonen notes.
Fifty Finnish qubits
Nobody can yet say with certainty when the time for universal quantum computers will come, which will be able to crack existing encryption methods. Data security solutions that can withstand the number processing capabilities of quantum computers are already being developed.
In Finland, for example, research is being carried out within the framework of the joint VTT Technical Research Center of Finland, Aalto University and the Post-Quantum Cryptography project at the University of Helsinki.
This year the first phase of a quantum computer commissioned by VTT will also be completed. It is supplied by IQM Finland, a company founded at Aalto University. This domestic quantum computer will mark an important milestone for Finnish research in the field of quantum technology.
The quantum device will be built in Micronova, the micro and nanotechnology building in Otaniemi, and will initially have a capacity of five qubits, with the aim of increasing this to 50 qubits by the end of 2024.
The state-of-the-art scientific refrigerators, or cryostats, used to cool the quantum circles are supplied by the world-leading company Bluefors, which was founded at the Helsinki University of Technology.
"Blues emerged from our low-temperature laboratory about fifteen years ago," says Hakonen.
He points out that the tremendous expectations associated with quantum computers are reflected in both the strong recruitment of researchers by companies in the field and the availability of capital investments at an early stage.
"How the industry will ultimately develop is a tougher question."
From pharmaceutical research to flight control
Fridge-sized quantum computers are not going to replace our laptops or cell phones. Quantum computation requires carefully selected special problems that can be written as an algorithm using quantum properties.
The effects of quantum computers on our daily life will be based on the possibilities of high-performance computing.
Research into new materials or chemical compounds is a suitable challenge for quantum computers. For example, it is difficult to model drug molecules efficiently using conventional supercomputers.
According to Hakonen, quantum computing is also well suited for managing urban traffic flow or predicting climate change.
The Canadian company D-Wave Systems, known as a commercial pioneer in this field, is already developing a super simulator that uses quantum technology, for example, for flight control in an application area with complex optimization problems.
Although D-Wave's solutions are based on quantum cooling, they are not true quantum computers in the same sense as the VTT device.
“A universal quantum computer is not required for flight control. A system that can be programmed to solve the problem at hand will suffice. "
With the expansion of the areas of application, knowledge of the fundamentals of quantum physics is required in more and more professions. Aalto University already offers a bachelor's degree in quantum technology.
According to Hakonen, there are also gaps in the teaching of this rapidly advancing field. For example, courses in quantum algorithms are not yet available.
"We need programmers who know how to program quantum computers and sensors based on quantum technology."
Quantum sensors that have been enhanced by quantum algorithms are developing into an important application area for quantum technologies. More precise measuring devices offer possibilities in the areas of seismology, mineral exploration and troubleshooting in the materials industry, for example.
One of the most exciting uses for quantum sensors is in the human body. There are many gaps in our knowledge of the activity of the 86 billion neurons that make up our brain.
At Aalto University, for example, new types of head-adaptive sensors for measuring the magnetic fields of the brain were investigated. At best, the results are almost as accurate as measurements in the skull.
According to Hakonen, quantum-amplified sensors are still so expensive at this early stage that the price limits their use. Later, however, the application of the sensors can extend to mass-produced products. In the VR area, for example, use can open up completely new dimensions.
When quantum-enhanced sensors that measure signals from the human brain are combined with interpretations generated by machine learning, the potential of quantum technology begins to sound unlimited.
Hakonen believes that one day we will be able to control computers and other devices with our minds.
"In the future, these technologies could possibly also be used in brain interfaces – but that will remain science fiction for the time being."
Source: Aalto University