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Disentangling a billion dollar opportunity – Quantum information

18 December 2009 Institute of Physics (IOP)

The field of quantum information processing has come a long way in the past five years, partly thanks to a £10 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) which has helped focus activity in this potentially lucrative field. 

As the grant’s lifespan comes to an end, leading representatives from academia, government and business gathered at the Institute of Physics on Thursday 10 December to highlight the most recent advances and discuss what is now needed to make the most of the opportunities that quantum information processing gives the UK.

Dr Hermann Hauser, a successful venture capitalist strongly associated with Cambridge’s Silicon Fen, in his presentation ‘Disentangling a billion dollar opportunity’, said, “We need to invest £50 to £100 million in something which can give the UK a truly global lead with big market opportunities.  I’m talking a £5 to £10 billion pound return, not just a billion.” 

Prior to Dr Hauser’s presentation, quantum optics theorist Professor Sir Peter Knight from Imperial College London, optical communications systems Professor John Rarity from the University of Bristol, and physics of computation theorist Dr Simon Benjamin from the University of Oxford, used the platform to describe the latest advances made by them and their quantum colleagues.

The market opportunities associated with advances in quantum information processing have long excited researchers from governments and big businesses that seek technology to advance secure communications and to enable computers to tackle problems that classical machines falter with.

For secure communications, the promise lies in quantum cryptography which could transform secure communications on macro and micro levels; from re-keying satellites to secure links between bank customers and ATMs. 

Entangled photons provide a means to distribute keys which encrypt and decrypt information.  It is a particularly promising method which uses quantum properties to make hacking of information futile. As soon as hackers try to get their sticky fingers on the data they corrupt the information irrecoverably.

For computer processing, the benefits stem from quantum systems’ ability to exist in mutually contradictory states at any one time.  This allows the computer to explore a much wider range of possibilities than a classical machine and will be invaluable to, for example, engineers working on large-scale projects with a need to take into account all of the different environmental factors that might have an impact on their construction.

The financial promise of the field is yet to be realised but all of the speakers believe that quantum information processing could well be one of the key disruptive technologies needed to breathe life back into the UK economy.

Professor Rarity, on the potentially mass appeal of quantum keys for secure banking, said, “People will become as comfortable carrying their own personal quantum key, using it to secure all transactions by encoding their PIN, as they are with lasers in their DVD players.”

Professor Knight added, “The promise of quantum information processing emerges from the remarkable property of being able to manipulate information to be in two states at once. There is spectacular potential in the field of sensors, quantum cryptography and computing.  The UK started the second quantum revolution with the exploitation of quantum coherence in 1990 and now we need to ensure that we maintain a lead.”       

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