Sat 16-Nov-2019

On Sat 16-Nov-2019 the Royal Institution served its science-hungry patrons a real treat: a half-day quantum technologies showcase titled “Quantum in the City: the shape of things to come”. The overarching concept was to present what living in the “quantum city” of the future might look like.

It was organised with the participation of UK National Quantum Technologies Programme and ran a day after a big industry event at the QE2 Centre.

Weekend events at the RI usually differ from the standard evening lectures in that they are longer and cover one area in more depth. This one was no exception: in addition to a 1.5hr panel discussion, there was an extensive technology showcase across the 1st floor of the RI building, with no fewer than 20 exhibitors, most of them from academia or university spin-off companies.

Quantum in the City event-people networking in a roomOne of the chapters from Nassim Taleb’s “skin in the game” (full disclosure: I haven’t read the whole book; I only read the abridged chapter when it appeared in my news feed on, all of the places, Facebook[1]) describes a social group he (with his usual Kanye charm) calls “Intellectual Yet Idiot”. I tick pretty much all the boxes in that description (except the “comfort of his suburban home with 2-car garage” – try “precarious comfort of his Qatari-owned 2-bed rental“), but none more than “has mentioned quantum mechanics at least twice in the past five years in conversations that had nothing to do with physics”. Guilty as charged, that’s me. The context in which I mention quantum mechanics, physics, and technologies in conversations is usually the same – I don’t understand them. I understand one or two of the basic concepts, but I still completely don’t get how with each new qubit the computing power of a quantum computer doubles, what quantum (let alone quantum-safe) encryption is, and why the observer makes all the difference (and what does “observer” even mean?! A conscious observer?!).

Consequently, I keep going to different quantum lectures and presentations, in order to actually understand what this stuff’s about. I basically hope that if I hear it for the n-th time, something in my brain will click. It was that hope that sent me to the RI in November of 2019. Plus, I was really keen to see practical applications of quantum technology.

The discussion panel was great. The panellists were:

  • Miles Padgett, Principal Investigator for the QuantIC Hub
  • Kai Bongs, Director, UK Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Metrology (I previously attended Kai’s presentation on quantum sensors at New Scientist Live)
  • Dominic O’Brien, Co-Director, NQIT (UK Quantum Technology Hub for Networked Quantum Information Technologies)
  • Tim Spiller, Director, UK Quantum Technology Hub for Quantum Communications Technologies

The discussion revolved around current and future applications of quantum technologies. Like everyone, I know of quantum computers (I even saw IBM’s one during their Think!2019 event), and quantum encryption. I have a basic awareness of quantum sensors (from Kai’s talk at NS Live in 2019 or 2018) and some ambitious plans for quantum technologies-based medical imaging (“quantum doppelgangers” if I recall correctly… I heard of those during Science Museum Lates even on quantum). Paul Davies mentioned quantum biology in his own RI lecture “what is life”, as did Prof. Jim al-Khalili in some interview – but that’s about it.

Fundamentally though, my understanding was that quantum technologies are only beginning to emerge in academic and / or industrial settings. It was genuine news to me that existing technologies (chief among them semiconductors and transistors, which is basically all of modern technology and the Internet; also lasers and MRI scanners) are reliant on the effects of quantum mechanics and are referred to as “quantum 1.0”. The cutting-edge technologies emerging these days are “quantum 2.0”.

Imaging was a prominent use case for quantum technologies, across a number of fields: medical (endoscopy, brain imaging for dementia research), environmental, construction (what’s underneath the soil), industrial (seeing through dirty water or unclear air).

Quantum computing and encryption were also discussed at length. With quantum computing, we’re on the cusp of doing practically useful things at a much lower (energy and time) cost than traditional computing. (nb. the Google experiment was a test problem, not a real problem). In some use cases, quantum computing may be orders of magnitude cheaper in terms of energy consumption compared to conventional computing. In some other use cases this saving will be minimal (interesting comment – I assumed that quantum computers would generate orders-of-magnitude energy and time savings across the board). In terms of encryption, the experts at the RI repeated almost verbatim what Ian Levy from NCSC / GCHQ said at quantum computing panel at the Science Museum a few weeks prior: currently all our communications are encrypted and therefore assumed more or less safe. However, it is theoretically possible for an actor to store encrypted communications of today and decrypt them using quantum technology in the future. Work is underway to develop mathematical models for quantum-safe encryption.

There is work starting on standardization of quantum technologies to ensure their portability.

The panellists also discussed at length the research and investment landscape of quantum technologies across the UK. They noted that the UK was the first country in the world to come up with a national programme of academic + industry partnership and funding in quantum technology research. The US and their programme have (allegedly!) pretty much copied the British blueprint. To date, all distributed and committed funds are close to GBP 1bn. That’s a decent level of funding, but in part, because different groups and laboratories have been set up and funded through different sources before. If the GBP 1bn funding was to fund everything from scratch, then it might not be sufficient. Currently, a substantial part of UK quantum research funding (varies by group and programme) comes from the EU. Brexit is an obvious concern.

Separately, there is an acute talent shortage in engineering in general, and even more so in quantum technology. Big tech companies are in a strong position to compete for talent because they can offer great salaries and interesting careers.

Speaking of quantum talent, their rooms of the RI were filled with the country’s (and likely the world’s) best and brightest in the field. 20 exhibitors presented their projects, all of which were applications-based rather than pure research. Some of those were proofs of concept (PoC’s), some were prototypes, and some were in between. A handful of exhibitors stood out based on my subjective and oft-biased judgement:

  • Underwater 3D imaging, ultra-thin endoscope, and a camera looking around corners (all from QuantIC: UK tech hub for quantum enhanced imaging) were all practical examples of advanced imaging applications.
  • Trapped Ion Quantum Computer (University of Sussex). The technological details are a little above my paygrade, but apparently different engineering approaches towards quantum computing lend themselves differently to scaling. The researchers in Sussex use microwave technology, which differs from existing mainstream approaches and can be quite promising. I have had a soft spot and very high regard for the Sussex lab ever since I met its head, the fabulously brilliant and eccentric Winfried Hensinger when he presented at one of New Scientist Instant Expert events.
  • Quantum Money (University of Cambridge) was the only project related to my line of work and a slightly exotic one even in the weird and wonderful world of quantum technologies. S-Money, as it’s called, is at the intersection of quantum theory and theory of relativity, and could enable unhackable identification as well as lag-free transacting – on Earth and beyond. And they say the finance industry lacks vision…

In summary, the RI event was nothing short of awesome. I don’t know whether I got anywhere beyond the “Intellectual yet Idiot” point on the scale of quantum expertise, but I can live with that. I learned of new applications of quantum technologies, and I met some incandescently brilliant people; couldn’t really ask for much more.

[1] Fuller disclosure: I only ever read Nassim’s „black swan”, and I consider it to be a genuinely great book. I bought “fooled by randomness” and “antifragile” with an intention of reading them some day (meaning never). Still, if I mention the titles with sufficient conviction, most people usually assume I read those end-to-end. I don’t correct them.