Quantum in 2027: Take a quantum leap into the future of IT

Quantum computing will change everything.
Derya Ozdemir

“I think I can safely say that nobody really understands quantum mechanics,” renowned physicist Richard Feynman stated once. That shouldn’t come as a big surprise as quantum physics has a reputation for being exceptionally enigmatic. This was the selling point for the quantum physicist Dr. Shohini Ghose from Wilfrid Laurier University.

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Quantum in 2027: Take a quantum leap into the future of IT
A futuristic glowing CPU quantum computer processor
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Having always excelled at mathematics and physics, Ghose was always interested in mysteries, detective stories, and mathematics. This led her to an intense fascination with physics, as she quickly discovered that she could use mathematics to help solve the mysteries of the universe.

Quantum in 2027: Take a quantum leap into the future of IT
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She has now become an explorer of the quantum world, investigating how quantum physics can transform computing and communication. In fact, Ghose and her colleagues were the first to observe the effect of chaos on quantum entanglement.

Ghose and other physicists’ collective work is paving the way not only for quantum computers but for innovations in the health field and the Internet of Things. Interesting Engineering had the chance to talk with Ghose about the mysteries of quantum mechanics, how quantum computers might transform our future, and what the quantum 'scene' will look like in 2027.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Interesting Engineering: How would you define quantum physics to someone who knows nothing about physics?

Shohini Ghose: That's a difficult question to answer in great detail, so I'll just give you a broad idea of what it is. Quantum mechanics is a theory that describes how microscopic particles such as electrons and photons behave. There's a set of rules that govern how they interact with each other, what their properties are, what their characteristics are, and how they bond together to make larger molecules. And of course, they are the fundamental building blocks of life. They are basically like Lego pieces.

Quantum mechanics is kind of like that set of rules, where the Lego pieces are actually all these particles that are the fundamental building blocks of all objects, all matter, and energy in the universe. That is the broadest definition. Therefore, it's a very fundamental theory, because knowing those rules allows us to understand the structure of all matter in the universe, how things behave, and why we even exist.

IE: Can you explain quantum computing in the simplest way possible?

Maybe the best way to answer is to think about what we know about current computers. They look like complicated technologies, and they keep getting more and more complex. However, underneath it all, the framework of computing is actually very simple. Essentially, everything that is information can be written as combinations of zero and one. This is what we call binary digits, or bits. Every task we do is just a set of instructions of how to combine zeros and ones. If you want to write an email, you can do it with this. Or if you want to launch a rocket ship to the moon, you can also do the calculations using the same binary approach. It's just a matter of different complexity, and all of our computing technologies are about finding new and efficient ways to do these calculations fast. Once we know what the goals are, whether it's communicating, or calculating, or optimizing, we can do everything with our computers today. They are called universal computing machines.

Quantum in 2027: Take a quantum leap into the future of IT
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Quantum is also a universal approach. But it has a different framework, meaning, instead of just thinking about zeros and ones and combining them, quantum computing can actually go beyond just zero and one and try to imagine what if you have some combination of zero and one where there's some probability of being zero and some probability of being one? Now, why would you do that? Well, it's sort of like thinking of, let's say, if you're on a planet [such as] on the earth, and you have the North Pole and the South Pole as zero and one. But obviously, those are not the only two points on the planet. Imagine if we could only jump from north to south and nothing else, we would miss the entire planet.

The same approach can apply to quantum computing as to thinking of north and south as zero and one, [and] any point between the North and South Pole is a different type of location where you are maybe 30 percent closer to the North Pole and 70 percent from the South Pole. That's a probabilistic way of thinking about the planet. And it turns out that quantum particles like electrons and photons do actually have properties that are exactly in this probabilistic combination. So we can map that into a broader set of tools and calculations, where we explore the whole landscape rather than just two poles. Then we can obviously do more. There are more places to go on the planet, and there are different ways to get to different points. By combining all these different locations and different pathways, we build a much larger framework of computing, and that's what we call quantum computing. It's a probabilistic approach, where you allow probabilities of zeros and ones and not just individual values.

And that brings us into this entire world of computing rather than just the two north and south poles. So we're broadening our horizons, and we are using more knobs. And because we can go to more places, we can do more tasks. So we increase our efficiency and the variety of tasks that we can do. So that is a very broad kind of explanation.

IE: You’ve said your favorite quantum application is teleportation of information from one place to another without physically transmitting information. How is that possible?

Quantum teleportation sounds like magic, but it's actually not magic. It's quantum magic. So what that means is you can actually send information, this kind of quantum bits, or what we call qubits, from one location to another in such a way that the information of the quantum bit itself is not transported. But what is sent there is something that is physical. I basically have to call you or email you and say, "Could you on your side, turn on this switch on your teleporter", send all the settings, the instructions for your teleporter machine, and say "plug in this code".

We plug in the correct code, then the quantum information on my end will appear on your end, and it will just disappear on my side. So in that sense, it's like teleportation, because the information on my side is disappearing and it's reappearing on your side. And I didn't send the information, I only sent you instructions on how to pull that information from me. So that is actually possible using the quantum connection between the two of us, and that quantum connection is called entanglement. It seems magical.

IE: Wouldn't that mean that the information moves faster than the speed of light?

That's an interesting question. The connection seems to be instant between your quantum bit and my quantum bit, but when I want to send you, let's say, a message saying "hello", I also have to send you the instructions for how to get my message out from your side. So that instruction, I have to email you or call you using regular communication, which means the message travels at the speed of light. You can never go faster than light. But once you get my message, set your teleporter according to the instructions, put in the right code, and then on your side, my quantum information will appear instantly. The full process is not faster than light, only a part of it is faster than light. That's the magic.

A lot of people have been debating this for a long time because it seems very strange that anything at any part of the process is faster than light. Naturally, people are uneasy about this, and that's exactly the right reaction. Even Einstein found this very peculiar, and he wrote the first paper about quantum entanglement. He was shocked by the idea that this can happen, so he finished the paper by saying, “This must mean that there's something wrong with quantum mechanics”. It was that strange! It is an unusual, strange idea that we don't really understand. It happens, and we can test it in the lab, but we don't really understand what's going on there.

IE: Does this mean we need new physics? Or would this fit into what we know today?

The current theory we have is quantum mechanics. There are some rules, we know the equations, and the mathematics is very clear. If you believe those mathematics are correctly describing all the particles in the universe, then you must believe that the rules are correct. One of the things that are a result of those rules is entanglement. So if you believe the rules, then you believe entanglement is possible, and if you believe entanglement is possible, then teleportation, and all of this follows.

In physics, we keep testing the theories, and this is how we make progress. But one day, we could find something that doesn't work correctly, and then we could change the theory. Failure leads us to new theories.

In quantum theory, what's happened is we've been testing the theory by building our computers and lasers, and all of our technology today is based on the rules of quantum mechanics. And so far, everything works perfectly. We've never found a failure, and if we find a failure, we can change it, and then make a new theory. Maybe in that new theory, entanglement will not be a surprising thing.

But currently, we have not found that failure. If we believe that quantum theory is correct, then within that theory, entanglement fits in. At some point, we might need to change to expand the theory itself, because it doesn't work in every case. We know that there are some areas where we have to perhaps come up with a new theory, because quantum physics cannot explain, for example, black holes. These are some really big questions that physicists are thinking about.

Currently, entanglement is part of a theory that is very well tested, and it can be shown in the lab. We don't need to change physics, we just have to be okay with this weird magic that we can now use to do new things.

IE: You’ve said this application could be part of a future quantum internet. What will a quantum internet entail?

Quantum internet is a fun idea to think of for the future. I don't think it's going to be here anytime soon, but there are small test versions of small networks. Quantum internet would be something that would not just replace the current Internet, but it would be one more layer living on top of the current Internet. If you’re doing something that requires extra security, then quantum actually gives you a way to send messages and information in a more secure way.

Quantum in 2027: Take a quantum leap into the future of IT
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It’s hard to predict how quantum internet will be used, maybe there will even be a quantum AppStore! We may come up with new ways to use entanglement. One thing that my own research group has done is to explore ways to improve certain types of tasks. For example, let's say we're sharing private healthcare data, such as the test cases, the numbers, and the averages in every country. Imagine if we could do tracking in a secure way where no individual person could know who has a positive case or negative case or anything like this. This is actually a very difficult task, which is why most countries are not doing it. New quantum networks of communication could change that.

IE: Your team is working on this by simulating a quantum network on a quantum computer. Could you elaborate on your research?

Broadly, our goal is to try to understand the power of a quantum computer and a quantum internet. What we do is we come up with test tasks for the computer itself. Let’s say you want to simulate a quantum network on a quantum computer. What we do is we set up a scenario where there are three parties who are in our game simulation on the computer, and they are allowed to have certain communication or not. Maybe they have entanglement, or maybe they don't have it. We give them different powers exactly like in a game. Then we see what they can do with that power and compare those situations. That will tell us whether or not there's more power in the quantum tools versus regular tools.

Also, we want to test what happens when everything fails. So what happens when the computer has an error? Or maybe somebody's trying to cheat or somebody in the network is trying to steal the data? We try to simulate all this on our current computers.

This is what we test in our own team to come up with both communication tasks that are better on a quantum computer. We also want to find ways to measure how good we are doing. Measuring entanglement, for example, is actually a very difficult thing. So we try to find ways to measure it. Because in the end, for me personally, it's not just about building a computer or doing a particular task. I want to know what quantum is. Because it's such a magic thing. Even Einstein was confused. I think we are all still confused. And for me, as a researcher, I want to answer the question, what is powerful about quantum? What does it mean to live in a quantum world? So that makes me very excited. That's what I want to study.

Even small advances in our knowledge will help us see the big picture. It's like standing in front of a big giant painting, but you only have a tiny little flashlight, so you can just see parts of the whole thing. But if you do it for a long time and carefully, and everybody's trying, then at some point, we will see more of the picture. That's what I want. So I see it in my head. 

IE: How will quantum mechanics transform computing and communication?

I think in the near term, the biggest impact of quantum computing will be in areas that require small-scale improvements in what we currently can do. Regular computers are already pretty good, but things like making simulations of drugs, new solar cells – anything which requires materials design — turn out to be questions that a quantum computer may be able to solve better.

Quantum simulations will become an area of growth, which can impact healthcare, energy, materials, clothing, chemistry, and more.

On the communication side, any application where we need to be sharing large amounts of data privately and securely is also an area that will have that quantum impact.

Another area, which doesn't get discussed so much, but in terms of the technology, it's advancing very fast, is quantum sensing. Entanglement can be used to also improve the precision with which we can detect small changes in certain things. For example, you can better detect certain minerals under the Earth's surface.

In the longer term, building larger-scale quantum computers is what everyone is trying to do. However, it's quite difficult to build a large-scale quantum computer because of the engineering challenges. At some point, there may be larger-scale quantum computers, and these can be quite good at optimization questions such as the best way to guide traffic or for large-scale calculations using enormous [amounts of] climate data. Once we get to that scale of computers, I think many new applications will be developed and discovered, and that's when we really have to think about that quantum App Store.

IE: What sort of changes can we expect to see in your field by 2027?

I would say the short term applications that I was talking about, like the quantum simulations, security etc., would be five to 10 years. And then if I had to really try to guess, for the large scale applications, those would be 10 to 20 years. Still, I feel like we cannot really say where we are going and how fast it will happen. I can try to predict, but I think I'm 100 percent going to be wrong.

IE: There are many studies happening in the quantum field right now. Which ones are you most excited about?

There are certain calculations that we cannot do even on the most powerful supercomputers today. Some of those calculations involve chemistry. Understanding the chemistry of certain types of molecules, I think, will become much easier, and we’ll hopefully be able to solve certain chemistry problems that we have never been able to do before. And so if you're not a chemist, that sounds boring, but actually, it's a very exciting thing.

Because chemistry, of course, is what we use, whether we are talking about drug development, materials science, anything which requires us to build new things, whether it's better, for example, ways to build cars, or even to build a rocket ship to Mars. All of that has to do with the material you're using. So if you can find ways to calculate chemistry and chemical properties very well, then you've unlocked all these different things. Even our clothing might change. And then everybody will be very interested, I think.

IE: As a woman in STEM, you previously said you’ve experienced unequal treatment during your education. Could you tell me more about what it's like to be a woman in STEM in 2022? Do you think that this unequal treatment can change by 2027? 

It’s true that certainly in physics and computer science, and some areas of engineering, in general, the proportion of women is still quite low. In physics, for example, it's somehow stuck at 20 percent, and it never seems to increase beyond that.

It's already very easy to make the prediction that, five years from now, the researchers in quantum will be mostly men, because high schoolers who are choosing physics right now are not equal [in numbers of women and men], which is why it’s 100 percent guaranteed that we will not have equality in five years. And that's kind of sad, I know.

But things are changing. When I was a student, I was usually the only woman in my classrooms, and I never actually had a woman professor. It's still sort of a lonely place; however, it's a conversation that people are having more now. I feel like more women now have more opportunities to discuss these issues.

I’m hopeful that things will move forward faster in the future. If we don't have more women and people from all backgrounds in a field like quantum computing, then we are missing out on all this talent, which is just going to slow down our progress. Science needs everyone, and everyone can be part of this story because it affects us all.

IE: Tell me about your perfect 2027. How would you like to envision the quantum field in 2027? What will you do to make that future a reality?

I would love to have big research collaborations where we work together to develop not just the quantum application technology but also answer questions such as “How are we going to use it? Who will control it? How will we regulate it? How will we give access to people?”

We have a chance to prepare a roadmap for the engineering challenges, for the applications, the ownership regulation challenges, and create ethics and ethical guideline for who and how we want to use this, how it will change society. So for me, that would be something I would like to see already in place in the next five years, where we have a global agreement for how to use quantum technologies going forward.

I also hope that there will be more different voices from all over the world. Today, it’s mostly men, mostly from the West, but this is something that the whole world should have a voice in. So I hope we can bring in more women and people from different parts of the world.

The next five years will also give us a chance to create new education modules around quantum because many people want to learn it in high schools. I think students are very excited by quantum AI. We should think about how we can make a new program of degrees where students can learn better about quantum so they're ready to be able to be part of this quantum revolution.

IE: What advice would you have for young people looking to have a career in quantum physics?

A lot of students feel like they can't go and do a whole Ph.D. in quantum. Well, you don't need to do a Ph.D. in quantum physics to be part of the quantum future. You only have to know a little bit about quantum. Explore how quantum fits into your interest, and then follow it through, and you can probably make an impact because everything is new. I think many people have many opportunities, and they don't all have to become Ph.D. quantum physicists. So that's my message to the future.