Scientists’ discovery of how quantum mechanics works is popularly described as the first “revolution” in the field. The second is still somewhere on the horizon but getting closer, according to an Oak Ridge National Laboratory quantum physicist.
“I’m a quantum physicist, so that’s my job, and when I heard there’s ‘a second quantum revolution,’ I wondered what was the first. Well, the first one was when we pretty much worked out quantum mechanics around the turn of the century. The second will be when we actually use quantum mechanics to do useful things,” said Dr. Raphael Pooser, “like computing or sensing or networking.”
Pooser’s talk, hosted by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga at its Center for Professional Education on Monday, April 17, is the first of three on campus this week. The presentations are part of “Gig City Goes Quantum,” an initiative to prepare for education, jobs and business opportunities in the emerging quantum technology field.
UTC is a substantial collaborator in the initiative being led by EPB and Qubitekk, which are partnering to offer the EPB Quantum NetworkSM powered by Qubitekk. The nation’s first industry-led, commercially available quantum network, it is expected to be operational by summer—and UTC will be home to a node of the network.
Pooser’s presentation is among a series of educational and informational activities that kicked off on World Quantum Day (April 14) and continue through May 31.
He began with a brief history of ORNL’s involvement in the Manhattan Project—developing the world’s first atomic bombs around the time of the second world war—and the lab’s evolution to its current global pre-eminence in supercomputing. The “super” in that kind of computing refers to super-fast, super-high capacity.
“It’s state-of-the-art for classical computing today,” Pooser said, “and they’re doing AI (artificial intelligence) on it. They’re doing climate models on it. There’s a lot of biological computations, protein-folding and that kind of thing. Just anything you can think of when it comes to answering basic science questions.”
Meanwhile, Pooser said, he and some colleagues have wondered what’s next once such “classical” supercomputing reaches its upper limits of speed and capacity.
“What’s the next thing if you can’t scale these machines anymore? At some point, energy use is out of control with classical computing and we will hit a wall,” Pooser said. Quantum computing and the quantum physics on which it is based promise to overcome some of the limits of classical computing.
“There are just some scientific questions that classical computers cannot answer, unfortunately. It’s not that they can’t answer them—in principle, they can, but to answer some questions would take those machines and all the energy on the earth dedicated to running these machines, running for still longer than the universe has been around,” Pooser said, “so we’re designing these other machines that can answer those questions a little bit faster.
“Not every question. You can’t make a quantum computer do everything a classical computer does faster, just some things faster.”
Among capabilities quantum computing offers that classical computing cannot: simulation of other quantum systems; “factoring large numbers” (code breaking); sampling from large probability distributions; and analyzing “optimization problems.”
What does all that mean to the everyday lives of people? Maybe solutions to problems of extraordinary scale and complexity, such as energy security, Pooser noted.
He cited the fact that fertilizer production—critical to meeting the world’s food requirements— currently consumes about 5% of global natural gas and 2% of global energy production overall.
“That’s with 8 billion people in the world,” Pooser said. “What happens when we have 50 billion?”
To address that situation, “Quantum computing will enable high-fidelity modeling” of complex chemical reactions involved in fertilizer production…using “quantum algorithms” exponentially faster than conventional approaches.
Among other potential developments of quantum information science are ultrasensitive magnetometers and gravitometers, imaging with greatly reduced optical “noise” and unbreakable encryption.
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Next in the UTC-hosted three-part series of quantum presentations is Dr. James Troupe, chief scientist for quantum communications company Xairos, who will deliver a presentation on quantum networking on Wednesday, April 19.
On Friday, April 21, quantum optics expert and UTC Assistant Professor of Physics Dr. Tian Li discusses quantum sensing.
The presentations begin at noon in the UTC Center for Professional Education in the James R. Mapp Building. Each is free and the public is encouraged to attend.