The hype about quantum supremacy is definitely a result of the exponential growth that science and technology are experiencing in this 4th industrial revolution. As we keep witnessing amazing progress, it is also important to develop a more inclusive approach where scientific and technological knowledge is accessible for the general public and innovation benefits people as well as businesses.
I decided to write this article after reading a publication kindly shared with me by Marcos Allende, lead researcher on emerging technologies at the IT Tech Lab at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington. The publication is called “Quantum Technologies: digital transformation, social impact, and cross-sector disruption”. What I liked the most, was that it offers technical and non-technical readers a better understanding of quantum technologies and their applications. Those 94 pages were absolutely captivating, and they are a great example of how institutions can help raise awareness of complex subjects and how we can use technology and science to help people. I strongly recommend you give it a try.
It is also important to mention that IDB is doing a remarkable work through LACChain, a regional program to develop the Blockchain ecosystem in Latin America and the Caribbean. Their objective is:
- Establish open and inclusive national consortiums.
- Develop and promote the adoption of standards that allow interoperability of networks and the scalability of the technology and its applications.
- Develop and maintain an infrastructure of free, interoperable and regulated blockchain networks on which to develop applications with high social impact.
I think this is an excellent initiative since I’m from Mexico and at TAAL Project in France our mission is to help the general public understand this technology and bring more women into the sector.
After blockchain, now let’s talk about quantum technologies. In this article, I’ll present an extract of some use cases presented in the publication I mentioned before and I will include some other examples. Finally, I’ll talk about the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council findings regarding how the general public feels about quantum technologies. Keep in mind that in this paper, the objective is to help the general public and non-technical readers discover how quantum technologies can be used for social impact rather than how quantum technologies work. If you want to explore that, at the end of the article you’ll find some useful links.
Alright, let’s start with a quick comparison of classical computing and quantum computing. Computers store and process information using electricity. They use the binary system, which is kind of the computer alphabet but it consists of only two words or two states, 1 or 0. When electricity is on, it is represented by 1 and when it is off, it is represented by 0 and they can only be in « one-state » at a time. This property will be very important when we compare them to quantum computing.
To manage electricity classical computers use circuits and logic gates and modern circuits can make billions of calculations per second. This helps us to transform binary electrical signals into text, images, sounds, and video which make possible for us to see on our screens documents, websites, movies and run all kind of software and applications.
All this sounds pretty cool already, right? What if I tell you that we can go even further? What if I tell you that instead of being either on and off, we could be in « both states » at the same time? Well, that is one of the reasons why quantum computing is so different from classical computing. Let me give you a down-to-earth example of this amazing quantum property. Let’s say you’re the manager of a hotel and you need to look for a lost item that could be in any room. A classic computer will check all the rooms, one by one until it finds it. If we use a quantum computer to perform this task, the difference is that instead of checking rooms one by one, it can check all the rooms at the same time. This means that it will process information simultaneously instead of sequentially.
It is common to think that quantum computing is just faster than classical computing but, it is way more than that. It also allows us to perform calculations in fewer steps. They are just beyond the capabilities of classical computers because they harness the properties of subatomic particles to do complex calculations. For example « superposition », which refers to the quantum properties such as particles’ “position” that can take multiple values at the same time. If you want to know more about this, I recommend to google « Schrödinger’s cat example » you will find all kinds of videos and examples online.
We know now that as hotel manager this was really useful right? But, the real magic happens when we use quantum computing and this new way of performing calculations to solve complex problems.
QUANTUM TECHNOLOGIES AND SOCIAL IMPACT
Drug design and testing
Molecular comparison is a key process in drug research, Quantum computing can reduce drastically the years of clinical testing and make possible to develop personalized drugs instead of doing it for a large group of individuals. It can also reduce animal testing, therefore animal cruelty and accelerate the development of drugs to treat neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s .
Detection of diseases and radiotherapy
Dr. Adrian Raudaschl tells us that a radiation plan requires several simulations with different variables to avoid damaging the healthy tissue, quantum computing can make possible to run multiple simulations simultaneously and develop an optimal plan faster . Quantum computing can also reduce the detection time for solid tumors to minutes. The Japanese National Institute for Quantum and Radiological Science and Technology (QST) has already started using these techniques .
Energy and the price of food
Ammonia is heavily used for fertilizers and it consumes around 2% of the world energy due to the extreme pressure and low temperature its generation requires . Scientists have already discovered an alternative way of producing ammonia that barely requires spending energy. Quantum computers would allow simulate and understand that process, which is not possible with current technology. This can help to reduce world energy consumption and the price of food.
Communications in case of natural disasters using quantum sensors
Researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the department of physics at the University of Colorado experimented with magnetic field communications and location using quantum sensors. These sensors can function in situations where regular radio signals are no match for high levels of interference. This means that communication could be established underwater, underground, in remote landscapes or even collapsed buildings . Using quantum simulators for traffic can also help us to optimize evacuation plans.
Weather forecasting and climate change predictions
Quantum computers can be an incredible ally for meteorologists regarding weather and climate change prediction models. This is very important because having a better idea of sea-level fluctuations, wind patterns, storms and hurricanes, and seasonal air movements gives us the ability to alert people faster, saving lives and money thanks to logistical optimization .
Understanding our universe by facilitating space exploration
Telescopes collect tons of astrological data every day to track the movements of trillions of galaxies, stars, planets, and asteroids. This is way too much data for today’s computers to make meaningful discoveries on a regular basis. But if we combine quantum computing with machine-learning, all this data can finally be processed efficiently, opening the door to the discovery of hundreds to thousands of new planets daily by the early-2030s .
There is another interesting project called the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) running experiments at the International Space Station (ISS). They use this lab to produce clouds of ultra-cooled atoms which are called BEC’s Bose-Einstein condensates. When they cool these atoms to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero they demonstrate quantum characteristics at a larger scale. Here on earth BEC’s can be observed for only a fraction of a second. But in the microgravity of space, they can be observed for up to 10 seconds which allows researchers to better explore this rare domain remotely. The best part is that there is no astronaut assistance needed .
QUANTUM TECHNOLOGIES AND THE GENERAL PUBLIC
For real social impact, responsible research and innovation are crucial. If we want people to feel more familiar with new technologies, it is very important to understand their perception in order to develop a suitable approach.
The first step is just starting a simple dialogue. For example, what would you answer if someone asked you about quantum technologies? I know this is not an easy question and most people would feel unfamiliar or maybe just uncomfortable formulating an opinion due to a simple lack of knowledge on the subject. On the other hand, if people think they are “spooky” well, believe it or not they have something in common with Albert Einstein. He described the quantum property “entanglement” as spooky action at a distance, so quantum physics can be scary even for the most brilliant scientists.
This question was also asked during the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council public dialogue report on quantum technologies . The EPSRC in the UK came up with this fantastic initiative to engage the public in a dialogue with experts and researchers in order to explore public concerns and perceptions about quantum technologies. Another cool part of the project was that the participants were also asked to give recommendations. I think this is a remarkable idea in order to communicate effectively with the public and make them feel more engaged.
After the three- month dialogue, some of the key findings were:
- There was wide familiarity with the word ‘quantum’ – however beyond this, there was low knowledge of what quantum was or about QTs.
- Limited exposure to information about QTs had led to an initial feeling of neutrality towards them.
- Greater exposure to information about QTs generally saw participants become more engaged and excited by the range of potential benefits associated with QTs.
- QTs were seen to have a wide range of benefits for individuals and society. The most engaging QTs were those that participants understood to have the greatest potential impact on individuals and society.
- Overall participants were not overly concerned about the development and use of QTs and the risks associated with them. They saw the benefits as worthwhile and as positive progress for society.
- Good governance was important to participants, they did not want to see regulation stifle innovation and the advancement of this area.
What is also very interesting is that once participants had a better understanding of the subject, they were able to develop critical thinking and provide an informed opinion. The result was that participants prioritized quantum technologies which had benefits regarding:
- Improving health (saving or extending lives)
- Contributing to humanitarian efforts
- Increasing efficiencies (i.e. generating cost savings)
- Increasing security
- Tackling climate change
- Furthering knowledge
- Providing faster internet
Quantum technologies are very promising and can improve the well-being of humankind by helping us solve complex problems that are unthinkable for classical computers. It is clear how they can be used for social impact but, unfortunately, today it is hard to picture how the general public could be involved in a meaningful way, given the low level of knowledge about it. The EPSRC public dialogue demonstrated that the general public just needs to be listened to and be informed in order to feel more engaged and have a meaningful implication on the subject.
Since this field is still in an early stage, this could also give us the opportunity to change existing patterns and stereotypes in order to create a more collaborative and inclusive approach. Academic institutions, governments, technology companies, scientists and professionals are key to help reduce the knowledge gap between research and society.
I’m very excited that we can already see some inspiring people leading initiatives in this direction. For example, Dr. S. Venegas, one of the fathers of quantum computing in Mexico, has taught many free and open courses for students all over the region. Another example is the QTurn workshop, a network of scientists working for a more inclusive, diverse, safe scientific events in quantum information, computation and foundations. It was founded by Ana Belén Sainz, Yelena Guryanova and Juani Bermejo-Vega. From the conversations I had with Dr. Juani Bermejo-Vega I have witnessed her passion for inclusion and sharing knowledge with others.
In Europe, the research and innovation initiative Quantum Flagship created a working group called Gender Equality and one of their goals is to increase the participation of women in conferences and workshops. And finally, Araceli Venegas-Gomez, Founder and CEO of Qureca and the recipient of The Optical Society Milton and Rosalind Chang Pivoting Fellowship to become a ‘global ambassador’ for quantum technologies, is contributing to the public and business awareness of science and quantum technologies. She recently joined our non-profit organization TAAL Project as our quantum technologies advisor in order to support our mission helping the general public understand new technologies.
IDB article “Quantum Technologies: digital transformation, social impact, and cross-sector disruption” https://publications.iadb.org/en/quantum-technologies-digital-transformation-social-impact-and-cross-sector-disruption
An article where I explain the quantum properties superposition, entanglement and indeterminacy: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/quantum-computing-cryptography-moving-from-binary-nelly-moffett
 https://www.nature.com/articles/d42473-018- 00265-z
 M. Kitano et. al. Electride support boosts nitrogen dissociation over ruthenium catalyst and shifts the bottleneck in ammonia synthesis. Nature Communications 6, 6731 (2015). DOI: 10.1038/ncomms7731.