Lasers, transistors and LEDs are some of the inventions based on quantum physics that have widespread applications, and profoundly transformed the lives of modern society. As the building blocks of computing devices shrunk to microns and nanometer scales, digital information technology acquired increased storage capacity and computing/processing power. Portable optoelectronic devices like hand-phone and tablets, and distanced communication through a global network of wireless electromagnetic fields and fiber optics became accessible to everyone. These advances have loaded us with a huge amount of digital information (big data and 5G), drive the economy and businesses, triggering the 4th industrial revolution (4IR). These technologies are based on the fundamental knowledge of electrons, atoms, photons, and their interactions that can only be described by quantum mechanics. But that is not all quantum physics can offer.
Two quantum physics concepts are at the heart of quantum technology behind the coming quantum revolution. Quantum superposition is where a quantum bit or particle can assume any combination of several quantum states at the same time, in contrast to the usual bits of only 0 and 1. Secondly, the quantum state of a particle can instantaneously affect the state of another distanced particle via quantum entanglement. Sounds spooky?
These concepts are used to assemble sufficiently large number of quantum bits to build quantum computers that can perform multitasking, parallel and simultaneous information processing. Information search can proceed in parallel, by searching everywhere for an answer “at once” and get the answer within seconds, without having to go through multiple sequential searches. The same concept enables quantum computers to perform mathematical feats like factorization of large numbers at much faster speed than a supercomputer and therefore able to break all existing encryptions or passwords within a practically short period of time, posing a threat to information security particularly financial and banking corporations.
The next quantum revolution is already here now! Scientists around the world are competing to harness “entanglement” for disruptive applications and compete for information and computing supremacy. The race to develop quantum technology is between United States, China and Europe. China has launched a quantum satellite in August 2016 and has been developing big plan to connect their cities with quantum networks. United Kingdom government invested €370 million in December 2013 on quantum technologies for the next 5 years. The European Commission followed the step in 2016, invested €1 billion for 10 years. In December 2018, the United States Senate passed the National Quantum Initiative, which authorized $1.275 billion to be spent over five years for quantum information science research and education. Quantum technology has also caught the attention of big industrial players. Companies like IBM, Google, D-Wave and Alibaba have invested heavily on developing quantum computers that have remarkable capabilities conventional computers do not have. The eavesdropping incident by Edward Snowden, former National Security Agency contractor, has alerted the world on the vulnerability of current cryptography technology.
Quantum cryptography is a proven technique that promises secure transmission of confidential information such as passwords encrypted as “keys” in quantum bits by using teleportation of quantum states (but not matter). The technology is (unconditionally) secure because it is able to detect the presence of eavesdropping. It is continuously being perfected to be robust against any potential hacking, even by quantum computers, thus enabling highly confidential data to be communicated with the peace of mind. The current initiative is to extend the secure communication distance beyond hundreds of km via fiber optics, to establish a regional-scale quantum network and subsequently, quantum internet. Long-distance quantum communication network promises secure intercity links between government agencies or financial hubs. Boosting the level of cybersecurity is becoming more important than ever due to the increasing reliance on online communications for work and businesses since the Covid-19 pandemic and the significant rise in the number of cybersecurity threats, as reported in The Star on 12 April 2020. [https://www.thestar.com.my/news/focus/2020/04/12/cybersecurity-cases-rise-by-825]
Currently researchers from several local universities are teaming up to develop in-house quantum communication technology (QCT) for affordable and high-security quantum network. The initiative, is in line with the National Cyber Security Policy (NCSP) and would benefit the government, academia, industries, society and environment. It is important to give Malaysia greater self-reliance and control of our own defense and national security.
Another class of applications of quantum physics, besides quantum computing and quantum communication, is Quantum Metrology, that provides new modes of measurements, sensing, and imaging with unprecedented levels of precision, spatial and temporal resolution. In particular, it enhances the precision of our current time and frequency standards, used to calibrate our clocks and GPS, ultra-sensitive gravity sensors that enable us to map distributions of underground masses and minerals, and sensors that can detect ultra-weak magnetic fields of the brain offer new medical diagnostic tools. The promising feats of quantum physics from theory to applications in modern information technology are exciting developments not to be missed.
Note: Prof Dr Raymond Ooi obtained his Dr.rer.nat (PhD) from Universitaet Konstanz, Germany. In 2003, he worked with the prominent Prof. Marlan Scully at Texas A&M University, a renowned guru on quantum optics and laser physics. He was a regular Visiting Scientist at Princeton University and Max-Planck Institut fuer Quantenoptik. In 2006 he joined KAIST as Research Professor and then Korea University as Assistant Professor. He joined University of Malaya in 2010 and started the “Quantum and Laser Science” research group equipped with femtosecond laser optics lab under the support of High Impact Research grant.