Quantum technologies and the launch of h-bar quantum consultants

It is with great pleasure that I am writing the first blog post for the official launch of h-bar quantum consultants. h-bar aims to provide professional advice services to the burgeoning quantum technology industry. Liaising between academia, government and business to provide detailed and up-to-date advice on new technology with a very steep learning curve.

The translation of quantum technology from the laboratory to commercial devices promises to be one of the great challenges of 21st century science and engineering. The United Kingdom’s National Quantum Technologies Programme and the recent announcement by the European Commission of a €1 billion Quantum Technologies Flagship are both targeted specifically at developing commercial quantum technologies. Worldwide we also have large scale investment in quantum technology research by government agencies in the United States, Canada, China, Japan, South Korea and Australia. Despite all this public investment in quantum technology commercialisation, for many applications we are still at the very start of the long road from research and development to market. It is a very exciting time to be in the field.

So what is quantum technology? Quantum physics is often referred to as “modern” physics, yet the principle of quantised energy which underlies quantum mechanics was first discussed more than 100 years ago. Throughout the 20th century a range of new technologies have been developed which in some way rely on this fundamental understanding of the universe. The operation of transistors, LEDs, MRI machines, lasers and many more are understood using the principles of quantum mechanics. However, recently these technologies are increasingly referred to as “first generation” quantum technologies. 

This of course begs the question, what is a “second generation” quantum technology? An example of a useful definition is given by Georgescu and Nori - technologies harnessing quantum superposition, uncertainty or quantum correlations are “second-generation” quantum technologies. However, this is quite a technical definition which does’t help non-specialists understand what such a distinction means and why is it important to differentiate at all?

For me, a simpler definition is that second generation quantum technologies are those which require (or benefit from) control over the quantum mechanical wavefunction of a system. The wavefunction is a central concept from quantum theory. It provides a mathematical description of the state of a system, i.e. what is a quantum mechanical system doing right now? However, many of the counter-intuitive results of quantum mechanics that can be confusing at first sight come from the fact that measuring the wavefunction directly is particularly difficult. Rather we infer the value of the wavefunction from the probabilities of measurement outcomes. 

The reason that control (or lack thereof) of the wavefunction provides a good definition is that most first generation technologies can be understood using a mathematical theory based on the probabilities only. This is also why they have been quickly incorporated into existing technologies over the last 50 years. It is only in the last 10-20 years that we have developed the technology to control the wavefunction itself. With this enhanced control we have discovered a raft of new applications including quantum cryptography, quantum computing, quantum metrology and quantum sensing. These technologies promise to allow us to hide our data more completely, solve tough mathematical problems more efficiently and sense the world around us with higher precision than ever before. However, we are still just at the very beginning.

The late 19th century developments in electromagnetism lead to large-scale technology applications in radio and electronic engineering after the first world war. The discovery and harnessing of nuclear physics during the second world war lead to the field of nuclear engineering following declassification of the field in the 1950s and 60s. We are only now starting to see the first generation of “quantum engineers”.

So where does h-bar fit in with all of this? As quantum technology becomes more of a commercial reality, it will be essential to have good information flow between scientists, engineers, business and government. Here at h-bar, we provide this service, linking stake holders and helping translate between the very different wants and needs of the fledgling quantum technology industry. We provide frank and impartial advice on all aspects of quantum technologies. Having played our part in the development of these technologies, now we aim to shepherd them through to full commercial applications.

- Jared Cole, co-founder, h-bar quantum consultants