London, UK - A new report from The Economist examines “quantum technologies” and finds that they are on the verge of commercialisation with quantum-tech investment swelling to $1.5bn in 2015. Blue-chip companies like Google, Microsoft, IBM and Bosch are already investing in quantum computers, software, sensors and networks in preparation for a world in which these technologies are widespread. And more funds are streaming into quantum-dedicated university programmes.
National and transnational governments have started funding quantum-technology efforts: Britain’s quantum-technology programme is worth $337m and the European Union has budgeted $1.08bn for a pan-European programme. The world’s biggest tech companies are already buying in, and a rich ecosystem of startups is developing.
Born a century ago, the theory of quantum mechanics is the rule book for what happens at microscopic scales. It has provided explanations for everything from the layout of the periodic table to the zoo of particles spraying out of atom-smashers. It has guided the development of everyday technologies from lasers to MRI machines and put a solid foundation under astrophysicists’ musings about unknowables such as the interiors of black holes.
But it also has a weird side, predicting matter or light behaving both as a wave and a particle, particles being in more than one place or state at the same time, or influencing one another even when separated by vast distances.
After decades in the laboratory, a new quantum revolution is afoot. These effects can be exploited in a staggering array of products, of potential use to an equally wide range of industries, leaving plenty of room for innovation and investment, according to Jason Palmer, editor of Espresso, the paper’s daily-briefing app.
Exploiting quantum effects will produce sensors of jaw-dropping precision, able to spot the activity in a single neuron or to distinguish what lies underground or beneath the sea, preventing cost overruns and boosting defence applications. Some believe sensors will be quantum tech’s first market success.
Quantum trickery promises fundamentally unhackable communications links, and networks are springing up all over the world. The American and Australian governments are already operating their own; China’s stretches between Beijing and Shanghai, and includes a quantum-enabled satellite to extend its reach much further.
A powerful quantum computer, perhaps the most exciting potential application, remains a distant prospect. But as smaller, nearer-term machines look more plausible, interest in the quantum-computing effort has ballooned. Interest in such devices is highest in the finance sector, but increasing performance of prototypes will bring solutions for healthcare, aerospace, energy, drug design and much more, and is giving rise to a new industry of middlemen matching the hardware to industries that might benefit from it. Bigger quantum computers are expected to be able to break the encryption standards that have protected communications for decades—sparking genuine security concerns and a parallel effort to find new ways of encryption that even quantum systems can’t beat.
The full Technology Quarterly including graphics is available at http://www.economist.com/quantumtech
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With a growing global circulation and a reputation for insightful analysis and perspective on every aspect of world events, The Economist is one of the most widely recognised and well-read current affairs publications. The paper covers politics, business, science and technology, and books and arts, concluding each week with the obituary. In addition to the web-only content such as blogs, debates and audio/video programmes available on the website, The Economist is available to download for reading on Android, Blackberry PlayBook, iPhone or iPad devices. The Economist Espresso, our daily briefing smartphone app, is also available for download via iTunes App Store or Google Play.