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The race to develop quantum technology is getting crowded

Quantum mechanics looks at how particles smaller than atoms interact. At this minuscule scale, entirely different laws of physics apply. But in the global race to develop quantum technology, the U.S. is competing in an increasingly crowded field. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    If you think back to high school, you may remember some of the laws of classical physics, like Newton's third law of motion. "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

    Intuitive laws like these form the basis of classical physics and they're all true… except when you get to the smallest units in the universe.

    This is the domain of what's known as quantum mechanics. It's how particles smaller than atoms interact with each other. And at this minuscule scale, entirely different laws of physics apply. In fact, it may be possible for one particle to be in different places, at the same time.

    It's a difficult concept for anyone to understand.

    But understanding how subatomic particles interact could lead to major technological leaps.

    In fact, researchers are already studying how quantum mechanics could lead to breakthroughs in supercomputing, encryption, and even medical treatment.

    But in the race to harness quantum technology, the U.S. may be falling behind. Christopher Booker reports.

  • Christopher Booker:

    In 1957 a Russian satellite called Sputnik ushered in the space age when it orbited the earth for the first time. Few may realize it, but a Chinese satellite launched in 2016 may have a similar scientific significance. It's the world's first satellite containing quantum communication technology

  • Christopher Booker:

    It's been called quantum's Sputnik moment. Why is that?

  • David Awschalom:

    Well, I think it was an awakening in many areas of the government to note that it was technologically possible.

  • Christopher Booker:

    University of Chicago professor David Awschalom has spent a great deal of time thinking about that awakening… not about the satellite itself, but how, after decades of investment in quantum research, US capabilities have been surpassed.

  • David Awschalom:

    To put a satellite in orbit that could send entangled particles of light to ground stations 1,000 kilometers apart.. It's an extraordinary technological achievement.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The launch is a giant leap forward in a global race to develop technology that exploits the principles of quantum mechanics. Those are the governing behaviors of the smallest particles in the universe.

  • David Awschalom:

    The fact that we can control the quantum properties of individual atoms, electrons, nuclei, even photons, will lead to lots and lots of new applications, from new types of medical diagnostics, to new types of sensors, to encrypted and safe communications, to advanced types of computing.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And this is what the Chinese satellite did. Beaming light particles called photons back to earth, it demonstrated that impenetrable, encrypted communication might now be possible.

  • David Awschalom:

    One of the odd things about these quantum states, is the act of looking changes them. So you might think that's a liability, but for secure co mmunication, that's an asset. If you send me a quantum state, and somebody attempts to eavesdrop, you'll change the message. You'll actually destroy the message

  • Christopher Booker:

    So as an outside viewer, if we were to try to look at that transmission, the state would change?

  • David Awschalom:

    Correct.

  • Christopher Booker:

    We wouldn't be able to interpret what it was saying?

  • David Awschalom:

    Correct. This is one of the unusual, weird properties of quantum mechanics that make it very difficult to grasp, for any us.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Difficult to grasp … or even harder than that. After all, the words of the most famous American-born physicist of the 20th Century, Richard Feynman, still resonate more than 50 years after he said them:

  • Richard Feynman:

    …I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics [audience laughter]

  • David Awschalom:

    It's complicated in the sense that it's extremely non-intuitive. It's counter-intuitive. We don't see this in our world today, right? We don't see the properties of matter that could allow you to walk through a wall.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Wait a minute, properties that would allow us to walk through a wall?

  • David Awschalom:

    In the quantum world, that's allowed with a certain probability. In our world, in the classical world, that doesn't happen. That can't happen to you. T his type of interactions been happening in the atomic world forever. It's how matter is put together. It's how matter interacts. It's the– potentially the puzzle pieces that keep our world together.

  • David Awschalom:

    this clean room is one of the best in the country.

  • Christopher Booker:

    For decades, the US has been working on this puzzle, spending around $200 million a year in research and development grants. That sounds like a lot.

    But in recent years, many other developed nations have launched national quantum initiatives – pumping billions into programs of their own. Most notably China – while the exact number is not known, some estimates put their investment at tens of billions of dollars.

  • David Awschalom:

    China has launched a major program, Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada, So, I don't believe the United States is behind. But I think the United States will have formidable competition.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Last December, Congress approved a slight expansion of US efforts – establishing the National Quantum Initiative Act committing nearly $1.3 billion dollars of federal money to the research of quantum information science over the next five years. The act also establishes a federal strategy to coordinate research already taking place in universities and private industry.

    But if the US hopes to build those quantum products of the future, Awschalom says funding is not the only issue; The country will need to dramatically increase the number quantum scientists.

  • David Awschalom:

    "Well, without a workforce, it won't happen. We need to train students that are both comfortable with these new experimental techniques, develop new microscopes, new ways to look at matter and essentially bring industry up to speed. Translate these ideas into a larger setting. So they're absolutely critical.

  • Christopher Booker:

    There is also a fairly long turnaround time because the students that we train today, we are talking almost a ten year development period?

  • David Awschalom:

    It is important to appreciate that. A graduate phd program is 5 to 6 years, then there are couple of years of lag time, so If we don't start now, we will be a decade behind. It is very important to launch this now.

  • David Awschalom:

    So the yellow light is designed so they can make smaller circuits.

  • Christopher Booker:

    In 2013, when the University of Chicago convinced Awschalom to move his Quantum laboratory from the University of California at Santa Barbara to its new Institute for Molecular Engineering housed in a $300 million state-of-the-art building – – he brought 12 graduate students with him and was one of only 4 professors. But today, with university, federal, and corporate, and donor funding, the Institute has expanded exponentially, just hiring its 31st full-time professor and teaching 128 graduate students.

    In May, after receiving a $100 million gift – the institute became the nation's first school dedicated entirely to molecular engineering.

    But Awschalom says the US will need thousands of quantum engineers if it hopes to outpace the efforts of foreign competitors and it will need the help of private industry, which the University of Chicago partners with.

  • David Awschalom:

    Some major American companies like Google, and IBM, and Microsoft, and Intel, all now have quantum programs. So it's beginning to move. People are seeing real systems being built.

  • Christopher Booker:

    In addition to advanced encryption, Awschalom says applications of quantum technology will include exponential increases in computing speed, as well as the development of precise medical diagnostic tools.

  • David Awschalom:

    So Imagine putting a sensor in a living cell, watching information moving through the membrane, measuring the temperature of the cell precisely. Look at the effect of a pharmaceutical in a biological system.It would revolutionize areas of medicine and healthcare.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But Awschalom says that the biggest advances from quantum technology will likely be beyond what we can imagine today.

  • David Awschalom:

    You know, we're just at the beginning. And, you know, a nice parallel is when you think about the electronics technology. We're at the stage of the first transistor being developed. That's the way a lot of us like to think about it and it's hard to imagine when people built the first transistor that was about the size of your thumb that there'd be hundreds of millions of them in an iPhone, It's very hard to predict where these things will go. And I think many of us will not be the users of quantum technology. It will be the next generation.

  • Christopher Booker:

    With the space race, it was identifiable to everyone. We're going to send a rocket to space. We're going to put a person on the moon. This isn't like that…

  • David Awschalom:

    Well, in– in a way it is. In a way it isn't. What I found– extraordinary about the space race is a decision was made to go to the moon, not really knowing how to do it, but with the confidence that, when problems would appear, they would be solved. So quantum technology, I view a little bit of that. There are challenges but I'm very confident the community will overcome them. And I think in the end it will end up being more exciting then we envision today.

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