With the Nobel Prize in Physics and other millionaire prizes, the quantum economy takes a new impetus

The 2022 was quiet for quantum technologies, with some news but none with the stridency of the news of the “supremacy” or quantum advantage achieved in previous years, first by Google and then by a Chinese laboratory: the moment in which a computer of this type could solve a problem that everyone the world’s traditional computers added together would have taken tens of thousands of years to solve.

With enormous engineering challenges ahead (some companies in this field are promising practical results only by 2030 or 2035), the quantum economy for many media and investors had momentarily gone off the radar in recent months. But everything changed days ago.

Tuesday the 4th of this month The Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics to three researchers in the field of quantum mechanics: the French Allan Aspect, the American John Clauser and the Austrian Anton Zeilinger. According to the official statement, they obtained it “for their experiments with entangled photons, establishing the violation of Bell’s inequalities and pioneering quantum information science.”

A key factor in the development of quantum mechanics is that allows two or more particles to exist in what is called an entangled state: what happens to one of them determines what happens to the other, even if they are very far apart. The Austrian Zeilinger began to use entangled quantum states, and among other things he demonstrated the phenomenon of quantum teleportation, which makes it possible to move a quantum state from one particle to another at a distance. This is essential for new communications, stressed the Swedish Academy.

But this wasn’t the only “propellant-engine prize” to win this theme in recent weeks. Days before the Nobel Prize, which awards US$900,000 to the winners, the Breakthrough Awards, that set up billionaires like Meta owner Mark Zuckerberg. This prize gives three million dollars to each scientist, and this year it was won by three “titans” of theoretical and applied quantum studies: David Deustch, Peter Shor and Charles Bennet.

“Shor, from MIT, became very famous in particular because he managed to put together the first quantum algorithm that breaks traditional encryption very quickly,” London-based Argentine physicist Damián Galante tells the nation. From Kings College London, Galante works in an Applied Physics group (he studied this degree at Exactas at the UBA) and recently won a Stephen Hawkings scholarship to conduct research for four more years.

Traditional encryption is based on the factorization of very high prime numbers, something that traditional computing can take years to decode. But times are reduced, Shor showed, dramatically with the quantum pathway. “The potential of quantum computing and communication is unimaginable, the issue is the obstacles to putting it into practice,” says Galante.

“Quantum theory is perhaps the most successful scientific idea ever formulated. Nobody could ever falsify it, it is incredibly predictive, it has clarified the periodic table of elements, the functioning of the sun, the color of the sky, the formation of galaxies and much more. Its derived technologies range from computers to lasers or medical instruments,” astrophysicist and great disseminator of the quantum subject, Carlo Rovelli, wrote in September in The Guardian.

In an already legendary speech made in 1981, the Nobel laureate in Physics Richard Feynman proposed that computers with quantum properties could in the future solve problems impossible for traditional computing. But, for decades the challenge seemed impossible; “qubits” (the equivalent of bits) are tremendously unstable and very noisy in their number of errors. However, in recent years, different advances have allowed the birth of a “Second Quantum Revolution”, as described days ago by the Argentine physicist Juan Pablo Paz (one of the pioneers on this subject in the country), in a note with the journalist specialized in sciences Martín De Ambrosio for the nation.

What progress has there been this year in this field? Although not as bombastic as those of “supremacy”, promising novelties multiplied. “The main companies that are working on the subject have announced scalable advances and plans to reach computers with thousands of qubits, such as IBM, Microsoft, Intel or Google,” says physicist Marco Di Tullio, a researcher on these topics at Conicet and the UNLP. In this sense, one of the great news of the year in terms of “practicality” to begin to bring quantum complexity down to earth had to do with the announcement of the “first quantum chip in history”, a find of Australian physicists.

The discovery was made at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. There it was announced the invention of a “dielectric resonator”: a glass prism that is placed on the silicon chip where the qubits (the basic unit of quantum information) are to control their orientation. This saves quantum computers from having to include huge wires and operate at hundreds of degrees below zero, like the ones we see today.

“In the 1950s, Feynman said that we will never understand how the world works, how nature works, unless we can start to create it on the same scale.” the Australian researchers told the journal Science.

In line with Feynman’s prophecies, much of the business advance in this area comes from the side of the “life sciences”: Revolutions are expected in medicine, in the chemistry of materials or in genetics. In Denmark, days ago, the University of Copenhagen, together with the Novo Nordisk Foundation, allocated US$1.5 billion to build a functional quantum computer, with a program that runs until 2034.

“The quantum field is burning. Many of my colleagues, who until a few years ago thought of having an academic career for life, went to startups or large technology companies that are offering very high salaries”, says Galante, who spreads the topic on his blog FisicaGalante.medium.com and that he will soon exhibit a joint work with quantum-themed artists at a London art gallery.

The great complexity of the subject and its counter-intuitive consequences (which at the time infuriated Albert Einstein) lead to take these promises, too, with great caution, says biologist and disseminator Diego Golombek, who coined a term in this regard: the “quanti-blackmailed”. In fact, one of the most famous IGNobels (the award given sarcastically to the most absurd investigations) was in 1998 for Deepak Chopra, for his application of quantum mechanics to the pursuit of happiness.

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With the Nobel Prize in Physics and other millionaire prizes, the quantum economy takes a new impetus