Since the 1960s, progress in every field of scientific research – from drug discovery to climate prediction, renewable energy to artificial intelligence – has depended, at least in part, on the ability of engineers to build smaller transistors.
Transistors are the electrical switches that process binary code. From the mid-1960s to the mid-2010s, the number that engineers were able to put into a single integrated circuit doubled approximately every 12 to 24 months, as did Intel founder Gordon Moore predicted in 1965 in what was called Moore’s Law.
Less than four decades after Moore’s forecast, transistors have become so small that in In 2013, Apple was able to produce a square-chip mobile phone, just over an inch long, that contained more than one billion transistors – tens of thousands of times more than the computers that accompanied Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon in 1969..
But as transistors continued to shrink, engineers found themselves increasingly pressing against the limits of physics. It is ultimately damn difficult and extremely expensive to build a transistor smaller than an atom.
Fighting this challenge, Jensen Huang – Nvidia’s CEO, the most valuable chip maker in the United States – made a sad warning about the speed of technological progress in January 2019. After half a century of exponential development in chip manufacturing, Moore’s Law, Huang warned, is dead.
However, the multimillion-dollar dollar to build ever more powerful chips continued. The challenge faced by leading physicists and engineers now is not how to build transistors smaller than an atom, but how to harness the forces within atoms to develop a completely different kind of electrical switch – one that is not simply turned on or off, like a transistor, but that can exist in both states at the same time. Tying such switches together could dramatically increase the number of concurrent computations, enabling quantum machines to perform processes that would require the world’s fastest supercomputer in an ineffectively long period of time. This new kind of switch is what quantum physicists call “kvbit” – a quantum bit.
Like the invention of the transistor in 1947 defined technological progress over the next 70 years, quantum experts believe that their work developing quizzes could usher in a new era of computing that will reshape the development of key fields of science.
But as the quantum race unfolds in universities, ie companies and companies and government research laboratories around the world, EU officials in Brussels are increasingly concerned about how the technology will evolve, who will have access to it and what they will use it for. And the UK, a pioneer in quantum research and just three months into its new trade relationship with the EU, is currently the focus of its concerns.
On 31 March a British company called the Quantum Movement revealed progress which it claimed could accelerate the development of quantum computing by a few decades. While IBM and Google are the world leaders in the field, the two companies rely on rare and expensive metals to build the “superconductors,” which they use to isolate and measure electrons, their representation of kvbit.
Quantum Movement, however, has devised a way to isolate electrons using the silicon transistors found in conventional semiconductor chips. In their latest experiment, led by Spanish doctor Virginia Ciriano-Tejel, the team was able to measure the quantum state of an electron on a chip in nine seconds, showing a level of stability that few other companies could match.
John Morton, a nanoelectronics professor at UCL and co-founder of Quantum Motion, compares the current race to build quantum computers with the clandestine research of the mid-20th century. “We’re in these early 1950s where everyone is trying these new ways to build quantum computers and a lot of them are trying pretty exotic ways with superconducting circuits or ions,” he told the New Statesman. “The challenge is that these very new methods may take a long time to climb to the point where they can really deliver practical solutions.”
Quantum Motion researchers are trying to “shorten this process by taking technology that already produces not millions but billions of transistors and puts them on a chip that could be on the computer you’re working on,” Morton says.
While Google was able to link 53 quits, Morton realized that a million will have to be connected if the promise of quantum computing is to be fulfilled. He said that researchers are only at the beginning of that journey and that it is therefore possible that his company’s research path could surpass those of the much larger players in the sector.
Quantum Motion’s groundbreaking experiment took place at UCL’s quantum research laboratory in Bloomsbury, but it used a device manufactured at CEA-Leti, a French, government-funded microelectronics facility in Grenoble. The project was part of the latest phase of the European Union’s main quantum research project, with one billion euros, and is one of the most significant advances to come out of the initiative to date.
However the future participation of the UK in the program is now at risk. Under the instruction of Thierry Breton, the EU’s international market commissioner, the UK, along with Switzerland and Israel, now faces being locked out of the Horizon Europe science program in places that may endanger national security, including quantum computing and space. Quantitative researchers in the UK and across Europe fear that such a move would not only harm the British quantum sector, but Europe as well. Of the 19 projects in the EU’s Quantum Flagship research program, funded by Horizon Europe, 15 British universities and companies are participating.
Nineteen of the 27 EU member states have now retaliated against Breton’s proposals, which have also faced criticism from top scientists across Europe. On March 23, Germany declared its support for the full cooperation of Israel, Switzerland and the United Kingdom in the Horizon Europe program.
Switzerland had already been temporarily re-entered into the program, and one source with knowledge of the negotiations suggested, a day after Germany’s intervention, that it seemed that Israel would be too. No formal position on any non-EU state has yet been taken and the fate of the UK remains under review.
None of the quantum physicists who spoke to the New Statesman as this article aimed to downplay the security risks that the technology could ultimately pose to nation states.
Much of the data on the Internet is encrypted using RSA, an algorithm developed in the 1970s that encodes data by multiplying two large primes. Conventional supercomputers can easily perform these computations, but it takes much longer to reverse the process and reveal code by determining all the primes by which the sum of the two primes could be divided.
By processing calculations at the same time, however, a quantum computer could crack these codes much faster. Encryption, which could take supercomputers longer than the age of the universe to decipher, could in the coming years be unraveled by quantum computers in just a few hours.
This presents a huge opportunity and a major threat to nation states and their intelligence agencies. Although it is expected that encryption software will make significant progress when high-performance quantum computers are developed, there are fears that agencies may have already begun building stocks of encrypted data, with the expectation that they will soon be able to decrypt it. .
Graeme Malcolm, the founder of M Squared, one of the leading quantum computing companies in the UK, acknowledges these concerns and notes that the fact that the projects were drafted so soon after Brexit has complicated matters. “The fact that we are fresh from Brexit means that this is a particularly difficult time, as the security concerns of the broader applications of quantum computing have not yet been addressed.”
But Malcolm, like other scientists who New Statesman with whom he spoke, tends to emphasize that there are many possible applications, including in climate science, where the benefits of cooperation significantly outweigh the security risks. In collaboration with Kai Bongs at Birmingham University, Ian Walmsley, an experimental physicist and the provost of Imperial College London, has played an important role in developing the foundations of EU quantum research, which is largely focused on medical and business applications.
Walmsley is upset that now UK could be removed from the plan. “It’s not just the intellectual capital we’ve put in; it’s the very strong partnerships we’ve developed over the years that have given the UK an advantage over good people working here, contributing their ideas and enabling our reach and influence within European programs. So it’s frustrating in that sense, but we understand for a while that of course Britain is leaving the EU, so it’s no wonder there will be some swellings along the way. ”
Walmsley acknowledges that it will be important for countries to have their own sovereign quantum capability, but he said most of the work on the Horizon program is in a pre-competitive stage. “There are good ways to protect intellectual property if the EU or the UK has to protect its own strategic position. This is really about testing the ideas and proving them at this pre-competitive stage in a way that will progress along this. Trajectory much faster. It’s certainly true that a lot of countries are working on it and it’s certainly not wanting to be left behind. ”
Regardless of whether the UK is eligible to participate in future EU quantitative easing programs, cooperation will continue between universities and ie company ethnic companies across the continent. But for John Morton of Quantum Motion, the risk is not only that his company is allowed to pay higher fees to access France’s microelectronics facility, but that “this kind of step is growing in – for lack of a better phrase – a quantum arms race.” .
“I think that would be a great shame and would mean that the support we get from the British government and the support that other organizations receive from other member states will go less far, because you are setting up barriers to cooperation. It’s more about the “It seems clear that such cooperation would be weaker without the structures of the Horizon Europe program.”
A representative of the European Commission said that any restriction on the participation of third states in Horizon Europe “will always be made in agreement with member states on comitology and respecting our obligations under bilateral agreements. They will be exceptional, kept to the absolute minimum necessary and be justified. “
A spokesman for the UK government’s trade department said: “Earlier this month we announced an additional £ 250 million to support our involvement in Horizon Europe, enabling the British science and research sector to access the world’s largest co-operative financial plan. .
“The UK has agreed to take part in the whole Horizon Europe program, with the exception of the European Innovation Council. However, the UK understands that in specific exceptional cases the EU may exclude participants from third countries. “