SINGAPORE: The premise of today’s computing technology has always followed a simple concept: The processing prowess of computers will double every couple of years as chips get smaller.
These chips are likened to the neurons in a human brain; the more there is, the more power there is to compute. This progression is the reason why you can now hold a device the size of your hand yet packed with the computing power of top-end desktops from just a few years back. This growth, however, is inching towards its physical limit.
Yet hiding in plain sight is a nascent technology that could prove to be the next evolution of computing – and perhaps be as revolutionary as when electricity was first discovered centuries ago.
Quantum technologies essentially harness electrons and photons (the building block of light) to potentially offer compute power – and with it seemingly boundless possibilities - that’s never been seen before. It could make today’s advanced supercomputers seem clunky and slow.
This could perhaps explain why Singapore, always with an eye out for the future, decided to explore quantum computing by setting up the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) more than a decade ago at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
This National Research Centre of Excellence brings together physicists, computer scientists and engineers to do basic research on quantum physics and build devices based on their findings in areas like computing, communications and sensing.
There is no letting up in this area, with the National Research Foundation (NRF) saying it will invest S$25 million into a Quantum Engineering Programme to develop quantum technology and devices last September.
More recently, CQT signed a memorandum of intent with SGInnovate, a Government-owned company investing in deep tech start-ups, to promote quantum technologies and commercialise such innovations via a two-year collaboration.
So what is it about this frontier technology that is slowly but surely causing a buzz? CNA chatted with CQT’s founding director Artur Ekert to find out.
Q: Can you explain quantum computing as simply as possible?
Ekert: If you think about quantum computing from the standpoint of solving a problem, today we would write an algorithm to solve that problem. An algorithm, if you break it down to its basic components, consists of different instructions.
Quantum computing is about the most efficient way of solving a particular problem, as the algorithm written is able to understand more instructions. Today’s computing methods may be able to solve the same problem, but it would require a lot more computers and a lot more time for it to be practical.
Q: Why should the man on the street care about quantum technologies?
Ekert: Just imagine the situation with electricity, right? It was about 200 years ago that people started using electricity, and it was after many, many years of research that electricity is converted into something useful like electric motors, etc.
Another example would be Charles Babbage, who came up with the first classical programmable computer in the 1800s. If you asked him what it would be good for then, he would have probably said it may be useful for making good mathematical tables. He would never have thought it would lead to word processors, Internet, social media - these would be beyond imagination.
It’s like the computer game Civilisation. If a worker discovers an oil deposit during a time when engines have yet to be created, that commodity is useless. Quantum technologies is like a resource with much potential, but this will not be seen until there are tools to make use of it.
Q: Why, then, is Singapore exploring and investing in this nascent technology?
Ekert: I think at the national level, there is a cryptographic problem that is data protection, for example, secure communication.
Singapore is a unique country in that it’s rather small. So can you use quantum technologies, specifically quantum cryptography, to secure data communication? It can probably be the first country in the world to have a quantum crypto network because it is so small.
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Data protection is a big business. At the national level, at the individual level, you don't want to have your Prime Minister’s medical records stolen, right? It’s kind of embarrassing. Quantum cryptography can offer the extra layer of protection.
Q: Quantum technologies or artificial intelligence - which one will impact our lives more significantly?
Ekert: It’s difficult to say, as I think they will also overlap at some point.
Time-wise, you’ll probably see the impact of AI earlier. There are already some spectacular demos of AI, like how it learnt to play Go at the level of the game’s masters.
But eventually AI will have to take advantage of quantum. I’d say quantum is like a train, and AI will be like a commuter who may jump on and get a ride (so as to boost its development).
Q: There are concerns that quantum computing will break the Internet and how encryption is done. What’s your take - are we nearing the end of the passwords era as we know it?
Ekert: I think that quantum computers is like a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, quantum computers, once you have them, will destroy most of the known classical methods of data protection. On the other hand, if you use quantum methods of encryption, that will make your systems immune to attacks from quantum computers.
So what quantum computing takes away, it will also give back.
This is why I think what authorities like the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) are doing is good. We may not have quantum computers now, but looking at new designs and implementation of protection in preparation of such a reality - like NSA is - will protect critical systems from the possibility of attacks from quantum computing.