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In the past five years, quantum computing has attracted tremendous media attention. why?
After all, we already have computers from the 1940s. Are you interested because of your use case? Better AI? Faster, more accurate pricing for financial services firms and hedge funds? Will better drugs come out when quantum computers get a thousand times bigger?
Making current intractable problems (problems that are not impossible to solve, but not yet solvable with today’s technology) is fundamentally why we care about quantum.
Over time, we expect quantum computers to be in the cloud and at the edge. Their use is invisible to most users, but the value they provide will benefit many.
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The Appeal of the “Quantum Realm”
I think the word “quantum” is a big part of the appeal of this new kind of computing. Some of you may remember the television show. quantum leap Starting around 1990, Scott Bakula starred. 25 years later, we Ant-Man Paul Rudd and the movie. This story introduced us to the “quantum realm.” It’s all fiction, but it’s fun.
So it’s no wonder that stories about ‘superposition’, ‘entanglement’, and ‘spooky behavior’ become a hot topic. Quantum computing is not all science, but it is based on one of the strangest and most surprising aspects of physics: quantum mechanics. Stories about “quantum” attract people and want to learn more. It almost sells itself.
It would be valuable if computing were all we could do in this quantum business, but there are many more areas where it plays a role. you for example. Quantum mechanics describes the behavior of the smallest particles of matter, including atoms, electrons, and photons. Quantum governs everything inside and outside of you.
If you’ve ever had a knee or shoulder injury, you may have had an MRI to help medical staff pinpoint the problem. MRI stands for “Magnetic Resonance Imaging” and works by detecting the energy released by hydrogen atoms under the influence of a strong magnetic field and radio waves. Fortunately, because the human body has an abundance of hydrogen atoms in water and fat, MRI can produce high-resolution images of areas of interest. It is a quantum process and its applications date back to the work of Felix Bloch and others starting in the 1940s.
Note the “high resolution” I used. Quantum science deals with very small things, so if you use it well, you can get detailed information and details. In some cases, this may be the best we can measure.
A sea change of positioning
It’s not quantum to start with, but there are other examples. In the days of old wooden boats, determining one’s position in the sea was difficult. While latitude was relatively easy to find because of the positions of stars and planets, longitude is much trickier because of Earth’s rotation. If you look at a globe, vertical lines go north and south, and latitude lines go east and west.
One method of locating and exploring was “dead reckoning”. Assuming you know exactly where it is initially. Then it started moving in a certain direction and speed. That is, it sailed at a given speed. A new position can be calculated after a period of time.
This simple model assumes that the direction has not changed. This assumption is somewhat questionable because the wind has blown after you, but let’s go with it. Compass can set direction and change direction.
Velocity and elapsed time were more complex. One way to measure speed was to toss a log on a rope into the water from the front of the boat and time how long it took to reach the back. Since we know the length of the ship, we can calculate its speed. Apart from the crude measurements of watching the log move in the water, accurate timekeeping was critical for accuracy.
From watch to GPS
It wasn’t until the 18thWork John Harrison invented a highly accurate clock that allowed sailors to accurately measure their position, preventing them from unintentionally hitting a rock or going hundreds of miles off course. The story of the development of this “Marine Chronometer” is well told in the book. Hardness Dava Sobel. It’s an epic not just of technology, but of intrigue, politics, and questionable rivalry.
In dead reckoning, the time is displayed in two places. One to measure the speed, and one to measure the longer elapsed time of the leg of the trip. Practically every trip involved a large portion of the ship being anchored and rocked fore and aft.
This development is not just convenient. It saved lives and revolutionized sea travel.
Now that I have GPS, the problem is solved.
GPS: A panacea?
The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a system of more than 30 satellites that send signals to devices such as smartphones. If your phone receives four or more of these signals, it can determine your location within a few meters or yards. You may be familiar with “triangulation” or the more appropriate term “trilateration” to calculate position. Because of Earth’s curvature and altitude, instead of needing three sources for accuracy, you’ll need four or more.
GPS signals can be affected by weather and other atmospheric conditions, but work well with mapping software. A more significant issue, especially for those concerned with security, is “GPS jamming” or “rejection,” where the signal is replaced by noise, or “GPS spoofing,” where a valid signal is replaced by a stronger but false signal. You wouldn’t want to get on a plane thinking you’re hundreds of kilometers or miles from your actual location.
A web search will find examples of each used in war zones or domestic security forces. Denying or spoofing GPS in major cities can cripple many modes of transportation, affecting safety and commerce.
Besides positioning and navigation, GPS has another important function – time.
Synchronize time with GPS
If you’ve been to an ATM recently, look at your receipt. Timestamps can be from GPS data. Have you ever heard the weather forecast and wondered about the accuracy of the forecast? Time synchronization of distributed weather stations seems to come from GPS.
Financial transactions over the network often get timestamps from GPS. Accuracy is essential in high-speed financial applications to know the exact sequence of transactions.
Cellular base stations can synchronize time using GPS for more accurate use of broadband spectrum. You may have noticed that I used the GPS on my phone to drive to the pizzeria for pickup, but it was also used when calling to place an order. If the GPS fails along the way, many of your phone’s functions may stop working until it resynchronizes with the satellites.
Today’s power networks are complex with multiple energy sources and often bidirectional flows. Time synchronization of GPS is used in some grids to optimize and balance electricity distribution.
Humans have lived without GPS and accurate timekeeping for thousands of years, but modern life has come to rely on both. As a thought experiment, what would your day look like without GPS?
Quantum clocks, sensors, gyroscopes, etc.
Migration to quantum-based solutions for PNT, such as positioning, navigation and timing, can, and will likely be the case. Initially, these solutions could be used by the military and defense, but like GPS, they can be commercialized by businesses and used in everyday life.
Quantum atomic clocks are used in GPS satellites today, and will eventually become commonplace as they become smaller and cheaper. They will appear on our networks, cloud data centers, cell phone towers, airplanes, ships, cars and phones. They work independently or in ensembles and are not only very accurate, but stay accurate for weeks or months before resyncing.
Quantum sensors will measure our speed and change with incredible precision, ultimately replacing the cheap but inaccurate accelerometers in cell phones and other devices. Quantum gyroscopes precisely determine changes in three-dimensional angular motion of yaw, roll and pitch.
Attractive features to come
Remember how the wind swayed and swayed the boat? A computer in a self-driving car or truck takes into account changes in direction, slope and elevation of the road. Advancing from outboard logs dating back hundreds of years, we will soon be able to measure all these changes hundreds of times per second.
Gravitational fluctuations can also be measured with a quantum gravimeter. This could help determine changes in Earth’s density and discover new resources. Other applications include safety and recovery operations such as finding voids in collapsed buildings. You can also receive early warnings of natural disasters such as landslides and sinkholes.
Like MRI, all of these quantum applications have resolution far superior to the technologies they replace. MRI is often safer than older techniques such as x-rays. We mentioned a few examples where these new quantum measurement devices could improve our safety.
Quantum computing is coming and promises to solve some currently intractable problems. Quantum sensing and timekeeping are here today. As we reduce the cost and footprint of these devices, they will permeate our daily lives and unlock exciting new essential services for all of us.
Bob Sutor is Infleqtion’s Vice President and Chief Quantum Advocate.
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