You’ve heard of the space race and the arms race, but there’s another international race that many of us have never even heard of. It’s the race to make quantum mechanics the basis for new technology.
Quantum physicists say we are in the midst of a revolution that could transform computing, energy, medicine, and things that we can’t imagine yet.
But what is quantum physics?
“It describes the basic interactions of atomic scale particles,” explained Evelyn Hu. She’s the Tarr-Coyne Professor of Applied Physics and of Electrical Engineering at Harvard University and Co-Director of Harvard’s new Quantum Initiative.
Currently, we use zeros and ones to transmit information. Consider 0 as a ground state and 1 an excited state, Hu said.
“In quantum mechanics, we can superimpose that 0 and 1 to have anything in between,” she said. “A quantum mechanical bit could be the span of an electron, or whether the spin is up or down. Or it could be a single photon.”
The quantum mechanical bit by itself can be placed in a state to hold a multiplicity of information.
“Then if you put one, two, five, or 10 quantum bits in series and you engineer a particular state, those 10 quantum mechanical bits hold vastly more information than 10 ordinary bits would hold.”
It’s hard picture what this means for everyday life. Hu says we should consider the humble transistor.
“If you've ever seen a picture of the first transistor, it was basically pieces of plastic and wire and it was made of germanium,” she said. “It certainly, in 1948, did not look like the progenitor of a huge technology that dominates our lives today.”
Quantum mechanics will be as life-changing as the transistor, she said.
Asked to imagine a technology that quantum mechanics could enable, Hu said it could be a web of quantum sensors that could immediately relay information about the environment.
But Hu doesn’t like to talk about technologies we can imagine now. It’s too limiting.
“We're talking about…changing our understanding of the nature of information itself.”
Evelyn Hu was a judge of last year’s competition and also is a member of the executive committee at Harvard’s Center for Integrated Quantum Materials. The National Science Foundation granted support for the competition through the Center.
Web content produced by Elsa Partan.