03 February 2014
Cash for quantum
Was anyone surprised when the news emerged at the beginning of January – courtesy of whistleblower Edward Snowden – that the US' National Security Agency was working on quantum computing? The bigger surprise would have been the revelation that it wasn't.
An organisation that appears to be interested in finding out everything about anything isn't likely to be standing pat. Yet the NSA doesn't appear to be ahead of the field; not that it would tell us if it was.
One team that seems to be doing as well as anyone else is from Bristol University. Towards the end of 2012, researchers constructed a quantum optical circuit using particle recycling. Now, they have produced and controlled photons on the same chip as other components.
"Our group has been making steady progress towards a functioning quantum computer over the last five years," said project leader Mark Thompson. "We hope to have a photon based device which can rival modern computing hardware for highly specialised tasks within the next couple of years."
But Bristol isn't alone in the quantum field. Researchers at Toshiba's Cambridge lab have been pursuing a similar agenda for some years. Last September, they said they had found a way to build large scale quantum cryptography networks. Tests on an eight channel quantum access network showed that a user could encrypt up to 1million emails per month.
With useful progress being made by UK researchers, the Government has concluded that quantum technology has the potential to deliver 'huge benefits to the UK economy' – and perhaps similar benefits for GCHQ. Supporting the field, it launched last December a five year £270million investment to support five research centres.
Money, while more than useful, isn't everything in the quantum world. Thompson's reference to 'steady progress' highlights the need for patience when working in a world in which nothing makes very much sense to the casual observer. Despite some of the more enthusiastic claims, quantum computing remains very much a technology of tomorrow. But its day is nearing.