Navigating the weird world of quantum mechanics

14 Jul 2021

Image: Dr Ilana Wisby

Dr Ilana Wisby talks about bringing physics and music together and why quantum computing has the potential to reshape the world as we know it.

Quantum computing is up there with some of the newest emerging technologies. While still in its infancy, quantum researchers and leading industry players are working tirelessly to unlock its mind-boggling potential.

Some of the most recent advancements in quantum computing include IBM launching its first quantum computer outside of the US last month, a Chinese quantum computer that can reportedly solve a problem in 200 seconds, and a significant step towards a quantum internet by Fermilab researchers.

Closer to Ireland, UK-based Oxford Quantum Circuits has recently built what it claims to be the country’s most advanced quantum computer.

Dr Ilana Wisby, CEO and co-founder of Oxford Quantum Circuits, told that it is also launching quantum computing as a service, helping end users unlock the potential of quantum computing.

“Whilst we intend to provide on-premise quantum computers to our customers, quantum computers – given their size, sensitivity to vibration, use of cryogenic equipment, cost and need for round-the-clock engineers working on scaling them – are not easily accessible by most end users wishing to explore the technical and commercial benefits of quantum computing,” she said.

“By bringing our systems to the cloud, at our customer’s fingertips, we offer them the chance to demonstrate just how far-reaching quantum can be within their industries.”

Wisby received her PhD in quantum physics from Royal Holloway, University of London where she spent most of her time as a student in industry at the National Physical Laboratory.

She is also a member of the Quantum Metrology Institute’s advisory board and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Future Council on Quantum.

Interestingly, Wisby studied both music and physics at Royal Holloway. “It was certainly quite a juxtaposition jumping between second-order differential equations to writing essays on music, power and politics! In many ways I found the combination quite complementary,” she said.

“My music practice from a young age helped me think creatively, express myself effectively, perform to audiences and most of all taught me intense discipline. During my degree I was able to continue to perform and develop the creative and communication skills which absolutely helped give me a unique approach, angle and mindset within my physics degree.”

‘The quantum world is weird’

While quantum brings a new way of computing, quantum computers are not simply an evolution of classical computers and operate according to an entirely different set of rules.

“The quantum world describes nature at its smallest scales. It describes a world which is very different to the world of our everyday experiences. It predicts that the world at the most intimate and fundamental level (atoms and photons) is random and uncertain.”

It is here, at the nanoscale, that unique properties can be leveraged to build quantum computers, according to Wisby.

“In the quantum world, everything is split into levels. For example, an electron in an atom can sit in one of a few set energy levels. But the quantum world is weird. Give an electron a kick of energy and it will jump instantly from one level to another.”

To put this into perspective, she said to imagine driving a car. In a regular car, you might want to increase your speed from 5km per hour to 20km per hour, but this would require you to accelerate and climb gradually to reach that speed.

“If you drove a quantum car, you might be able to travel at 5km per hour, 20km per hour or 80km per hour, but at no speed in between. Shift gears and you’d suddenly jump from 5km per hour to 20km per hour. The change in speed would be instantaneous, so you wouldn’t even feel the acceleration.”

This, along with other concepts, such as superposition and entanglement, is what makes it possible to build quantum bits, or qubits – the building blocks of quantum computing.

This new kind of computing will make brand new forms of information processing possible. “We are talking about a true paradigm shift,” said Wisby.

‘Quantum computing has the potential to reshape the world as we know it’

“The power of quantum computing will enable us to transform the modern laboratory through massively enhanced material modelling and discovery, providing tremendous impact and innovation in enabling drug discovery, developing new battery technologies and so much more.”

Because quantum computers are not limited to a binary state of ones and zeros, it enables processing of information in ways never before possible.

“Quantum computing has the potential to reshape the world as we know it: revolutionising businesses, trailblazing new approaches in all sorts of fields, and solving some of the world’s most intractable problems,” said Wisby.

“As with any paradigm shift, it is impossible to predict its exact ramifications. What we do know is that we cannot solve problems with the same computers we used when we created them.”

Exciting applications

When asked what she’s most excited about when it comes to quantum computing’s potential, Wisby said it’s tough to choose.

“If I had to pick an area I am most excited by, it would be the potential for impact on the world’s energy efficiency and helping to build a more sustainable future,” she said.

“Quantum computers can one day help develop better battery technologies through more accurate simulation and understanding of perovskites for solar cells, develop better hydrogen storage solutions or increase the durability of battery storage.”

She also spoke about the early experiments of her own company’s quantum computing platform, particularly in the areas of cryptography and cybersecurity.

“Cambridge Quantum will be the first to access our QCaaS to demonstrate their IronBridge cybersecurity platform, which extracts perfect certified entropy from quantum computers to generate unhackable cryptographic keys,” she said.

“Others will include financial institutions getting great insight into their trading and risk management strategies [and] pharmaceutical companies simulating molecules using VQE.”

VQE, or variational quantum eigensolver, is a flagship algorithm for quantum chemistry using near-term quantum computers.

“Ultimately, as we welcome registrations to our beta list of users, we aim to select first-of-their-kind projects, which have never been done before, whilst remaining focused on real-life applications.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic