Creating the Future: Prof Séamus Davis on the potential of quantum

19 Jun 2023

Ann O’Dea and Prof Séamus Davis. Image: Connor McKenna/

In the second instalment of a new series profiling Ireland’s research leaders, Ann O’Dea speaks to Prof Séamus Davis, the first Irish recipient of the prestigious Buckley Physics Prize, on how quantum technology could change everything.

Creating the Future: Meet Ireland’s Research Leaders in association with Science Foundation Ireland.

A leading international authority on quantum physics, Prof Séamus Davis was recently awarded the prestigious Buckley Prize in the US, recognising his ground-breaking work on the quantum microscope. It’s an award previously won by 18 Nobel Prize winners, so he is in very impressive company indeed, and the first Irish person to receive the award.

After some 20 years in Berkley and 20 in Cornell, Prof Séamus Davis has returned to Irish shores and is based out of University College Cork (UCC) where he is professor of quantum physics, although he divides his time between there and the rest of his international team at Oxford, and he remains a professor of physics at Cornell.

The island of Ireland has form when it comes to quantum physics. It was the brilliant Belfast scientist John Bell who provided the fundamental breakthrough to test the veracity of possibly the most counterintuitive aspect of quantum mechanics – its non-local character.

In recent years, there has been a particular surge in activity in Ireland, often driven by grassroots activity, supported by national and European funding.

Speaking to Davis, he emphasises the importance of accelerating that development if Ireland is to be the world-leading player it has the potential to be.

In a wide-ranging interview, Davis takes us through his journey from his birthplace in Skibbereen, Co Cork, via De La Salle High School where he studied under an award-winning maths and physics teacher, UCC where he honed his love of the area, and through 20 years each at both Berkely and Cornell in the US to today and the project he leads from the basement of the Kane Building at UCC.

The spectroscopic imaging-scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) at UCC is one of just six such machines in the world.

Quantum theory now is an almost 100-year-old theory and, according to Davis, it is the best theory of fundamental physics ever achieved. “It’s a pinnacle achievement of the human race,” he says. “And although many of us don’t realise it, much of our civilisation depends on our control of quantum mechanics already. It’s critically important.”

Of course, today when we talk about quantum, we mean quantum computing, and it is still in its relative infancy. “It’s only just beginning to grow rapidly now, making new devices that use the special properties of quantum mechanics to do things better and faster than they could ever have been done before,” he says.

Davis points out that there is already a classic case we all know, where quantum technology has already been working for 20 or 30 years, and that is MRI. “Magnetic resonance imaging is a purely quantum mechanical process and it works beautifully of course,” says Davis.

When it comes to quantum computing, the huge current interest comes from the fact that, in theory, it will render semiconductor-based classical computing almost obsolete. “It may not make it obsolete, but for the really super-powered tasks, quantum computing can already do better than it, and it’s only in its first few years,” says Davis.

“So all these huge corporations are investing hundreds of billions of euros in the race to build economically viable quantum computers and there are already some on the market.”

He also points out that quantum computing has already been accessible to scientists for about five years. “And in the last two years, something like a dozen major physics discoveries have been made using quantum computers. So, in terms of functionality they already exist, and if you have €15m, you can buy one and put it in your home now.”

The rub, of course, is that superconductors for quantum computing require extremely low temperatures to function, making them economically inaccessible. So, the major goal of Davis and his peers is to find a way to make superconductors work in ambient or room temperatures, a feat that could revolutionise computing. Davis is confident that this will be cracked in the near future.

As with all technologies, AI immediately come to mind. Davis cautions the importance of turning our attention also to keeping control of quantum computing as it develops.

“Quantum computing is not guaranteed to be good. It’s only guaranteed to be good if we keep control of it and that’s a place where we need to put more attention as it develops. But at the moment, it looks like the benefits greatly exceed the risks, so I think we should move on.”

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Ann O’Dea is the CEO and co-founder of Silicon Republic and the founder of Future Human