Expanding the frontiers of computing to benefit and protect society
It has become a cliché today to talk about the ‘IT revolution’. Computers have changed our lives beyond recognition. However, the scale of this revolution could be dwarfed by the advances promised by the next generation of information technology – quantum computing. With its potential to exponentially increase computing power, quantum computing opens up possibilities we could previously only dream of. These possibilities include quantum cryptography, strengthening our capabilities in an area that has become more and more critical as computers have increasingly become central to our lives: the need to stay secure against potential criminal hackers and terrorists.
Supported by an Advanced grant of the European Research Council (ERC), a leading specialist in quantum computing at the University of Latvia is working at the frontier of this emerging and radical new technology. Leading a team of 12 researchers, Professor Andris Ambainis is in the early stages of a five-year project to explore the possibilities of quantum computing and to help translate its exciting potential into the realms of everyday practical use.
In essence, quantum computing applies the laws of quantum mechanics to computer science. As Professor Ambainis explains: “At the quantum level, physical laws are different from what we see in everyday life.” These laws mean that electrons or other particles can behave in different ways at the same time – which means they can be used to perform multiple simultaneous computer calculations. “With, say, 20 electrons we could do around 220 computations at the same time, which is getting into the millions,” says Professor Ambainis. “As we get towards 100 particles, the number of computations gets really enormous,” he adds.
In comparison with conventional computing, it can be seen that the potential of quantum computing is little short of mind-boggling.
In an age when cyber security is high on the agenda, the specific possibilities offered by one area of quantum computing - quantum cryptography - are vast. “With ordinary cryptographic schemes,” says Professor Ambainis, “there is always a chance that someone can hack into them. With quantum cryptography, the only way to hack into them would be by discovering some physical effect that is completely outside of quantum mechanics, which is very unlikely.”
While the potential for quantum computing to create more or less unbreakable codes is one area of interest, Professor Ambainis’s MQC (Methods for Quantum Computing) project is looking into another important aspect: the threat that quantum computers pose to conventional cryptography. Using its understanding of quantum computing, one goal of MQC is to reinforce conventional cryptography against decrypting by quantum computers. “The goal is to come up with a cryptography that would be simple to use, would not require quantum devices, but would be secure against quantum devices,” he explains.
“Quantum computing will open up possibilities in other areas as well”, adds Professor Ambainis. In short, any task which requires large amounts of data to be searched and analysed will benefit. But there is a further application. “What particularly excites me,” he says, “is the opportunity to model quantum physics on an ordinary computer, for example chemical reactions. These are essentially quantum processes, and at the moment it is extremely difficult to model them on an ordinary computer because of their quantum nature.”
Professor Ambainis emphasises that ERC funding has been critical in helping him establish his laboratory and carry out this important work. “Returning to Latvia in 2007 after working in Canada and the USA”, he recalls, a Marie Curie International Reintegration grant was his lifeline. “Latvia was one of the countries worst hit by the financial crisis,” he says, “and the Marie Curie grant was the only thing supporting me. I also received further help through EU Structural Funds.”
Today, thanks to its ERC funding, Professor Ambainis’s MQC project is set to run until 2018, moving Europe a huge step forward – way beyond the IT revolution and on to the quantum IT revolution.