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The First Quantum Revolution: Foundational information for the enterprise CTO

Bob Gourley

Our report on Naturally Better Security dove deep into ways quantum effects can be leveraged to enhance real world cybersecurity. It was our most popular post in November 2016 and the feedback we received was taken as a signal that we should produce more on what CTOs should know about the quantum world. With this post we are kicking off a series of five pieces that will dive into quantum effects. This first post tackles some foundational background that puts the science into a historical context. The second one will discuss the current revolution in quantum computing. The third focuses on security concerns. The forth dives into quantum key distribution. The fifth hits on the "so-what" of the current revolution in terms of security.

So first, foundational background on quantum mechanics.

Dr. Jane Melia of Quintessence Labs is known for her knack in expressing complex quantum related concepts both clearly and succinctly. We asked her to encapsulate everything we needed to know about the history of quantum mechanics and here is what we got:

At the start of the twentieth century, scientists believed that they understood the most fundamental principles of nature. From Galileo to Isaac Newton, the motion of bodies had been understood, whether for an apple falling from this tree, or the motion of planets around our sun. By understanding how parameters such as force, mass, and acceleration interacted, we had a good understanding of how objects in motion behave, and more broadly of the world around us.

But some physical behaviors cannot be neatly described by classical physics. One such behavior that people were trying to understand at the end of the 19th century was called the black body problem.  It was about how to describe radiation coming from solid bodies such as the stars and galaxies in our universe, which did not fit with the laws of classical physics.

By trying to understand this, scientists started to realize that classical physics did not fully represent all physical behavior. Max Planck found a solution for the black body problem in 1901, but to do so, he had to assume that energy came in discrete quantities; he referred to these as quanta. This was definitely at odds with the understanding of the day that radiation consisted of waves, but it worked.

Throughout the following decades, further findings by giants such as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Heisinger, Schrödinger, and many more, confirmed this notion of the quantum of energy, giving birth to quantum mechanics. Core principles were formulated, which are counterintuitive and confusing but have been borne out by numerous experiments. These principles include the wave particle duality, i.e. the fact that particles sometimes behave like waves, and that waves sometimes act like particles, or that quantum particles can exist in a superposition of different states until observation takes place, as famously told in the thought experiment of Schroedinger’s cat, and also that quantum systems can show connected behavior at a distance, without any direct physical interaction, what became known as “spooky action at a distance”.

It turns out that while classical physics works well enough at scales greater than the atom and speeds much lower than the speed of light, outside of this domain, real observations do not match what classical mechanics predicts - quantum physics is more accurate and broadly applicable.

Quantum physics helped us understand the periodic table, chemical interactions, and electronic wave functions that underpin the electronic semiconductor physics. In fact, there are many devices available today which are fundamentally reliant on our understanding the effects of quantum mechanics. These include the transistor, lasers, GPS, semi-conductor devices and MRI imagers. These devices are often referred to as belonging to the 'first quantum revolution’.

What’s amazing is that within one silicon chip there are about 3 billion transistors, enabled by the progress of this first quantum revolution. And they all have to work reliably so that your computer, your mobile phone or whatever you have actually works. Now that’s quite amazing.  Just think about that now. If you look around you now, we all carry around our personal electronics. Everyone reading this post is probably an owner of multiple computers and smartphones, will at least tens of billions of transistors at your command, all enabled by the progress of this quantum revolution. So while the science behind them is certainly confusing, quantum technologies are already part of our everyday life.

This is all due to the first revolution in quantum mechanics.  Now a second revolution is underway. For more on that see our next post on The Second Quantum Revolution: Employing quantum mechanics to alter our world.

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Bob Gourley writes on enterprise IT. He is a founder of Crucial Point and publisher of CTOvision.com