Cover image for quantum technology May issue

Quantum leap: 101 uses for a dead and alive cat

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How quantum technology will spot stealth planes, build super-fast computers and reduce roadworks.

How far is a quantum leap? In science it’s the sudden change in an electron’s energy-level known as atomic electron transition. In everyday speech it’s come to mean an extreme change leading to a whole new level. That’s how quantum computing will appear after conventional computing. It is one of those technologies that’s been long talked about as a futuristic, crazy idea that sounds like something from science fiction. But years of research have brought it much closer to reality and now engineers and computer scientists need to start thinking about how and when it will be applied.

Quantum science is more often talked about than understood because, frankly, it’s really hard. So we kick off our special report with a short piece on what’s behind quantum computing – why it should work and what’s getting in the way. There’s no mention of cats in boxes – dead or alive. For that, see our even briefer explanation below.

Graphic showing brief explanation of Schrodinger's cat

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We go more into depth with Sir Peter Knight, chair of the NPL Quantum Metrology Institute and senior research investigator at Imperial College London, exploring how quantum technology is leaving the lab for real engineering thanks to down to earth applications like scheduling roadworks.

The finance industry is already taking a close interest in quantum computing, finds James Hayes, but with every new technology there are risks as well as opportunities. Security in this case is the worry, with quantum computers posing a fundamental threat to traditional cyber security (p46). We need to use it for good before it’s used for bad.

Soon after the spread of conventional computing, Tim Berners-Lee came up with the idea of the World Wide Web at Cern. So we could expect quantum computers will be networked together in a quantum internet. Experimental physicist Maria Spiropulu explains to Heidi Vella how she wants the international collaborative effort she is leading in this area to be the “Cern of quantum technologies”. And, as Cern is her day job, she should know.

We then go on to look at some of the many exciting applications for quantum computing from radar to expose stealth planes and cryptography to future cars and planes.

Also from the latest issue, we look at the growing threat from pirates hacking containers on the high seas, how climate change could still be turned around if the will was really there, and how car manufacturers are investing in Mobility as a Service with platforms to share vehicles rather than sell them.

In the centenary year of the Women’s Engineering Society, we trace the story of female engineers through the decades and Hilary Lamb interviews Gina Rippon about her new book arguing that men are not from Mars nor women from Venus.

Finally, we return to the stuff of science fiction as our technology editor checks out the new movie ‘High Life’ and its premise of using black holes as an energy source. It doesn’t seem very likely. We can’t even see a black hole. Or so we thought. Just as we were about to go to press came the first ever picture of one, so who knows what the future holds?

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