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Mapping the commercial landscape for quantum technologies

As a second generation of quantum devices begins to move out of physics labs and into the marketplace, patent attorney Andrew Fearnside offers a tour through the developing commercial landscape, with a particular focus on how this landscape compares to funding programmes currently under way in the UK and beyond.

Albert Einstein never really reconciled himself to a quantum-mechanical world. “The more success the quantum theory has, the sillier it looks,” he grumbled in 1912. Since then, the theory has nevertheless proved fabulously good as a framework for explaining how the world works at the microscopic level.  However, until quite recently there has been a notable absence of mass-produced consumer technology based on uniquely quantum effects. Whereas past advances in, for example, electromagnetic theory underpinned revolutions in communication technology and power generation — revolutions that have dramatically changed the way we organize our lives and run our societies — we have not yet seen quantum theory do the same.

Of course, one could argue that semiconductor technologies, quantum dots, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) devices, electron microscopes and lasers are all examples of mass-produced quantum technologies. To some extent, that may be true. However, as others have noted (see Physics World May 2012 pp16–17), these “first generation” technologies do not directly harness uniquely quantum phenomena such as superposition, uncertainty or entanglement within individual quantum states to perform a task or achieve a result. Such effects lie, instead, in the realm of so-called “second generation” quantum technologies.

This second generation promises to take us into a new era far beyond today’s familiar digital technology landscape. While quantum technology can encode information into the familiar 0s and 1s of the binary world, it can also encode information as mixed combinations of both a 0 and a 1 simultaneously. This is the qubit, the quantum analogue of the digital bit, and if its counter-intuitive properties can be harnessed, the results will lead to advances in technologies as varied as computing, artificial intelligence, measurement, sensing, timing and imaging — to name just a few. Such advances have the potential to disrupt many sectors of the economy, including not only IT, computing and telecommunications but also engineering, transport, navigation, finance, defence and aerospace. (...) Read More

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