If Max Planck was the father of quantum physics, Juan Ignacio Cirac laid the theoretical foundations for its application to computing. It is the idélogo of the quantum computer. Cirac is physical. He was the youngest person to receive the Prince of Asturias Award for Science for being, according to the jury, "an international reference that has produced some of the most original and brilliant ideas both in the field of quantum information and in physics. atomic".
Since 2001 he lives in Germany where he directs the Theoretical Division of the Max-Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching. We speak with him from his office in Munich, although the next day 25 will be in Madrid to close the plenary session of Retina LTD, the event organized by EL PAÍS RETINA in which experts from around the world will present the latest trends in innovation and technology.
Let's start strong, is quantum computing another of those "revolutions" that will change the world?
Quantum computing is a new way of doing calculations with computers, very different from the way we use them nowadays and that gives us new possibilities. It will increase the processing capacity and allow us to perform mathematical operations that were previously impossible. But it is important to understand two important aspects in your evolution. On the one hand, we already know that a quantum computer will mean a substantial improvement in the operational capacity to solve problems in very specific areas, but these areas are not infinite and we can not expect this new form of computing to apply to any problem. On the other hand these computers will take to arrive. Large companies such as Google IBM or Alibaba already have prototypes and great progress has been made but that's what they are, prototypes, and until these evolve into systems that we can use, it will take 10 or 15 years. That is why we must discard that idea that often appears in the press that quantum computers are just around the corner and will be able to solve all the problems of humanity.
Next October 25, at the Nouvel Auditoriums of the Reina Sofía Museum, a new edition of Retina LTD will take place, bringing together some of the most influential leaders from different sectors and with the participation of executives and CEOs, who will debate and share his experiences throughout the day.
The event will be divided into two sessions. In the morning session, there will be a tour of the hands of leading professionals from leading global companies in the different spheres of digital disruption that impact on organizations: strategy, organization and technology. In the afternoon session, there will be different rooms with parallel contents, segmented by roles and aimed at professionals in technology, marketing, human resources and legal departments
In short, that neither so much nor so soon … but in those specific areas, what improvements can we expect in terms of process capacity?
It will depend a lot on the scope of application. For example, in some calculations, such as factoring, the improvement will be exponential. Calculations that with a current computer would take to realize the whole age of the universe can be done in minutes. However, in other areas, the gains, being very important, will not be exponential but linear, as is the case with searches of databases. That yes the economic impact of these reduction in the search time can be very high.
But the advance is not limited to the processing capacity. We are in the second quantum revolution that goes beyond computing and computers. Quantum physics has application in communications, allows to design new sensors and develop methods of precision measurement. In a few years we will have these quantum technologies in our mobiles. One of the most immediate applications is in the area of security. The quantum technologies allow to encrypt messages that can not be decrypted with any other technology, which could suppose a great advance in the fight against the cybercrime. Today there are already companies marketing this type of applications and countries like Korea have already made small deployments. They are quantum technologies that are at a higher level of development than computers at this time.
You spoke before data, which connects us to other major trends of the moment such as Big Data or artificial intelligence that will be central themes of RetinaLTD. How does quantum computing interact with these trends?
It seems that one of the fields of application of quantum computing that we talked about before will be artificial intelligence and data processing, which is basically what algorithms do, analyze large amounts of data to make decisions. We are not yet completely sure, but most scientists and companies agree that quantum computers will accelerate artificial intelligence algorithms and machine learning and they will open new doors and use cases. In fact there is a very large interaction between people who are developing quantum technologies and data scientists and researchers working with artificial intelligence. The algorithms of artificial intelligence are one of the first cases of use of quantum computers, but in turn algorithms are used to improve the design of these computers so they are two fields that are fed back.
Europe has led scientific research in quantum technology for more than 20 years, but it is true that in these last two or three United States is gaining us in its development industry
In the case of artificial intelligence, there is talk of a geographically polarized revolution. Large investments and advances are concentrated in the United States and China and the rest of the world seems to be far behind. Does something similar happen with quantum technology?
I would say that Europe has led scientific research in quantum technology for more than 20 years, but it is true that in these last two or three United States it is winning us in its industrial development. Their companies, with large investments, have made significant progress. If you look at companies that are developing quantum computers, half are American and half Chinese. In Europe there are practically none. We are talking about trends that will undoubtedly have an economic impact, and European states should strategically consider the role that quantum technologies or artificial intelligence can play in the digitalization of their economy.
This dissonance between scientific research and its business development is often cited as one of the major deficits of the European model. Do you think that the technological transfer between research and business is a pending issue in our continent?
I think that in general, the United States or Japan are much more advanced in this area. But I see exceptions, in Germany, where I live, companies such as Siemens or Infineon are examples of success. The automotive sector is a benchmark. Brands like BMW have big agreements with universities; Many engineering departments here in Munich are financed by companies in the automotive sector and the connection with the research is excellent. Perhaps the main difference with the United States is that only large companies here embark on this type of project when there companies of all sizes have R & D resources and are linked to scientific research. Despite this in Europe we already have interesting cases: in Geneva a company that develops security solutions with quantum technologies already has more than 200 employees and its benefits exceed one million euros.
It seems an interesting moment for researchers with still a multitude of open questions …
Undoubtedly, for researchers this uncertainty creates a very interesting moment. Maybe it is not so much for companies, especially for the small ones that it costs to get financing for projects that will not have a return for 10 or 15 years. Probably the way for them is not to build quantum computers but to look for applications of these to your business.