Quantum physics not only explains how matter behaves at the subatomic level, but is also used to create many devices in our everyday lives, from lasers and transistors to GPS and mobile phones. The next wave of innovation could lead to unbreakable encryption and computers that are up to one million times faster. On 6 April, Parliament's Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) unit organised a workshop to discuss with experts the potential of these new quantum technologies.
Exploiting the quirks of the quantum world
Quantum theory looks at matter at the subatomic level - down to electrons. And that behaviour, compared to our everyday world, is very strange. For example, an electron can be in different places at the same time, a phenomenon known as superposition. Or it can interact with another particle at a large distance thanks to an effect called "entanglement".
Scientists and engineers are making use of this "weirdness" of the quantum world to develop cutting-edge technologies such as computers up to one million times faster than today or super-accurate clocks and extremely precise sensors.
Using the ability of subatomic particles to be in different states simultaneously, engineers are trying to build a quantum computer that processes information encoded in "qubits". Compared to classical bits (either 1 or 0), "qubits" can also be 1 and 0 at the same time. This allows the computer to carry out "parallel" computations and so increases its speed exponentially.
Opportunities for creating new technologies
The workshop on 6 April looked at how companies could make use of quantum physics to develop new technologies. Opening the workshop, STOA chair Paul Rübig, an Austrian member of the EPP group, said: "Quantum technologies also pave the way for more secure communications through potentially unbreakable cryptography."
However, the commercial exploitation of quantum mechanics is still limited, warned Günther Oettinger, commissioner for digital economy and society. "Timing is essential in this endeavour, as our competitors will not wait."
French physicist Alain Aspect called on European politicians to better fund scientists. "If not, we will no longer be able to compete in the top league," he said. "Part of this money must serve to create more partnerships with industry."
Cora van Nieuwenhuizen, a Dutch member of the ALDE group, said: "We want to establish a chain of knowledge combining academy, industry and policy makers."
Leo Kouwenhoven, from the QuTech Institute at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, said that quantum computing would not only be much faster, but also consume less energy than classic computers. "Already today, the energy consumption by IT world-wide is about 10% of the electrical bill."
Aspect added: "I don't know if it will take 35 years or even 25 years to build a quantum computer, but we have to know that when physics tells us that it is in principle possible, it is in fact possible."