An upcoming technological revolution based on a 100-year old, but still not broadly understood physics – The second generation of quantum technologies
100 years ago, physicists were finally ready to tackle a question that goes back to ancient times: „Detect the inmost force which binds the world, and guides its course”. It was the very question about the smallest fundamental particles from which everything is made. At the end of this phase, around the year 1925, stood two revolutionary theories, one more bizarre than the other, which for most non-physicists today appear as the epitome of the incomprehensible: the, “theory of relativity” and “quantum mechanics”. They constituted the new and to this day persisting foundation of modern physics.
Had classical physics been well understood also by non-physicists, especially quantum theory swept off the metaphysical ground under both, physicists’ and non-physicists’,feet. The essence of quantum objects with their observation-dependent properties such as wave-particle duality, superposition, timeless decay of the wave functions, and entanglement were difficult to consolidate with philosophical concepts and metaphysical ideas of Platonic-Aristotelian dominated Western thinking. And still, 100 years after its formation, quantum physics still contains plenty of confusion, incomprehensibility,and stuff for discussion among non-physicists, who today still struggle to understand the notions and perceptions of this fundamental theory of modern physics.
At the same time one can readily assert that quantum theory represents the most influential theory of the 20th century. Had Newtonian mechanics and the theory of gases in the early 18th century marked the Age of Enlightenment and served as the foundation of the first industrial revolution, had the electromagnetic theory led to the electricalage and therefore the second industrial revolution in the late 19th century, quantum theory in the 20th century was the starting point of the third technological industrial revolution, which continues to this day. The entire range of digital technologies depends on it with things like computers, laser, mobile phone, satellite, television, radio, as well as modern chemistry and many other popular technologies that have shaped our modern life, not to mention nuclear technology: the very first industrial application of the new quantum theory was at the same time the most terrible military weapon ever used in warfare: the atomic bomb.
We are thus witnessing a strange dichotomy today: Large sections of society, including many of its social, economic and political decision-makers and power holders have little or no knowledge about the fundamentals of quantum physics. Owing to its mathematical complexity high school physics classes can only treat it superficially.Quite a few people react with unease or even rejection to its bizarre features (as well as scary technological powers – which so unfortunately found its first expression in the nuclear bomb), and often quantum physics sees itself abused by esoteric quackery. And yet we trust the laws of quantum physics every day, when we get into a car, use the computer or communicate through our phones.
And we must realize: By no means has quantum physics seen its technological potential exhausted yet. On the contrary, we regularly witness surprises and news in its field, and in regular intervals we experience new technological applications, which are based on quantum effects. Examples are the 1986 discovery of high-temperature superconductors (Nobel Prize 1987), the Quantum Hall Effect,also discovered in the 1980’s, respectively 1990’s (Nobel Prize 1987 and 1998), LED light (Nobel prize 2014), the only recently developed technologies of quantum cryptology, which rely specifically on the quantum physical phenomenon of entanglement (Nobel Prize 2012), or the new „miracle substances“ such as „graphene“ (Nobel Prize 2010), on which a possible future of significantly more powerful electronics could rest.
Just these days physicists succeeded in setting a new record in “quantum teleportation”: A team of National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) teleported quantum information through fiber optics over 100 kilometers, which reflects the increased practicality of ultrafast and tap-proofcomputer networks by means of quantum transport and could potentially yield to something like a ‘quantum internet’. The basis of this technology is that two quantum particles (such as photons) can be entangled into a common quantum physical state, but can subsequently be separated without destroying the joint state. One of the photons is then sent to the receiver, the other in the transmitter is superimposed with information to be teleported. By the laws of quantum physics this will automatically change the condition of the distant photon. In this way, the desired information is transmitted.
So after semiconductor technology, laser, satellite navigation and nuclear technology in the years 1940-1980 a second generation of quantum technologies has been shaping since the 1980s which is basedonmulti particle quantum effects , the control of entire quantum systems, and the explicit usage of quantum particle entanglement. Furthermore, a vision that has already been expressed by Richard Feynman in 1959 is taking shape, that it should be technically possible to manipulate individual atoms. Today, we refer to this development as ‘nanotechnology’, and many techno-advocatesdeclare it as one of the most exciting emerging technologies. And at last there is the electrifying vision of a so-called ‚quantum computer‘, which instead of processing information bit by bit like the classical computer calculates on numerous quantum states, so-called ‘quantum bits’,in parallel. With its help, we could solve problems in physics, biology, weather research, and elsewhere which are still way too complex for today’s‘supercomputer’
Do most people still struggle with the epistemological and philosophical tenets of quantum physics, we should pay equally great attention to its remaining unprecedented revolutionary technological potential. We should thus recognize: Understanding the new quantum technologies enables us to take a look into the distance. Into a future that we may soon be experiencing.