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Quantum Paradigm Shift

Harnessing the principles of quantum mechanics and shaping the future of technology and industry.

Written by Philip Baker
Quantum scientists working in a lab.

The field of quantum technologies is expected to transform information processing and problem-solving in the coming years as it spurs innovation across a wide range of industries and tackles challenges unprecedented in their complexity.

Based on the foundational principles of quantum mechanics, which govern the behavior of matter at atomic and subatomic scales, quantum computing represents a paradigm shift over classical computing, capable of solving problems previously thought to be permanently out of reach.

Though still in its early stages, the emerging industry around quantum technologies has seen considerable investment in recent years from both the private and public sectors, with over $2 billion invested in quantum technology startups in 2022 alone, while governments have promised to invest $40 billion over the next decade. McKinsey estimates that the principal sectors impacted by quantum computing should expect as much as $2 trillion in gains by 2035. Meanwhile, industry leaders such as IBM and Google, along with a host of innovative startups, are partnering with universities to develop quantum-centric supercomputers and are already offering quantum computing capabilities that are being applied to pharmaceutical research, cybersecurity, financial modeling, climate prediction, and more.

But it’s important not to overstate the level of commercialization that already exists. While there is a growing sense of optimism in scientific and business communities that quantum computing could achieve mainstream adoption by the end of the decade, there are still profound technical challenges that need to be overcome before scalable quantum systems can be reliably built. In fact, many quantum technologies are still in the developmental or experimental stage and require further research and significant investment before they can be commercialized.

And yet, with 72 percent of tech executives, investors, and academics confident that fully functioning quantum computers will be deployed by 2035, there is broad agreement that the time for companies, and even the nation as a whole, to begin scaling up the quantum workforce is now.

72 %

The percentage of tech executives, investors, and academics confident that fully functioning quantum computers will be deployed by 2035.

What Do Quantum Technologies Do Better?

Familiarity with the foundational principles that endow quantum technologies with their unique capabilities is an important first step to grasping their potential, since it’s these distinct (and wildly unintuitive) properties that underpin the significant advantages quantum computers hold over their classical counterparts. One central idea is that while classical computers process information in a linear fashion using bits (zeros and ones), quantum computers use the power of quantum bits, or qubits, which can exist in multiple states simultaneously and represent any combination of both zero and one.

This is what’s called superposition and, along with quantum principles like entanglement and interference, it’s a key part of what allows quantum computers to solve real-world optimization problems that involve vast numbers of possible solutions. As machine learning tasks and cryptographic challenges grow larger, classical computers start to struggle due to their need to evaluate each solution sequentially. Quantum computers, on the other hand, find the optimal solution significantly faster and more efficiently by exploring multiple solutions in parallel.

Again, the mystery behind the workings of these laws can be difficult to overstate, with quantum mechanics pioneer and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman even saying at one point, “I think I can safely say that nobody really understands quantum mechanics.” And yet the theory works and is among the greatest scientific achievements of all time.

But before highlighting some of the specific industries these quantum properties directly impact, it’s worth highlighting a few more of the specific capabilities that emerge from these mind-bending traits of quantum mechanics and give quantum technologies their immense power.

Some Key Foundational Capabilities of Quantum Technologies

First, as  noted, it’s about the speed of computation. Using qubits and quantum-specific algorithms, quantum computers perform computations that exceed the capacity of today’s computers, tasks such as optimizing and simulating enormously complex systems and breaking today’s most sophisticated encryption methods. The latter highlights the importance of quantum cryptography, another foundational capability of quantum technologies, and why the value of these technologies is fully appreciated by governments worldwide that are focused on secrecy and protecting information.

But while quantum methods can outdo today’s best encryption techniques, they also enable a new and far more secure method of encrypted communication called quantum key distribution (QKD). This method leverages the principles of quantum mechanics to facilitate secure communication by enabling two parties to generate a shared, random secret key which is then used to encrypt and decrypt messages and ensure their impenetrability to outside parties. In 2022, scientists with the Chicago Quantum Exchange at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering connected Chicago with labs in the western suburbs via a quantum network, almost doubling what was already one of the nation’s longest quantum networks. Researchers are using it to test devices, protocols, and algorithms for connecting distant quantum computers.

The Chicago quantum network presents researchers with unprecedented opportunities to transmit quantum information in a real-world environment and push the boundaries of what is currently possible with quantum security protocols,” said David Awschalom, a condensed matter experimental physicist at the University of Chicago. “This extension enables scientists from academia, industry, and government labs to collaborate on advancing our fundamental understanding of quantum communication and develop a secure quantum internet.”

Finally, quantum technology facilitates the simulation of systems too complex to simulate on classical computers. Many complex systems in nature, such as molecules and materials, are governed by the laws of quantum mechanics. This leaves today’s computers, limited by their memory and processing power, unable to represent these ultra-complex quantum states. The qubits used by quantum computers, by contrast, could deliver the key to the elusive domain of the unimaginably small.

The Chicago quantum network presents researchers with unprecedented opportunities to transmit quantum information in a real-world environment and push the boundaries of what is currently possible with quantum security protocols.

David Awschalom, Liew Family Professor of Molecular Engineering at UChicago

Which Industries Will Quantum Technologies Impact First?

With this potential to solve currently intractable problems around optimization and simulation, quantum technologies are expected to revolutionize fields where intricate systems and large datasets play dominant roles. While significant advances are initially expected in research, product development, and process optimization, quantum technologies could potentially reconfigure the entire technological and economic landscape as they mature and become more accessible. Some of the industries that are set to reap the greatest short-term benefits include pharmaceuticals, chemicals, finance, and automotive.

In the pharmaceutical industry, quantum computing could significantly impact the research and development of molecular structures and make target identification, drug design, and toxicity testing more efficient and predictable. This could lead to faster R&D timelines and getting products to patients more quickly and efficiently, ultimately improving patients’ quality of life.

By accurately modeling the behavior of materials at the atomic and molecular level, the chemicals industry could use quantum computers to accelerate the identification of promising candidates for new catalysts, batteries, and superconductors. Researchers will be able to use quantum capabilities to simulate chemical reactions that could lead to the design of new materials that more efficiently capture carbon dioxide, thereby mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and promoting a circular green economy.

In financial services, quantum computers could be used for complex financial modeling, risk assessment, and optimization problems. Financial institutions are already exploring the potential of quantum computing in areas such as portfolio optimization, fraud detection, and algorithmic trading.

Quantum computing holds immense potential for the automotive industry as well. In the realm of R&D and product design, for instance, quantum algorithms could revolutionize materials science and expedite the discovery of innovative materials for vehicle components; in manufacturing, quantum computing could optimize processes like robotic welding, gluing, and painting. Beyond the factory floor, quantum-enhanced traffic management systems could minimize congestion and improve road safety by processing vast amounts of real-time data to provide optimal routing solutions.

Overcoming the Quantum Talent Gap

In the coming years, quantum technologies will transform the industries that drive today’s economy. From hardware and software development, financial services, and telecommunications, to consulting, medicine, and logistics, professionals who equip themselves with leading-edge quantum skills will play a pivotal role in bringing this new world into existence.

Today, however, organizations face a significant challenge when it comes to finding the skilled professionals they need to implement these revolutionary technologies. According to McKinsey, just one qualified quantum candidate exists for every three quantum job openings, while by 2025 they expect less than 50 percent of quantum jobs to be filled.

University of Chicago Professional Education’s eight-week online course in Quantum Science, Networking, and Communications was developed as a key educational solution to this talent gap. Uniquely positioned within the nation’s quantum hub and offered by the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and the Chicago Quantum Exchange, the quantum science course provides those with undergraduate or graduate degrees in physics, computer science, engineering, and math the skills they need to break into this high-demand field and shape its dynamically evolving future.

Centered around hands-on experiences, faculty feedback, and simulations, the course allows students to interact directly with advanced quantum technologies and leaders in quantum research from UChicago as they acquire the theoretical and practical fundamentals of quantum computing and communications.

Computer chip on a table.

Become Quantum Ready At UChicago

Join our virtual, seven-week quantum networking and communications course to learn essential skills that will help you lead science into the future.

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