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Quantum theory is starting to be put into practice

24 August 2016 7:21 PM

The story of quantum theory and its applications could be compared to the era of the horse and the arrival of the car.

When the first cars trundled along the roads surrounded by the best in carriage design and refinement and led by the best bred horses, no-one thought it would have much lasting impact.

Quantum applications for the man in the street may look like those early cars.

The launch of a Chinese satellite that will test and demonstrate some of the most peculiar effects of physics has people talking about it again. It marks the next step in mankind's quest to apply the scientific principles that had been predicted and observed over a century ago. These actual applications that could change computing and communications in a similar way cars changed transport.

Moore’s law

For the purposes of this article, Moore’s law represents the incredible progress in fitting transistors onto a piece of silicon. It has resulted in reducing machines the size of rooms to something you can hold in your hand; while also getting faster and more energy efficient.

The prediction was first made in the mid-60s by the head of Intel about their ability to improve the integrated chip (IC). He predicted that it would double in capacity every two years.

In any other field that level of growth would be short-lived, if possible at all, yet in the electronics industry the prediction has not only proved to be correct but lasted for over 40 years. It has allowed for the creation and expansion of the internet, mobile communications and smart devices that have brought about the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

But, the sizes are now getting so small we are approaching the limits of the science it is based on. We now have one of the best horses pulling the finest carriages we are able to build.

Which is why the lumbering new thing appears as unlikely a replacement as the early cars did in the 1900s.

Quantum theory

Light is weird. It can behave in a variety of ways. Scientists noticed it a long time ago but were not sure why. Albert Einstein had a go at answering it and even coined what must be the least scientific sounding term: “Spooky action at a distance”.

A simplification that borders on being laughed at by actual scientists is that energy in the form of particles like photons of light have characteristics that allow them to exist in a variety of states (see Schrödinger's cat), and behave in a probabilistic way (See Max Planck). Those states are only determined when they are observed and the observation allows you to make determinations about particles that are entangled with it (Spooky action at a distance).


The ability to be in multiple states - or even places - is part of what is described as the superposition. This is useful in computing when all information is reduced to a state of zero or one represented by an on or off state of a transistor. Quantum particles can be both zeroes and ones at the same time and only show which state when observed. This allows for a quantum computer to perform certain operations far quicker and with less resources than conventional computer models.


When particles are created at the same time, they will retain a relationship with the other particles with which it is entangled even when the particles are separated by a large distance.

If a transistor is set to be on, it will remain that way until it is changed. This is a deterministic method of setting the state of the transistor. In quantum theory those states are probabilistic because a particle occurs in multiple states at the same time and only when observed takes on a set state.

The Chinese satellite, and the scientists that will be doing research with it, will not only get to further confirm the theories about how quantum theory works, but they will also be testing the properties of entanglement to make communications more secure.

Currently, an encrypted message consists of a message, a public key and a private key. The message and the public key are transmitted to the receiver where the private key is used to decrypt the message.

Computers can attempt to crack the code that the private key contains of a message that is intercepted. Using a key generated by a quantum entangled particle will prevent someone other than the intended person using the key as only the people with the entangled particle can use the key. Should someone else use it, the system will tell all the others that the key was used.

This is far more complex that this article seeks to explain. However, given the growing dependence on having all our information not only made digital, but stored in the cloud, systems that would protect that information are critical. Getting there will be thanks to the research by governments looking to protect their communications and data.

Computing abilities will improve along side this; allowing for very complex problems to be solved and possibly even redefine how our electronics of the future will operate.

Right now it may not seem that way, but it is likely that cars looked the same to someone riding a fine horse over 100 years ago.

While not a Chinese curse, it certainly seems fair to say we are living in interesting times.

24 August 2016 7:21 PM

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