After the brain (The Human Brain Project), after the graphene (Graphene Flagship), it is now the turn of quantum technologies. On Monday, October 29, Europe launched in Vienna its third “FET Flagship” (English acronym for “Emerging Technologies of the Future”), the name of these huge scientific research projects with an industrial and strategic calling and above all equipped with a billion euros over ten years, mainly funded by the European Commission and the Member States.
The initiative was launched in the spring of 2016. About 140 proposals later, 20 were selected in five areas, from cryptography to quantum computers. The winning teams – including two Swiss – and their 5,000 researchers will share 130 million over the next three years. During the second round of 2021, the most promising in terms of technology transfer to the industrial world will receive the rest of the jackpot, that is, 870 million euros. This is one of the main purposes of these mega-projects: to accelerate the transition from laboratories to commercial applications.
Quantum, a strategic program
With such an arsenal, Europe aims to place itself at the top of the curve in terms of quantum technologies. Not that it really lags behind: historical research country in this field, it has a large pool of excellent, highly qualified researchers. But its main competitors, China and the United States, have gone completely out in recent years by making quantum one of the priority programs.
The Central Kingdom has invested heavily, with probably more than 10 billion kroner, and demonstrated its mastery of the subject on several occasions, for example by building an embryonic quantum internet between Shanghai and Beijing or by managing to establish communication this year between a satellite and Earth, a first hitherto reserved for experiments on earth.
A cousin project in the United States
Across the Atlantic, the sector is booming and has taken an entrepreneurial lead with about 70 start-ups investing in the field, well over half of which in less than two years. The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives must approve the National Quantum Initiative Act, a 1.2 billion cousin project of the European flagship. Without forgetting that the giants like Google or IBM on each side have injected about as much internally.
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If the great powers sharpen their weapons, it is because quantum science is on the threshold of the “second quantum revolution”. The first, inextricably linked to miniaturization, arose when scientists understood the physical phenomena that took place on the smallest scales, at the atomic level. It is, for example, by studying the behavior of electrons in a semiconductor that they have been able to produce increasingly efficient microprocessors. Or by deciphering which of the photons the lasers saw light.
Entanglement and teleportation
However, these devices do not utilize the most exciting and counterintuitive aspects of quantum physics, such as superposition, entanglement, or even teleportation. The second quantum revolution will occur when science masters such phenomena that will allow the development of ultra-secure communication systems and quantum computers with computer capacities billions of times larger than current supercomputers.
Among the winning projects, two will be piloted from Switzerland. The first, Qrange, is based at the Department of Applied Physics at the University of Geneva (Unige) and brings together nine partners from five countries. It is endowed with 2 million euros. Its purpose is to develop random number generators. Applications range from cryptography to generating lottery passwords.
The second is primarily reminiscent of researchers trying to compete with hairdressers when it comes to naming their projects. MacQsimal (pronounced “maximum”) is a project led by the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM). Specializing in sensors, the Neuchâtel cluster proposes to develop them to support future quantum devices.
Let’s take the example of time: current miniature references measure it mechanically and linearly, for example with a quartz crystal whose vibrations are impeccably regular. “With an atomic clock (quantum), we are sure to achieve a fundamentally correct and above all stable measurement of time,” explains Jacques Haesler, systems project manager at CSEM and coordinator for macQsimal.
At the heart of these clocks are so-called alkaline vapor cells, in which a few rubidium atoms are trapped, whose “vibrations” can be measured and a measurement of time is derived therefrom. Applications for such thumbnails already exist.
The United States developed it on a trial basis in the early 2000s to develop a GPS-independent navigation system for its soldiers. In Europe, there are none yet, says Jacques Haesler, but macQsimal should make them available to the public in mobile phones or satellite receivers. With 14 partners from academia and industry, and CSEM’s know-how in terms of technology transfer between the two worlds, the choice of macQsimal among the winners of the European Flagship is hardly surprising.
A bottom-up approach
This point will be crucial for quantum technologies to gain momentum in Europe, says Clément Javerzac-Galy, of the Photonics and Quantum Measurements Laboratory at the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne: “There are many fundamental aspects of quantum physics that will be explored. It is essential, but we must not forget that things in the United States are moving forward on both fronts, scientific and industrial, but Europe is further behind on this point.
Nicolas Gisin, Geneva’s pioneer in quantum technology research, expressed his “great satisfaction” he, who is retiring next summer. “I hope the university appoints a compatible successor who can continue this positive momentum,” he added.
A billion is an order of magnitude below what China has put on the table. But it is brightening the European horizon. Provided it remains effective: the Commission does not want to repeat the failure of the Human Brain Project, the management of which has been criticized by many scientists and whose CEO resigned this summer.
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It has also visibly changed its tune in this regard by allocating the funds not to a consortium responsible for redistributing the money, but by rewarding international projects that have previously been evaluated by peers. We will not be long in verifying whether this “bottom-up” approach to the infinitely small will bear fruit.
“To generate really random numbers, you have to rely on quantum physics”
Qrange, one of the projects piloted from Switzerland (University of Geneva), received 2 million euros. Its coordinator, the physicist Hugo Zbinden, suggests the problems.
Le Temps: You will coordinate Qrange, a project selected for the flagship of quantum technology. What is it about?
Hugo Zbinden: Qrange aims to develop new quantum random number generators.
My computer already knows how to do this, right?
Yes, but with some limitations. There are several methods for generating random numbers. One of them relies on algorithms that generate so-called pseudo-random numbers. As their name suggests, they only give numbers whose randomness is relative because they are predictable: if someone knows part of the order, then they can “guess” the digits that are then drawn by drawing lots.
I just wanted to play the lottery. Can I guess the numbers that will fall?
Yes, that’s why you can not use pseudo-random numbers for a lottery. Algorithms are not the only option: there are also generators based on concrete physical phenomena, such as movements of the user’s mouse. But in this case, we are never 100% sure that the results are really due to coincidences. For a dice game or to start a random playlist, of course, it’s more than enough, but for more delicate applications, you have to rely on quantum physics.
There are inherently random quantum phenomena in nature. Consider a photon, the particle that makes up the light. Place a semi-reflective mirror, that is, which returns only half of the photons. Whether a photon is reflected or not is completely random. Quantum generators are based on the kind of phenomena that occur at the level of atoms and particles.
Do such instruments already exist?
Yes, some are even marketed, like those from the company ID Quantique in Geneva (where Hugo Zbinden is one of the co-founders, editor’s note). But the ones we want to manufacture are being miniaturized so that they can be integrated into a smartphone chip. They will be used to secure a payment on the internet for example.
We are also going to work on increasing their throughput so that they generate a very large number of digits per second, in the order of 10 gigabit data per second. Finally, we want them to be able to self-test to tell us if certain factors have distorted the true randomness of the building. This is therefore a different “generation of generators”.
Interview by Fabien Goubet