Alpine Quantum Technologies: Selling Quantum to the masses

By: Richard Wordsworth, Contributing Writer

Listening to him talk, Thomas Monz from the University of Innsbruck could be talking about any co-working space in the world. At the Austrian Academy of Sciences, he describes researchers milling around a giant coffee table, sitting down with contemporaries from different fields, sparking ideas off each other and trading insights. When he mentions the number of Nobel Laureates who would sit round that table, it sounds almost like an afterthought. When I press him for names, he haltingly compiles a list of names on the fly.

“I met Dave Wineland, who got his Nobel Prize for controlling atoms with light,” Monz says, after a pause. “I met John Hall, who got his Nobel Prize for work in precision spectroscopy. Serge Haroche from Paris. Hmm. Who else did we meet…”

There’s a pause. Then another name clicks.

“Ah! We were trying, but in the end it didn’t work out, to work with Steve Chu. He was Energy Secretary under Obama, and won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997. And Theo Haensch! Who also won a Nobel Prize for laser spectroscopy, in Munich… You’d be sitting in the lab and one of those guys will just come in and start poking holes in your project. ‘How does it work?’ ‘How do you control it?’ ‘Why don’t you do it this way?’ That’s usually the most dangerous question. But then you think, ‘Hmm, that’s actually a good question; we hadn’t thought of that.’”

This collaborative, amiably competitive environment, in which world-leading quantum physicists queued for coffee with young researchers would be the foundation for Alpine Quantum Technologies - the company Monz would go on to co-found in Innsbruck in early 2018. The company, Monz explains, has two focuses: to develop modular devices for quantum research and entire systems such as an ion-trap quantum computer.

“With quantum, what we currently see from discussions with customers and partners is that there is a lot of interest in particular in chemistry,” he says. “Think about what happened a couple of years ago when phone batteries were starting to explode. That was happening with batteries in small cell phones. Now imagine you’re buying your new electric car. It’s the same thing: just way, way, way larger. How do you make sure that if you have an accident your battery doesn’t explode underneath your seat?

“So there is a lot of interest from people who say, ‘We want to store more and more energy in smaller and smaller batteries’. Essentially it’s like an electronic bomb. There are tonnes of videos on YouTube where you can see people stabbing batteries and they go up in flames. You want to make sure that if you have a car accident that doesn’t happen. It’s a chemical process: the only difference between something exploding and something just slowly burning is the rate at which it happens. If it’s really slow, then you just have a little bit of smoke; if it’s really fast it explodes.”

In such a relatively nascent field, it’s not surprising when CEOs or researchers at quantum computing companies are cagey about giving example applications for their technologies. But Monz seems more than happy to talk hypotheticals. Materials design, like drug design, is a research area that would be transformed by quantum computing - there are so many possibilities that Monz jumps from one idea to another just in the field of energy storage without prompting.

“I’m just throwing out an idea,” he continues. “Imagine you had a little solar panel on your phone, so when you’re sitting in your office next to your window the solar panel would start to charge it. What you could then ask is, well, why is it charging so slowly? And that’s simply because photoelectronics and the processes that we have are highly inefficient. But if you think about what goes on with photosynthesis in a tree, those processes are very efficient. So you might think, ‘Maybe I can integrate something into my phone so that it charges while it’s just laying in the sun.’ The next question you could ask is - and this brings us back to quantum computers - why does a phone use so much power? Rework that question: given the energy that you have, how can you make it last longer? What’s draining so much power?”

As I listen, it’s clear that Monz isn’t just tossing out hypothetical questions waiting to be solved. He’s laying out a string of questions and answers: the challenges that exist today with classical computing and the solutions that quantum computing could provide. He’s energized: excited to explain the possibilities.

“Essentially it’s the ohmic resistance,” he continues, answering his own question. “Whenever your phone does a calculation, it uses a tiny bit of energy. Part of that energy is the calculation - looking up something on the internet, for example - but part of it is also the friction of the electrons in your wires. So you could ask, ‘Can we have something which has notably less friction?’ And that brings us into the domain of superconductivity - materials without any ohmic resistance. 

“These materials exist - but usually they need to be run at temperatures of -200°C. Now imagine we find such a material that we can use at room temperature. If we could, then, for example, your computer chips wouldn’t get hot anymore. That’s one of the biggest limitations for classical computers to become faster: they essentially burn if you try to overclock them too far. So maybe your battery would still have the same storage, but now the processors need notably less power to operate. Superconductivity at room temperature is something you can investigate with quantum computers. 

“That wouldn’t just be interesting for a cell phone, but also if you think about power distribution, where people say, ‘If we manage to find something that is superconducting at room temperature, then all these losses from the power plant to the end consumer - and we’re talking about a couple of percent, worldwide, power-loss from producer to end-user - this percentage would be gone. So that could mean either you pay less for your electricity, or we have more of it available. It gives you an idea of where quantum computing could go in terms of energy-related issues on a global scale.”

Superconducting circuits are, as Monz notes, in use today already - notably by other companies and research institutions using them to develop their own prototype quantum computers. At AQT, however, Monz and his co-founders are pursuing a trapped-ion architecture. When I ask him why, he tells me the answer is simple.

"If you’ve ever done a tour of a lab with a superconducting quantum computer, you’ll have noticed these sort of ‘oil barrel’ hanging from the ceiling making a ‘tchk, tchk, tchk’ sound. That’s the compressor, running with helium, because it needs to be cold. Our trapped ion project is room temperature. So, besides the vacuum can which is closed, the entire device is standing in a normal office and you can touch all the components and nothing is going to freeze or do anything to you. We are still working on the prototype, but it seems like we can run the entire quantum computer from a normal power plug in the wall. And the next thing is: because the power consumption is low and it works at room temperature, it’s easy to envision our device as being mobile.”

There’s a nice, practical throughline to everything Monz says. The examples he gives are easily marketable solutions to simple consumer problems: whether that’s phones that recharge themselves while you work, electric car batteries that won’t explode in a crash, or even a quantum computer that doesn’t need impossibly cold temperatures to operate. They’re ideas with intuitive appeal, with value that doesn’t depend on an understanding of how quantum computing works. It’s reminiscent of the ‘e-mail moment’ - arguably the point at which the internet as-was went from an academic or military curio to a global communications network with mass appeal. Quantum computing will have a similar moment, Monz predicts, but it will be more generalized and less immediately obvious: a hand-off from classical to quantum computers that will benefit the public from the cloud.

“E-mail was really good, simple, fast communication - that’s why e-mail replaced the normal letter from the post office,” he says. “Does quantum computing help you write nicer e-mails? No it doesn’t. What a quantum computer, or quantum technology in general, can do is make sure that if you send an e-mail to your CEO, your president or whoever, no-one can listen in on your communication. This is something that people might want to have. A quantum computer won’t be the thing that helps you write e-mails, it won’t be the thing to let you watch a video - almost everything that you see today, there is very little that it helps. I think what it will do is a lot behind the scenes.”

Naturally, Monz has examples. The first uses of quantum computers targeted at consumers might just be improvements in services to which they’re already accustomed. 

“A quantum computer is thought to be good at recommendation systems,” he says, by way of an example. “If you log in with Amazon and it looks at your three last purchases and gives you a recommendation of what you might buy next, this is mathematically not simple. Quantum computers can do that.

“Or, say you’re in London and you want to go to Heathrow. You’re in your usual traffic jam and ask, ‘Which road should I take? The quantum solution would take all other cars into account: where they are and where they’re going. It would account for whether there are repairs on certain streets. These calculations are really hard to do, and a quantum computer could do that, too.”

Eventually, as connection speeds improve and more and more processing is parcelled off to cloud-accessible quantum computers, the idea of owning your own powerful devices could change altogether.

“We’re putting more and more stuff in the cloud,” Monz says. ”We have our e-mails in the cloud, more and more people use Google’s tools in the cloud. The same happens with Apple. So, do you really have to have all those programs, all those processors, all that calculation power on your smartphone? If you have a sufficiently fast internet, everything could be on the cloud including quantum computers. If you have a question that can be addressed better in one way or another, then some smart device will make the decision to send your question to a quantum computer [instead of] a classical one and give you the answer. You won’t really see which device is doing what. Think about your personal computer. Do you really buy your computer because it has an Intel chip or an AMD chip? You just want it to work - you don’t care too much about hardware anymore.”

When these benefits of quantum computing begin to trickle down to the masses is less certain. As Monz explains, the big questions in quantum computing today pertain to making them work and are highly technical. As he says, “most people don’t wander around in the street during lunch breaks thinking about how they can solve superconductivity.” But he’s willing to hazard a guess at where the first upheavals will be.

“That quantum computing ‘app moment’ is a bit further away,” he says. “But for communication, I think that’s happening already, or will do within the next couple of years. Simulation will probably come later. But I’m not sure what the ‘common man’s’ app will be. I think it will be something that isn’t obvious. Something where a computer helps you - but you might not notice that it’s a quantum computer in the background.”

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