Creating the Future: Prof Séamus Davis on the potential of quantum technology

Creating the Future: Prof Séamus Davis on the potential of quantum technology

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Prof Seamus Davis, thanks very much for being  with us today. You're a leading authority on   quantum physics, you're a professor of quantum  physics at UCC, you're a professor of physics   at Oxford and Cornell also I believe. In March,  you were awarded the prestigious Buckley Prize   in the US recognising your ground-breaking  work on the quantum microscope. It's an award   previously won by 18 Nobel Prize winners so  you're in very impressive company indeed.   So there's much for us to talk about today but just before we get into the intriguing   and complicated world of quantum I'd  love for our readers and our audience   to hear a little bit about your journey. I believe are you originally from West Cork?

Yeah I'm from Skibbereen in West Cork,  born and bred. I went to high school there,   De La Salle, and there was a great physics  and maths teacher there. Institute of Physics   prize-winning teacher and I learned my physics and  maths and my love of those subjects from him. Liam   Donovan is his name and I met him two weeks ago  he's still hale and hearty so he's a great guy.   From there I went to UCC and they had a fantastic  physics program in the early 1980s. It was both  

superb and notorious at the same time  because it was extremely difficult   but many physicists distinguished on the world stage were educated in that programme. From there I went to Berkeley as a graduate  student to do my PhD and I did a fairly good job After a while they hired me as a professor so  I stayed in Berkeley for about 20 years. 10 as a professor and 10 previously. Then moved to  Cornell for about 20 years. Then I wanted to

come home so UCC and Oxford very generously with  a great deal of help from SFI arranged for a   joint appointment. It's a very interesting joint appointment. I don't have two research groups. I have one research group and the members who work  in Cork spend much of their time working in Oxford   and the members in Oxford spend their time working  in Cork so it really is an international research and that's been great fun. That's how I got here.  >> Tell me a little bit about today and before we get into your actual research, I'd love to  just get your take a little bit on quantum and you know how you would describe quantum - I  know this is a very big question - and I suppose most interestingly the potential for quantum  and how it could change how we do everything.

So there's many many things one could say  about that. First of all you know what is   quantum? That's like saying "What is God?" There is no answer to that question. You could say "What is quantum theory?" Quantum  theory now is a 100 year old theory, the centenary   will be in three years I think, and it's the  best theory of fundamental physics ever achieved. It's a pinnacle achievement of the human race  and although none of us realise it, much of our civilisation depends on our control of quantum  mechanics. Already it's critically important. So that's kind of the background of quantum  mechanics. Now what a lot of people are talking about now when they say quantum  is quantum technology. Quantum technology

is only coming into the frame now. It's only just  beginning to grow rapidly now, making new devices   that use the special properties of quantum  mechanics to do things better than and faster   than they could ever have been done before. But there's a classic case that many of us   know about where quantum technology has already  been working for 20 or 30 years which is MRI. Magnetic Resonance Imaging is a purely quantum  mechanical process. The whole thing is quantum  

mechanical and it works beautifully of course. And then finally quantum computing. The great   focus is on quantum computing because at  least on paper quantum computing will render semiconductor-based classical computing it may not  make it obsolete but for the really super power  tasks quantum computing can already do better  than it and it's only in its first few years. So all these huge corporations are investing  hundreds of billions of euros in the race to   build economically viable quantum computers  and there are already some on the market.  I mean how far away are we from, in your view,  it being accessible to you know the multitudes.

So quantum computing has already been  accessible to scientists for about five   years and in the last two years something  like it does in major physics discoveries   have been made by using quantum computers. So  in terms of functionality they already exist   and if you had €15m you can buy one and put it  in your home that's about how much they cost   now you know the reason why we can use  silicon-based devices is that they can   they're cheap, they're mass produced and  they work at room temperature, whereas  more or less all commercial quantum computers  at the moment operate at ultra-low temperature.  So one of the things we work on very hard and the  commercial computers are superconducting quantum   computers. To make them work at room temperature  we need a room temperature superconductor so in  

the quantum materials community there's a race  all over the world to make room temperature   superconductivity so we can make room temperature  quantum computers. If we could achieve that target   then we would end up with superconducting  iPads, I don't know 10-20 years down the   line. If you start your clock in the day when you have a room temperature superconductor  it won't be long. >> Incredible. to think because the temperature... >> It's just cryogenics which is limiting it now.

It isn't a   quantum computer. Quantum computing works. >> Anyway do you see a space where you could almost have quantum computing as a service  where you have access through software. So I'm old enough to remember when classical  computing was a service you know, big giant   IBM computers, there was just a few in Ireland. There was one in UCC when I was going to college  

but those days passed away very fast. The rate  of innovation is so fast now that if we had   the right quantum materials we probably would end up with quantum laptops in a short time. Fascinating to think it could be as soon as that! >> It didn't take long. Casio watches and calculators to where we  are now so we we will do the same thing again with quantum technology >> Incredible to think of it. I   mean it it could change literally  how we research the environment ,  how we look at health >> So there are many problems which are provably not solvable by using a classical computer.

You know within the life of the  sun or something. For example,   predicting the climate accurately in the future. It's completely impossible now but if quantum   computers are said to be billions of times  faster problems like that would come within the   range of tractability. Or you know designing new  biomolecules new proteins for example for health. You can't do that with a classical computer  but you could with a quantum computer.

Discovering new materials? Same thing. So on paper they're a fantastic opportunity. And in that context tell us a little bit I  mean the Buckley Prize was partly awarded   for your work on the microscope in the basement in Cork. So tell us about   this basement in Cork! >> The semiconductors   in our present computers, telephones, iPads they were discovered in 1833 by Michael Faraday. The fact that they had electrons in them wasn't  discovered until, by Thompson, until 1898.   The fact that the electrons were quantum  mechanical wasn't discovered until the early 1930s   by Black and his colleagues, and the fact that  you could make devices wasn't discovered until   the early 1950s by Shockley and Bardeen, and so  on. So, in order to get these wonderful devices,   it actually took almost 150 years of  fundamental research. Right now, if we  

want to have quantum technology in the future,  we have to have macroscopic quantum materials   which have the properties that are necessary  for that technology to work. So right now,   there's a race all over the world in the study  of quantum materials of different types. We're   looking for high-temperature superconductors;  we're looking for special topological insulators;   we're looking for monopole materials,  all kinds of exotic materials. Okay, so now you're searching  for new quantum materials   of a type which have no precedent. So how  would you know, right? Suppose I said, "Well,   that looks like a topological superconductor to  me." Well, how would you know? We have no way  

of knowing. So the other side of the coin is we  have to invent the instruments which allow us to   interrogate the physics to determine the state of  the material. And we do a lot of that, developing   specialized new quantum instruments,  which, you know, given a new material,   we can visualize the quantum mechanical electronic  structure at the atomic scale. And sometimes,   we can diagnose within a day how these  materials work. So the development of   these very exotic quantum microscopes is a piece  of the jigsaw of developing quantum materials,   which is a piece of the jigsaw of developing  quantum technology. That's how it fits together,   and it's kind of amazing that we have this here  in Ireland, down in UCC. They're amazing to me.  

It's not amazing to you, but am I right that  there are only six in the world? There are only   a few machines of this type in the world. Two of  these types of machines, you know, were developed   by my research teams over the last years. That's  what the Buckley prize was for. But it's wonderful   to have that coming out of Ireland. I see the  students; they have a wonderful... I can imagine.   I can. I'll have to come and visit actually  sometime. I'd love to. I'd love to see it. Tell me a little bit more, then, about the team  and how it works across internationally. I'd  

love to hear a little bit more about the  people who are working on it as well. So,   again, in the context of exploring  these very exotic materials,   um, there are very few commercial instruments  that can perform the necessary experiments.   Even in Oxford or Cornell, you still don't  have a complete suite of instruments. However,  

in our own research program, which is quite  extensive, we have numerous international senior   scientists as collaborators. We have different  specialized instruments in various labs. When a   specific research campaign is underway, students  from one lab will go to other labs as needed to   conduct the relevant experiments. Initially,  it was a bit of a guess whether this approach   would work, but now we know that it does work.  In the modern world, there's no difficulty with   that. It's incredible. And, you know, as you say,  it's no big deal to you because it's what you do.   It's your job. Exactly. Tell me a bit about  Ireland on the global stage. I mean, we're a  

small country at the edge of Europe, and it's  quite remarkable. Do we punch above our weight   in Quantum? Well, does Ireland punch above its  weight in rugby? Definitely. How about politics?   Yes, yes, right. So how about literature  and art? Oh, definitely. Okay, so why not   science? Exactly. Yeah, I couldn't agree  more. Any reason why we can't achieve at  

the same level? Yeah, yeah, and we have a little  bit of heritage, don't we? The attitude as well.   I like that. But, um, so I mean, do you think that  there's a lot going on? Like, I'm trying to think,   this new MSC in Quantum in Trinity. I  mean, UCC, you have... Do you feel we're   doing enough? Things are accelerating very fast.  That's great. We have fabulous students, and we  

have the capability to recruit talent from all  over the world. I was relieved to discover that   we have people from all over the world in our  labs. We also have tremendous support from SFI,   and we have a good reputation abroad. So, at  the level of fundamental physics research,  

I think we can be world-class and potentially be  in the top 10 in the world. I don't see any reason   why not. There are other small countries in Europe  that are renowned for their fundamental research,   so I wouldn't think that's a problem. Now, in  terms of expanding and developing a sufficiently   large industry in Ireland to employ a fraction  of a million people, which is what everyone wants   from Quantum, it involves the companies. We have  some of the world's greatest technology companies,   many of them with their European headquarters in  Ireland. However, most of the work they do here is   focused on semiconductor photonics  research. Virtually none of the quantum  

research in companies like IBM, Google,  or Rigetti is conducted in Ireland. So,   we do have a bit of a barrier to convince these  companies that they would benefit from having   major flagship Quantum labs in Ireland. But if we  could convince them, I'm sure they would benefit,   and they would stay. History shows that they're...  Yeah. And I mean, I presume what would help is the   growth and scale in the area as well. So, it's  like all things; they have to grow together,  

right? If you overgrow the skills, yeah, there  are no jobs for them, and then all those Irish   students will leave, and that's exactly what  we don't want. And I should say, it appears to   me now that we are not educating enough people  to become quantum physicists, quantum chemists,   quantum engineers, quantum software experts, etc.,  for the future in Ireland. What's going to happen   is that Ireland will probably have to recruit  a lot of people from abroad, roughly, I guess,   15 years from now. Yeah, which I would think is  a mistake. It's not necessary, but it's because   we're not educating fast enough. Yeah, it would  be a pity not to do both, wouldn't it? I mean,   it's great to have international people coming  in, but you'd hope there might be a little bit   of osmosis as well because of the incredible  international people coming here anyway. I think   in the world of quantum technology, quantum  computing, and its future economic impact,   Ireland could be a world leader. It has all the  same advantages it has in other industries. I  

want to ask you a little bit more about yourself  as well. So, you mentioned your teacher already,   Liam Donaldson, yeah, because it's lovely to  name-check these people, I think. But have   there been other inspirational figures in your  life that made you think, "Okay, I really want   to do this?" Yes, when I went to Berkeley,  I had learned a lot about quantum mechanics   in UCC, a tremendous amount more than I even  wanted, actually. But when I went to Berkeley,   I got a chance to work on macroscopic  quantum mechanics, something which,   the way education works, people are taught in high  school and college, is that quantum mechanics is   a theory of things which are incredibly  small. Okay, that's complete fake news,  

just nonsense. There's no rule of nature that  says you can't have an object of this size be   quantum mechanical. So, in graduate school,  I was working for Professor Richard Packer,   who's a very famous macroscopic quantum  physicist. And I just discovered all of the   amazing things which we already know can happen  due to quantum mechanics in the macroscopic   world. And I realized there's really no reason  why we can't have a fully quantum mechanical   technological basis set. There's no reason why  not. And it's certainly not true that quantum  

mechanics is always hidden from us at the  atomic scale. So, that had a huge effect on   me. I've always, since that time, really kept  my attention on macroscopic quantum physics.   Role models are so important, aren't they?  People who are really getting into it. So,   I would imagine you must be a great influence for  some people down in UCC as well. Yeah, especially   in the world of fundamental frontier research,  it's very different. You can be a brilliant  

student, learn everything in the book, and pass  all your exams. But that doesn't necessarily   mean that you would have the capability to  make a fundamental discovery. They're almost   orthogonal skills. It's like learning how to sail  a boat. Learn how to sail a boat from a book,   pass all the exams, okay. And then take a sailboat  out on the West Coast in December, and you'll find   out you don't know anything about sailing. So,  teaching people how to have courage, curiosity,   dedication, and many other characteristics besides  the capability to solve equations, to put in the   years necessary. And they have to be confident in  themselves to put in the years necessary to make  

fundamental discoveries. So, you know, aside  from doing research and writing papers, a lot   of my effort goes into teaching people how to do  that. Yeah, and it's a privilege for them to have   you there in UCC. It is, you know. And I mean,  there must be so many, and I'm sure the Buckley   Prize was one of them. But if you could pick out  one or more career highlights over the years...  

When I was an assistant professor at Berkeley,  there had been a prediction that had been   around for around 35 or 40 years that there's a  microscopic quantum phenomenon where you would   have a fully quantum mechanical fluid. You apply  some pressure to it, do some other special stuff,   and it should spontaneously generate  a coherent quantum mechanical sound   called Josephson sound. I had been searching  for that for about 15 years. It was a long haul,   searching for it, but it's a deeply fundamental  effect. Lots of people were focusing on this.   So, we had built a very elaborate ultra-low  temperature, ultra-low vibration experiment   to listen for this incredibly weak quantum  mechanical sound, and we failed and failed and   failed. We could never hear it. So, one Saturday  morning, we had failed again, and my postdoc and   I were in the lab. Sergey Pereverzev was his name.  We just said, "This thing is not working. So why  

don't we take the output of our electronics and  instead of looking at it on the computer screen,   we put it on the earphones and listen to  what's happening inside the experiment?" Okay,   so he put on the earphones first and he  listened, and he almost fainted. He just...   and then he gave them to me, and I listened,  and the quantum mechanical sound was there   all the time. Okay, the human brain can pick  out a sound inside the noise which is so tiny   that you never see it on a computer screen or  on an oscilloscope. But to the human brain,   that's how you can hear something in an orchestra.  So, we discovered this very famous result   somewhat serendipitously by listening while trying  to diagnose the machine by listening to it. Wow,   that had a big effect on my career  because I got tenure at Berkeley. Yeah,  

they were very good headphones. Very important set  of headphones. And I suppose for young aspiring   scientists, physicists who have even a vague  idea of getting into the whole area of quantum,   I mean, would you have advice for them? Although  we don't know which one of the great companies   or which subset of the great companies will turn  out to be the quantum company of the 21st century,   some of them, without a doubt, there isn't the  slightest doubt that there's an enormous number   of potential applications for quantum sensing,  quantum communication, quantum cryptography,   quantum computing, quantum software writing. So,  it seems perfectly clear that for highly educated   physicists, mathematicians, engineers, and so  on, there will be fabulous quantum careers in the   future. Now, if you ask me which ones they will  be, I don't know. Nobody knows, right? And if you   had asked someone in 1965 what job they would  have programming the iPhone, well, of course,   you can't answer that question.  But in terms of the opportunity,   it appears that there will be a very wide range of  very satisfying and important positions available   in quantum technology in Ireland, Europe, and  throughout the world. And just in that context,  

do you have any visibility of the work that  is going on in some of these companies and   how impressive it is? Yes, I mean,  they're accelerating very fast. So,   now we're talking about economics here. It's  important to understand that the various   quantum mechanical procedures which are  used on a qubit, a quantum mechanical bit,   have been understood since the 1940s. To  physicists, there's nothing new about them. To   engineers, they're amazed, but to physicists,  they're already solved problems, right?   But which actual device, which platform those  procedures will be carried out on, is a risk,   and it's mostly an economic race. Superconducting  quantum computing companies like Google, IBM,   and Rigetti are racing ion trap quantum computing  companies like IonQ, and they're racing cold   atom companies and quantum dot companies. Nobody  knows who's going to win the technological race.   Whoever can get a device which is cheap to produce  and works at room temperature and is functional as   a quantum computer, they will win. So, my personal  energy is going towards finding high-temperature  

superconductors because I think that if we  have room temperature superconductivity,   then the superconducting quantum computing people  would win. But, you know, that's a partisan point   of view. I love it. I'm just again for people, you  know, who are coming across you sort of for the   first time or whatever, is there something that  might surprise them about you? Anything that we   don't know about you that might surprise them? We  ask everybody this. I don't know about surprising   them, but my hobbies are bicycling whenever  possible, so that wouldn't surprise anybody,   although bicycling in West Cork is a challenging  endeavour. I've crashed several times.   And then my other hobby is classical history and  literature. If I hadn't been a physicist, I hoped   to be a literati or a historian or something,  but there's only time enough for one career,   so the second one is my hobby, yeah. And one thing  that is very interesting about being at Oxford,  

we haven't said much about Oxford. In the colleges  in Oxford, you're not segregated by discipline.   So when you sit down to have a meeting or to  have lunch or something, the people around you   aren't physicists. They're often economists and  philosophers and historians, and that milieu is   actually very, it's wonderful because you get  to talk to people you normally would never talk   to about things you would normally never get to  talk about, and I enjoy that very much. That's   actually very healthy because, you know, and you  were talking about it there earlier, but that   interdisciplinarity idea, that, of course, you  talk about economics here, you're not just talking   about engineering or physics or technology.  >> When I was doing that podcast recently,   one of the things we discussed is that in Ireland,  it'd be good to have a forum where the different   groups of people had some public forum where  they could communicate with each other, where   the artists and the literary and historians and  the philosophers and the scientists actually could   get together once a year and talk to each other.  It would be a very useful thing for society.   I really like the idea. We should really look into  that. That's funny because recently I did a panel  

for the Growth Institute on Quantum and the Arts,  yeah, you know, and like, it is fascinating what,   you know, and everyone can benefit, yeah, yeah,  yeah, the frontier area, you know. Not all new   ideas, including my own, are good ideas, but it's  always better to have more new ideas than less.   So the more people we can get together to work on  these problems, the faster we'll make progress. In   a way, I suppose your own, and you've discussed  many of them, but your own kind of aspirations   for how we could change the world with Quantum.  Okay, it's important to have an honest discussion   about that. So, it's true that the potential for  especially Quantum computing is deeply impressive.  

We can use it to solve logistical problems. We  could use it to stabilise, in principle, we could   stabilise the economy because we could see farther  into the future with that type of computing power.   We could use it to improve our understanding  and eventually control over the environment.   We could use it to understand the human body a bit  better. We could use it to understand the human   mind. There's a vast number of wonderful things  that you can state where computing power, let's   say, which is a billion times faster, would allow  us to do amazing things. No doubt about it. But

the truth is that everything that human beings  invent can be used for good as well as for bad,   right? So, we have to be careful, and we're all  having this discussion about AI right now. Yes,   we have to be careful. Quantum Computing is not  guaranteed to be good. It's only guaranteed to be   good if we keep control of it, right? And that's  a place where we need to put more attention as it   develops, I think because, for example, quantum  computer is one reason why National Security   people pursue quantum computers is that, in  principle, you can use quantum computers to   crack the RSA encryption code that we use for our  data storage and commerce. All of our commerce   is under RSA 64-bit now, but quantum computers  could crack that encryption and break into your   bank account. So, it's something we all have  to consider very carefully. But at the moment,  

it appears like the promised benefits greatly  exceed the danger. So, I think we should move on.   Okay, very good, very good. Listen, it's  been an absolute joy to talk to you today,   and I'm really looking forward to seeing what  happens in the next 10 to 20 years in this area.   There's no way to predict the future,  especially in circumstances like this,   and you know the truth is, although there are  hundreds of perfectly genuine dedicated companies   working as hard as they possibly can to crack  technical problems to make Quantum Computing,   there are also Quantum investment scams out there.  People asking you for your money for their latest  

Quantum idea. If you actually mind down into the  idea, you find out it's nonsense. Talk to people   you know. The billionaires don't always know how  to solve the quantum mechanical equations. So,   there is a good deal of hype as well, and  we have to be careful about it. Yeah, yeah,   no, that makes a lot of sense. Thanks so  much for taking the time to be with us.

2023-07-23 11:52

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