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