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Innovation begins and ends with a question

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Photonics industry old-timers are familiar with the trope that the laser, at the time of its invention in the mid-60s, was a “solution in search of a problem.” This collective memory might have become a bit romanticized over time, because it clearly didn’t take long for an industry-worth of defense contractors, materials processors, retail OEMs, spectroscopists, and academicians to emerge from the woodwork and put stimulated optical emissions to work.

Roughly 30 years later, in a stroke of unintentional irony, that same “solution in search of a problem” was helping to fuel colossal investments in the fiber optic buildout, which promised to massively increase the rate at which data could be shared over long distances. There was more speculation than specifics about the potential applications that all the new bandwidth would provide. But optimism prevailed, and the global fiber rollout eventually helped to launch once unimaginable new market sectors, such as e-commerce, streaming video, and the Internet of Things.

Another 30 years hence, and the pattern is starting a new cycle. This time, laser technology is helping to drive advancements in quantum sensing, communications, and computing. The potential applications for quantum information science and technology (QIST) are about as well-defined as those for fiber optic bandwidth. Quantum sensors will enable pinpoint global navigation without the need for satellites. Quantum networks will allow more secure transmissions by teleporting data from node to node. Quantum computers will find patterns in enormous, unsorted data sets — to rapidly accelerate pharmaceutical development, for example. But these use cases are the tip of a very large and speculative iceberg representing QIST’s potential opportunities and risks.

These competing perspectives of the technology were on display on May 4 when the White House issued back-to-back directives that addressed both the opportunities and the risks implicit in quantum technology’s advancement. The first directive assigned the National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee direct access and accountability to the White House, while the second sought to mitigate the possible threats that quantum computers could pose to the nation’s cyber, economic, and national security.

A different and more complementary pair of perspectives on QIST was evident at the Quantum 2.0 Conference that Optica hosted — in a stroke of unintentional irony — at a Boston casino last month. Indeed, the term “Quantum 2.0” captures these two perspectives. Where quantum’s first generation largely focused on physicists understanding, predicting, and simulating the probabilistic realm of quantum mechanics, its second generation will enlist engineers to convert that knowledge into increasingly practical, manufacturable, and scalable solutions.

Solutions for what? As lasers and fiber optic networks have shown us, the question itself is the answer.

Photonics Spectra
Jul 2022

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