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Quantum Technology and the OPI Industry

Photonics Spectra
Feb 2020
Mark A. Tolbert, TOPTICA Photonics Inc. and Sujatha Ramanujan, Luminate NY

Mark A. Tolbert is president of TOPTICA Photonics Inc., and he has worked in plastic optics, nanotechnology, and the laser industry. For more than a decade Tolbert has focused on commercializing quantum technology. He has a degree in physics and an MBA.

Sujatha Ramanujan, Ph.D., is managing director of Luminate NY. She is a serial entrepreneur and has started and built businesses in cardiac surgical equipment, optical communications, and nanomaterials.

OPI (optics, photonics, and imaging)-enabled technologies have led to mind-boggling advancements: 3D printers that mimic Star Trek replicators, self-driving cars, and tools that enable doctors to better diagnose, treat, and improve the efficacy of the medications they prescribe.

Among the game-changing innovations in optics and photonics in the past five years has been the emergence of quantum applications. While quantum technology is by no means new, its application potential has been expanding rapidly.

Quantum technology promises exciting realities in the OPI industry, but misconceptions about how the technology works are still common.

Quantum technology

Quantum technology has received a lot of hype recently, especially with Google’s claim of achieving a breakthrough in October 2019 that could change quantum computing, a practical application of the technology. As those in this industry already know, the capability to harness individual particles and photons of light has been possible for decades and is already used in applications such as quantum sensing, encryption (quantum key distribution, or QKD), and communications.

In the popular media, though, quantum technology is often viewed simplistically, as just a way to solve problems faster. But this view is only partially true. What’s more accurate is that quantum technology frees our thinking and enables an approach to problem-solving that is completely different.

There are many problems that even today’s fastest computers cannot solve efficiently.

Here is one basic example: A traveling salesman who serves customers in hundreds of cities cannot rely on any current computing technology to simultaneously map out the most efficient route to all of them. The number of variables is too great and the algorithm too complex. A quantum computer, however, is expected to be able to perform these types of calculations, namely complex optimization calculations. By leveraging the intrinsic properties of quantum systems — in this case, the concept of superposition — a quantum computer can potentially solve the optimization problem faster and with better results than a classical computer.

The race is on to harness and commercialize applications based on quantum technology. Today, global spending on such efforts is ~$10 billion, a fraction of what was spent from 1960 to 1973 on Project Apollo in the race to land humans on the moon. In the U.S., the National Quantum Initiative Act (NQI), signed into law in late 2018, provides a plan for advancing quantum technology, particularly quantum computing, and it is incentivizing innovators, including early-stage startups such as those participating in the Luminate Accelerator, as well as large companies such as Google, Apple, and IBM.

Additionally, some quantum-based services have already reached consumer markets, such as Honeywell’s Quantum Solutions, which provides quantum computing in the cloud, and D-Wave Systems, which enables user-developed applications such as airline scheduling, election modeling, quantum chemistry simulation, and preventative health care. While these types of activities are advancing on a consumer level, most quantum applications are still far from being commercialized.

Successful advancements in quantum technology are dependent on industry standardization, continued funding, and support of the NQI. Innovation will continue to spark imagination and, in turn, propel consumer advancements and applications that will transform the OPI industry and many others.

Optics, Lasers, Quantum Technology

Promising uses of quantum innovation in OPI include:

• Cybersecurity

One of the first fields that quantum technology may advance in the photonics industry is cybersecurity. With QKD, very large random numbers are generated for encryption, and lasers — using the properties of photons in their beams — will be used to securely transmit these cryptographic keys. The photons, which will be coded in binary ones and zeroes, will be transmitted and picked up by receiving equipment. The equipment allows codes or keys to be transmitted and enables detection if there is an attempt at interception.

In addition, the transmission methodology, when combined with quantum generation, will ensure that the specific numbers are both truly random and large. QKD will improve current security measures and make it safer to move data in high-risk industries such as financial services.

Haqean, a recent startup that earned a spot in Luminate’s third cohort, is working on the concept of true randomness to protect classified data. By using a single-photon approach that is considerably simpler and much less expensive than existing quantum computers, the company will be able to naturally generate “sacred” random numbers from quantum physics.

• Quantum computing in research

Research institutions and labs will be among the first to benefit from quantum computing. The technology will make knowledge more accessible in real time, which will lift the burden on laboratories and increase the speed of innovation. Early applications in research are expected to lead to faster discovery times in communications, pharmaceuticals, and more.

• Quantum sensing

Today’s GPS systems are limited to terrestrial applications and are inherently dependent on satellite communications, making the systems quite vulnerable. If satellites are hacked, all terrestrial communications systems will be affected, from personal cellphones to national military offensive and defensive systems. By combining quantum sensing with increased range, such as underwater, redundancy and security can be built into operations.

Another startup in Luminate’s third cohort, SaNoor Technologies, will address the underwater landscape by developing laser-based, visible light communications (VLC) devices and systems for high-speed underwater wireless data links. Its work will support Internet of Underwater Things (IoUT) applications, such as environmental monitoring, equipment management, process flow automation, and other industrial needs.

• Quantum communications

Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook University are developing a quantum networking testbed to explore the creation of a quantum internet. A quantum internet would not only provide faster, more reliable, and more secure information transfer, but would also help connect geographically distributed quantum computers that can solve complex problems in science and other areas.

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