Envision a computer that runs faster and more securely than ever before. A new age of technology is coming and it’s called quantum computing.

Global investors are pouring billions of dollars into quantum research and technologies. Many research universities are pursuing quantum computing development. The University of Colorado Boulder is among the list of schools researching quantum with the CUbit Quantum Initiative.

“It’s an exciting field,” said Scott Sternberg, the executive director of the CUbit Quantum Initiative at CU Boulder. “There’s not [only] just a lot of money that the United States is putting forward to this.”

**Quantum in a nutshell **

“Quantum mechanics refers to the laws of physics that were discovered in the 1920s,” said Karl Mayer, who received his Ph.D. in quantum engineering from CU Boulder.

“These are the laws of physics that apply to really small things, like electrons, atoms and things like that. The laws of physics at that small scale behave differently than what physicists call ‘Newtonian physics,’” Mayer said.

Newton’s Laws of Motion refer to how an object responds when forces act upon it. While Newton’s laws are objectively correct, they do not apply to smaller bodies, such as electrons or objects moving close to the speed of light. That’s where quantum mechanics come into play.

“Quantum physics starts to present itself in a very different mathematical way,” Sternberg said. “It becomes a window into some of the fundamental forces of the universe.”

**CUbit Quantum Initiative **

Under the quantum umbrella, CUBit is working on three main focus areas. These include quantum sensing and measurement, quantum network and communications and quantum computing and simulation.

CUbit aims to advance science and build a foundation for quantum technology. With Colorado being a hub for quantum research, the program has an advantage in partnering with local companies and startups.

**Quantum sensing and measurement and qubits**

Quantum sensing and measurement allows for technological devices to be more efficient, accurate and productive. GPS systems use quantum physics to provide mapping tools.

According to Sternberg, sensors based on quantum techniques help form atomic clocks, very precise timekeepers, in addition to mapping tools. In 2017, CU Boulder scientists created a new design for an atomic clock that outperformed previous attempts.

Part of what allows for devices to be more efficient and productive is the use of bits, an essential part of both classical and quantum computing.

Bits, the smallest unit of information in a computer, have two states: 0 and 1, which correspond to “off” and “on”. Using combinations of bits, engineers transform simple electrical signals into complex logic gates. Traditional bits only have the potential to represent single values whereas qubits can take on any proportion between 0 and 1 when coding. Since qubits can break things into smaller values, they are more powerful than traditional bits.

“Instead of a traditional computer that encodes into one or zero, you have this bit, this qubit, which in this particular state operates very differently than a traditional transistor one/zero would,” Sternberg said. “If you think about a one or a zero, it [a qubit] could be a one and a zero at the same time and everything in between.”

**Quantum computing and simulation**

Quantum physics deals with electrons and other minuscule moving objects. According to Mayer, electrons do not have exact positions, but they have wave functions. This is important for prediction-making.

A wave function is an equation used to explain the behavior of quantum particles, mainly electrons. It is useful for finding the probability that a particle will end up in a specific place. While probabilities can be found, it is not an exact prediction of what will happen.

Sternberg used a deck of cards as an example. When drawing from a deck of cards, there is a one in 52 chance of getting a certain number or face and a certain suit. In this scenario, a wave function would describe the probability of which face and suit will appear.

Quantum computing and simulation use qubits to speed up computing processes. When computers perform at such a high level, they can simulate materials or chemistry processes. This is where probability and wave functions come into play.

Using electrons and the principles of quantum physics, researchers have found that there is a better chance of predicting probability through experiments run on quantum computers. For example, quantum computers predict the likelihood of certain events, such as the sun rising tomorrow.

**Quantum networks and communications**

According to Mayer, quantum computing also encompasses cryptography.

Cryptography is the process that protects digital information. Encryption and decryption are two essential parts of this procedure. Encryption occurs when data is turned from plaintext into ciphertext. Decryption is the process of transforming ciphertext into plaintext. When one opens a readable message, it is considered in its plaintext or readable form.

As a way to block third-party viewers from reading messages, they are encrypted and turned into ciphertext, which is not easily readable. When someone sends a text message, it is encrypted and when the receiver opens the message, it is decrypted.

Traditional cryptography uses math when encrypting messages whereas quantum cryptography uses physics. It sends subatomic particles known as photons through a filter and to a receiver. When an eavesdropper tries to read the photons, the state of the photon changes. This makes quantum cryptography more secure than traditional cryptography.

“The context of quantum networks and communication is being able to create a secure connection that is so unbreakable,” Sternberg said.

**Problems with quantum**

Experts are hopeful about the future of quantum, but research is developing. Quantum computers still exhibit an array of operational errors and researchers don’t yet know the most effective way to build them.

“The hope with quantum computers is that you would kind of do this experimental research of building the material and studying it,” Mayer said. “Quantum computers enable you to do that simulation efficiently where classical computers do not.”

Mayer works at Quantinuum, a company that develops technology and conducts research in quantum computing. One of their products, known as Quantum Origin, is designed to use quantum cryptography in a way that better secures data.

Part of Mayer’s research at Quantinuum involves identifying errors in the system.

“One problem present with current quantum computers is that they are very noisy or very prone to errors,” Mayer said, “and there’s a whole zoo of possible errors that can occur to quantum bits. And what I do is I design experiments to get run on our system that measure things like what types of errors are occurring and with what rates.”

Additionally, Sternberg said that quantum computers are hard to build due to the advanced cooling technology the process requires.

“It’s an engineering problem to be able to manipulate these and scale them to the point where quantum computers could now grow,” Sternberg said.

While quantum computers have the potential to improve security, they can also pose a threat.

Sternberg said that some members of the quantum community fear that advanced quantum computers in other nations could access private information in the United States.

“And so there’s sort of this half security side of it and half benefit for overall mankind,” Sternberg said.

**CU Boulder and the future of quantum**

CU Boulder has a particular advantage in quantum research as a university based in Colorado.

“We have industries that are quantum-like. Meaning that we have aerospace, we have biosciences, we have IT as part of our major industry sectors here in the state,” Sternberg said. “We have those skill sets that are adjacent to the quantum space in other industries that we have here in the state.”

Although quantum computing is not yet the industry standard, technology is heading in that direction. Companies around the globe are working to progress humanity toward an era of quantum technology.

However, as quantum technology develops, potential users shouldn’t expect to see any quantum laptops or computers in their local tech stores anytime soon.

“We’re at this kind of frontier, this beginning of engineering quantum computers,” Sternberg said. “I don’t know if we’ll see them on a laptop, but we’ll certainly be able to use a laptop to access a quantum computer for a computation.”

*Contact Guest Writer Hope Munoz at Hope.Munoz-Stanley@colorado.edu.*