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  • Writer's pictureDAVID MITLYNG

Weekly Takeaways-March 18, 2024

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Quantum as a Seven Course Meal

When it comes to quantum technology, there is a common misperception that, while it may seem appetizing, it isn't quite ready to come out of the kitchen.But quantum is being served service à la russe, not service à la française. And the appetizers and salad are already on the table.The amuse-bouche of quantum was already served up in the First Quantum Revolution. Lasers, semiconductors, atomic clocks, and LEDs all take advantage of the bulk quantum properties of materials.We are now in the midst of the Second Quantum Revolution where we are actually manipulating the quantum properties of individual particles for amazing applications. But this new generation of quantum technologies, which fall under three broad areas, are at different stages of maturity; some are ready to serve while others need elusive ingredients:

  • Quantum Computing is a new (but fundamentally different) type of computer that uses quantum bits (qubits) to solve optimization problems (like the famous traveling salesman problem) that are beyond the capabilities of today's computers.

  • Quantum Sensing uses the quantum properties of particles for very sensitive clocks, inertial, electromagnetic, gravity, and magnetic field sensors.

  • Quantum Communications leverages the quantum properties of photons primarily for security applications, including quantum random number generation (QRNG), quantum key distribution (QKD), quantum time transfer, and quantum networking.

Of these, quantum computing is the most famous (and gets the most funding) but is arguably the furthest away from commercial adoption. That being said, the potential it has for ground-breaking applications makes it a very compelling dessert.Quantum sensing has been demonstrated but still needs to be fully baked into commercially viable designs and packaging. Their sensitivity to "acceleration, magnetic fields, rotation, gravity and passage of time" could revolutionize our modern world once we get them "out of the lab."Of these, quantum communications is the most mature: QKD and QRNG hardware is already being installed in cell phones and networks around the world to provide quantum-secure communications.The next course to be served: quantum-enabled position, navigation, and timing (PNT). And not just because the tech is nearly fully baked, but because there is a desperate need for something to augment GPS (see below).


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When it comes to PNT, the standard is set by GPS and other global navigation satellite systems (GNSS). They consist of satellites that broadcast their position and time over a RF signal to a receiver. Once the receiver calculates the distance to each of these satellites, it fixes its position and time via trilateration (not triangulation, as is commonly thought).The brilliance of this design has led it to become an integral part of our modern lives, with a GPS receiver for every person in the world. But its limitations are evident: the weak RF signal is easy to jam and spoof, and doesn't work well in urban and indoor environments.So as commercial and government agencies look for alternatives they are focusing on a new batch of quantum technologies that could enable a complementary PNT system.However, there isn't one technology that can address the full breadth of a GNSS - instead they tend to address two different areas: position and navigation, and time.Position and navigation is the most obvious use case for consumers that use GPS for location or ridesharing apps. But surprisingly, it is the least valuable aspect of GPS and the problem that is easiest to solve: AI-linked cameras can be used to deduce position based on local and celestial landmarks. And if you are underwater or in the sky, sensitive quantum sensors can one day resolve position through inertial motion, gravity, or magnetic field.Time, on the other hand, is incredibly valuable - not for you, perhaps, but for the electronics and networks that power the modern world. Atomic clocks have been available for decades and new quantum optical clocks offer the promise of even more stable timing.But there is always a need for synchronizing these clocks. This has spurred a large time distribution infrastructure dedicated to delivering an accurate reference to UTC via GNSS and terrestrial radio stations over RF, network and precision time protocols (NTP and PTP) over ethernet, and optical signals over fiber networks. These all rely on different flavors of time transfer that fundamentally use a signal to transfer time from a reference clock. But now there is quantum time transfer, a new method of using entangled photon hardware developed for QKD applications that promises better accuracy and security than other time transfer methods.



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