Author:Magnuson, Stew

CHICAGO--Four stories underground--encased in several feet of concrete--is the University of Chicago's new nanofabrication facility, where researchers apply the principles of quantum physics to real-world problems and technologies.

A small cadre of faculty and graduate students in a clean room bathed in yellow light wear protective clothing to ensure the integrity of the experiments they are conducting, which involves the very matter that comprise the universe: electrons, photons, neutrons and protons.

The William Eckhardt Research Center where they are working is located across the street from where a team led by Enrico Fermi, the architect of the nuclear age, carried out the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction.

Like Fermi's Manhattan Project invention, what the university's researchers learn at the Chicago Quantum Exchange could very well usher in a new technological age, experts interviewed said.

Quantum computing, quantum encryption and quantum sensing are three major applications being pursued by the United States and other nations--most notably by China. There is a quantum race underway, and these same experts say the defense and national security community is slow to realize the dire implications of coming in second.

"If you don't understand something, it is really hard to support it," Dr. James Canton, president and CEO of the Institute for Global Futures, said in an interview. Canton is a futurist and a consultant for the military and intelligence community. There are ongoing debates about the necessity for more investments in quantum computing in the government, he said, but eyes gloss over when terms such as "quantum entanglement" are tossed out.

Meanwhile, China appears to be convinced about the future of quantum applications and is investing large amounts of funding to make itself the world leader in the field by 2030. It scored the first technology breakthrough in the summer of 2017 when it demonstrated the ability to send quantum-encrypted communications from a satellite to a terrestrial ground station.

"Nobody--nobody really understands how significant this is. The Chinese demonstrated brazenly and brilliantly that they had a major breakthrough in communications by deploying the satellite. ... It should have been more than a shot across the bow," Canton said.

Meanwhile, programs in the United States are beginning to coalesce. The office of the secretary of defense has established a quantum sciences point man. Tech giants such as Google, IBM, Microsoft and Intel are building first-generation quantum computers. Congress recently authorized up to $10 billion for federally funded research. And the University of Chicago is attempting to create a quantum sciences hub in Illinois.


To continue reading