Speaker intro: Leo Kouwenhoven

8 September 2016

So tell us, who’s Leo Kouwenhoven?

I am a professor at the Delft University of Technology and I am the director of a new institute called Qutech, which we founded 3 years ago. At Qutech, we develop technologies that are based on Quantum Mechanics.


What is it that you currently do at Qutech?

As everybody knows, quantum mechanics is the theory that describes the behavior of small particles such as atoms and electrons. As we’re able to control these systems better than before, it also describes the behavior of much larger objects. it is our goal to do something useful with that behavior. In the past, we only used quantum mechanics to study nature as it is given to us. To study questions like: How does chemistry work? How does photosynthesis work? Basically, we tried to find out how the whole structure of materials and their molecules works. We need quantum mechanics to understand how all this works, but nowadays we can design and make things ourselves that are based on quantum mechanics. We are at the tipping point of studying what is given, to designing and creating ourselves.

Our work was made possible by new techniques in nano-technology. It gave us new opportunities to attain the goals we have. Put in the context of SingularityU: There’s a singularity that we can perceive, based on classical technology and classical computing, where everything is encoded in zeros and ones. To get to the next level, we encode in quantum mechanical bits, called qubits. Qubits can encode information in zeros and ones, which can be both zero and one at the same time! These would be in superposition.



What will we be able to do with it?

If we can harvest the resource of quantum mechanics, we will be able to do things that are completely impossible with current technology. Even the biggest supercomputer there is, cannot compute the properties of a small sized molecule. It cannot predict what these molecules would do to you, which is quite important in medicine or dietary studies. If you have an illness and want to know whether some medicine will help treat your illness, you can only try stuff. There is currently no computing system that can help predict which pill will work for you. A computer system like that is impossible with a computer that is based on zero’s and ones. With a quantum computer it is a complete new game. You can apply entirely different principles and in theory you can do things that are currently impossible.

At the moment it is a theoretical concept. But when we can make the hardware that can do these quantum computations, we will be able to start calculating the effect of materials and molecules. Imagine, we might be able to design materials for a battery that doesn’t have energy loss. You’ll be able to ask the help of a quantum computer to help design materials that make such a battery possible!

Theoretically, there is a material combination that allows us to create such a perfect battery. A battery that you can store energy in which you can take out without any loss. In theory there should be a combination that lets you do this. We need a quantum computer to find out which combination of atoms accomplishes this goal. Without a quantum computer we can only try random combinations. With a quantum computer we would have a lot of help to guide us to that right combination. This will either bring us close to the solution or perhaps give it to us outright. A quantum computer will also be able to predict the biochemical processes when you take medicine. However, a quantum computer cannot predict whether someone will actually be cured from a disease.


Global challenges

Scarcity is a big challenge for humanity. With many resources, there is not enough for everybody. There is not enough energy for everybody, not enough food to feed everybody etc. If you want to be much more efficient in using natural resources, quantum computers are absolutely necessary.

There are many computational problems that quantum computers do very well. Machine learning and search in big data sets for example. What a quantum computer is also excellent at, I’m not too excited about this, is cracking codes. Your passwords are protected by a mathematical problem, a quantum computer can solve these with ease. The encryption that everyone uses at the moment will be obsolete when we have quantumcomputers.


When will we see quantum computers?

Research into quantum computers used to be exclusive to universities. There was research in many countries around the world, but only by universities. Since a few years many corporations have joined as well. It’s going very fast at the moment. All the big IT companies are joining to build the quantum computer. You name them, Google, Microsoft, Intel, IBM… They’ve started to invest, and are rapidly investing more and more in developing the quantum computer. It is still difficult to say when the first true quantum computer will see the light, but it is definitely coming.

Small quantum computers, that can do some things that other computers cannot, will be there in 5 years or so. It will take longer for a full scale quantum computer that can solve quantum chemistry or design materials.


So there are no quantum computers at the moment?

There are already some very small scale prototypes, let’s call them baby, or perhaps even embryo type quantum computers. These are very useful for testing algorithms, because you have to write new software for these computers. You can even use one yourself. One of them is online as an open source public quantum computer and you can run your quantum algorithms there.  These are really small though, too small to solve useful problems. It is just for testing quantum algorithms and playing for curiosity and scientific reasons.

Many people, and I’m one of them, are very eager to tell society that this is happening. The underlying science that allows you to do this, is super exciting. It is very interesting to speak about it and do some outreach. I think it’s a very exciting development.


Who will use quantum computers?

At the moment it looks as if the bigger companies, are most likely to acquire and use them. Because they already have a lot of resources; big supercomputers, data centers, clouds and what have you. For them it is quite easy to have some of the difficult problems solved by a quantum computer. If you have a small company however, you will not build or buy a quantum computer anytime soon. What you can do is get an account at one of these supercomputing centers, and use the quantum computer for your particular problem. Then it will be in the cloud, where you log in and drop your problem.

To me it is a little early for small companies to start using quantum computers. I do think that it is very good to be aware of its existence. Maybe there are smart business people who can think of quick applications. To me it is very exciting, but businesswise, this is not for small and medium enterprises yet. Then again, who knows, maybe there is a super smart person at the Summit that has an application for it.

If we look at the transistor, the first applications were very nice. The radio and some other small niche applications come to mind. The calculator came quickly, but the computer took some time. It took 40 years until we would see the first Mac. So if you want to wait for the first true quantum computer, you’ll have to wait a few decades. But if you can think of some projects like the quantum transistor radio, or the quantum calculator, you might make some money. If that is your purpose of course.