On Monday, Staff Writer Emily Yi attended a colloquium hosted by the Physics Department, in which panelists from a range of quantum backgrounds discussed the present and future of quantum research. 

What’s the first thing you think of when someone says “quantum physics?” If you aren’t involved with the Physics Department, you might think of Ant-Man’s adventures in the quantum realm, or—like me—have some vague recollections about quantum particles from high school chemistry.

Simply put, quantum physics involves the study of existence at the level of atoms and subatomic particles. And while attending Monday’s colloquium on quantum research may not have added much to my limited technical understanding of quantum, it did provide some fascinating insights into the bigger picture of potential quantum applications.

Hosted at the Center for Theoretical Physics on the 8th floor of Pupin Hall, the event was moderated by physics professor Andrew Millis and featured brief presentations from Sebastian Will, Henry Yuen, Ana Asenjo-Garcia, Gabriella Carini, and Paul M. Dabbar—an investment banker and former Under Secretary for Science at the US Department of Energy (and Columbia alum!). 

Professor Will focused on the potential opportunities in quantum hardware, which researchers have long suspected could accelerate the speed at which computers can tackle certain problems. According to Will, one potential groundbreaking application of quantum hardware is the creation of a network of finely tuned atomic clocks that could collect hyper-specific information about Earth’s gravitational field, providing us with new ways to discover and utilize Earth’s natural resources. 

Will emphasized, however, that the popular public perception of quantum computers as miracle machines is misleading given the current limitations of the technology and roadblocks in the ongoing research. 

This caveat was also emphasized by computer science professor Henry Yuen, who delivered a presentation on quantum advantage: the goal of demonstrating that quantum computers have the ability to solve a problem that classical computers can’t. Although there are a number of CS problems that quantum scientists are fairly sure would exhibit quantum advantage, Yuen emphasized that quantum’s potential abilities, as compared to classical computers, are still unclear when it comes to buzz-wordy applications like machine learning. 

Next, Professor Asenjo-Garcia spoke about quantum entanglement: a phenomenon when two quantum particles share a quantum state and “link” across a distance. (In popular culture, quantum entanglement is perhaps best associated with claims that it offers “scientific evidence” for soulmates… though many of these claims seem shaky at best.)

Asenjo-Garcia focused on the goal of better understanding and harnessing many-body entanglement, where more than two quantum particles “link”. Like the speakers before her, however, Asenjo-Garcia acknowledged the difficulties of harnessing complex entanglements precisely enough to yield useful information. 

The event’s slate of speakers concluded with two presentations from outside of the Columbia community. Gabriela Carini, a researcher from the Brookhaven National Laboratory, spoke about future potentials for quantum networks: quantum versions of the computer networks we rely on to transmit information. She emphasized the security potentials of the quantum internet, which could prove less susceptible to traditional cyber attacks.

Perhaps most excitingly, Carini presented a plan for a quantum network connecting universities and research sites across the Northeast, although she emphasized that much work remains to be done before such a network would be feasible. 

In the event’s final presentation, Paul Dabbar, investment banker and former Under Secretary for Science at the Department of Energy, turned away from future hopes to the present reality of what it takes to do scientific research––that is, money. Dabbar spoke about the current state of federal and private funding for quantum research, emphasizing his involvement in the National Quantum Initiative, a five-year federal plan launched in 2018. He credited the recent surge of academic interest in quantum possibilities, including the event itself, to the injection of federal funding that resulted from NQI.

All in all, I found attending an event completely outside of my comfort zone to be a valuable experience. Sure, I occasionally felt like a fish out of water (*cue awkwardly laughing along at quantum jokes I didn’t understand*) but in the end, I walked away from Pupin with a feeling of wonder.

In particular, I was fascinated by each speaker’s emphasis on the wide range of potential applications for quantum solutions. The speakers touched on links to government and public policy, business and economics, communications technology, and more. Quantum technologies may even contribute to climate change solutions, as quantum sensors may have the potential to detect tiny changes in carbon levels. Clearly, it will not be the physicists alone who have a part in the future of quantum.

Ana Asenjo-Garcia on Entanglement via Emily Yi