D-Wave dilution refrigeration close up
D-Wave quantum computer's cooling system © D-Wave

It is a dizzying gamble and there are billions of euros riding on the outcome. If the wager pays off, Europe will hold its own against mighty China and the US; if not, the entire project will be regarded in hindsight as a breathtakingly indulgent folly.

I refer, of course, not to the forthcoming referendum on Britain’s EU membership but to the European Commission’s announcement last week that it would be launching a €1bn plan to explore “quantum technologies”. It is the third of the commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship projects — visionary megaprojects lasting a decade or more. These are challenges too grand — and bets too risky — for a single nation to square up to on its own.

One flagship project already focuses on graphene, that miraculous one-atom-thick sheet of carbon that has yet to make a mark on the continent’s industrial landscape. The other is the Human Brain Project, which made headlines chiefly because it was boycotted by many of the scientists assigned to work on it. The ultimate aim of that collaboration is to produce a digital blueprint of a brain, but the public infighting has left many uncertain about whether the original goal was feasible or even useful.

The addition of quantum technologies to Europe’s betting slip could prove just as controversial. The project, which is expected to begin in 2018 and will be formally announced next month, is designed to nurture such breakthroughs as ultrasensitive sensors and achingly precise atomic clocks. But bigger prizes beckon: Europe is formally entering the race to build quantum computers and to develop unbreakable communications systems based on quantum cryptography.

Where classical computers operate on a binary basis (data are encoded as bits, which exist in only two states: 1 or 0), quantum computers can, in theory, exploit Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to break that binary limit. Freed from those constraints a quantum bit, or “qubit”, can exist in many more states and can, supposedly, perform different bits of a calculation all at once. Leashing qubits together should, therefore, create a quantum computer with firepower vastly superior to that of a supercomputer.

But there is uncertainty over whether the quantum computers yet built are actually exploiting quantum behaviour. They are also designed to tackle a narrow class of problem, making them less versatile than classical computers.

When Google claimed in December that its $10m D-Wave machine was able to operate 100m times faster than a regular computer, many remained sceptical. One criticism was that the chosen calculation seemed especially suited to the D-Wave architecture and unsuited to classical computers. Still, quantum computers remain the thing: Google marches on, Microsoft has set up Station Q and the US government is chipping in for an IBM attempt.

Meanwhile, China is gunning for quantum supremacy: it has installed a 2,000km link between Beijing and Shanghai to test out quantum cryptography. A message is normally encrypted using ones and zeroes and can be copied undetectably. Quantum key distribution (QKD), in contrast, involves beaming a pulse of photons that are placed in particular quantum states.

The act of eavesdropping interrupts the quantum state, alerting the sender to the security breach. The link is testing pulse-boosting technology, ensuring the encrypted message does not weaken along its journey. China is also about to launch a satellite to test QKD in space, with the aim of relaying unhackable messages between countries.

This is why Europe is making a carefully calculated quantum leap. Amid all the secret messages, the continent is sending a signal of naked intent.

The writer is a science commentator

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