Sensors for agriculture, protection of information networks, energy generation and use in healthcare are some of the possible applications of quantum technologies in our lives. The training of professionals, the international scenario and public policies to foster the development of the sector in the country were some of the topics discussed in the online event “Brazil Quantum Computing Challenge”, organized by RNP, by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI) and by Softex on November 18th and 19th.
The first day was dedicated to the theme “Communication and Quantum Networks”. Mediated by professor and researcher at the Federal University of Pará, Antônio Abelém, the debate was attended by researchers Armando Nolasco, from the Telecommunications Institute of the University of Aveiro; Guilherme Xavier, Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Linköping; and Gustavo Wiederhecker, professor at the Unicamp Institute of Physics.
Quantum communication allows us to foresee a future with computers that perform increasingly complex tasks. For Abelém, currently the main interest in quantum communication is the possibility of a totally secure communication. But technological development and intense research on the subject should enable new applications.
According to Abelém, “many people think that the quantum internet will replace the current one, but actually that's not exactly what it is. The quantum internet will enable some applications beyond the reach of the classic internet and the expectation is that this type of modality will work together with the traditional one”.
There are already several quantum initiatives in the world, such as China, the country that invests the most. In Europe, the QuantERA research program has brought attention to the area and three years ago a real-world demonstration of quantum cryptography was carried out in Spain.
The event's participants indicated that, from an academic point of view, Brazil is highly developed and has highly qualified researchers. However, one of the great challenges is to keep quantum professionals working in the country. The brain drain abroad is a major concern in the field.
Professor Guilherme Xavier, who works in Sweden, said that “a great investment would be to pay graduate students better. In Europe, the salary in most places is competitive, because if a student cannot support himself by doing a doctorate, he ends up going to industry or elsewhere. That way we lose critical mass", Xavier pointed out.
Training qualified personnel for the area is a difficult and long-term process. Quantum computing professionals are lacking, and the field requires investments to be made well in advance. Another difficulty is that it is also a multidisciplinary area, which for a long time was almost exclusively under the domain of physicists. Wiederhecker said that, in order to develop, quantum technologies must also attract researchers from other areas such as engineering.
For Wiederhecker, “the forecast for a quantum computer is for 2035. This is going to be the beginning of a quantum internet and we need to prepare for it. It should be noted that this is a decision that Brazil needs to take now. Do we want to be a consumer of these technologies or, as in the 70s and 80s, actively participate?”
The discussion on the second day of the event focused on quantum information and was mediated by researcher José Ferreira Rezende, professor at Coppe/UFRJ and academic-scientific advisor at RNP; and with researchers Franklin Marquezino, also a professor at Coppe/UFRJ; and Marcelo Terra Cunha, from Unicamp.
According to Marquezino, the first applications are being made in the area of simulation of quantum systems, chemistry and materials science. In an intermediate horizon, it is expected to use quantum technologies to solve optimization problems, as in the field of finance and machine learning, and in a more distant horizon, the bet is that it will be possible to carry out cryptanalysis.
About the current situation of the country in the area, the researcher said that there are few companies and startups involved in quantum computing. In order for the field to develop further in Brazil, it would also be necessary to prepare these companies to use quantum computers, in addition to encouraging technology startups to identify the potential.
Unicamp professor Marcelo Terra Cunha recalled that in recent years the development of quantum computing has accelerated. In 2016, the eyes of the world turned to quantum computing due to initiatives such as the IBM Quantum Experience, the availability of quantum computers in the cloud, enabling experimentation by users. In addition, the same company has just announced the creation of an advanced quantum processor, called Eagle.
During the event, it was possible to notice that the quantum technologies scenario in general is quite promising and is moving along with great strides. With regard to transforming these technologies for the benefit of society, a strong potential lies in the area of sensors, with many possibilities for agriculture, energy generation and healthcare, including the detection of new diseases and imaging tests. Researcher Armando Nolasco, from the University of Aveiro, cited the potential of quantum technologies for the security and privacy of information in the medical field. Unicamp professor Marcelo Terra Cunha recalled that the agricultural certification sector, for example, in determining whether a certain vegetable is free of contaminants, has much to gain from these technologies.