The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Markus Pflitsch, chairman and founder of Terra Quantum AG, a quantum technology company based in Switzerland that builds an incubator for quantum applications in Europe. Pflitsch discussed quantum technology, its current applications, and its potential to revolutionize various areas of industry in the future.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Eline Chivot: What is the purpose of Terra Quantum and the vision behind the quantum technology you are building? What are the fundamental questions of quantum physics and their manifestations that you are addressing?
Markus Pflitsch: I have been a quantum physics enthusiast since I was 14 years old. John Gribbin’s book In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality had blown me away back in the eighties. What I immediately understood is that the universe is so different from the simplified materialistic worldview. Ancient Roman poet Virgil was right with his observation “Mens agitat molem”—mind over matter. This made an everlasting impression to me and that’s why I studied physics and mathematics and did research work at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, as a quantum physicist in the mid-nineties.
I then left quantum physics to pursue a business career starting at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in Europe and North America and in the financial services industry, and I spent additional years working as chief financial officer and senior executive in various corporations. But I never lost interest in the fascinating world of quantum physics and in 2018, I felt that it was time to bring my two areas of expertise (quantum physics, and business and finance) together, and became an entrepreneur in the quantum technologies space. I founded Terra Quantum AG, a deep tech pioneer commercializing ground-breaking quantum tech applications. I felt it was the right time: The technological improvements have reached the right level, and this area now has the potential to become an enormous business. And quantum computing is a sustainable area to invest in, because there is no fundamental question as to whether it works—it just does.
A hundred years after the initial quantum theories were discussed in Europe, quantum mechanics will now be brought to life with what we call the second quantum revolution. With quantum technologies, we are still somewhat in the equivalent of the Internet’s early nineties, but my vision is to drive the development of software and hardware and develop hybrid solutions to lead the transition phase—so that we can finally apply quantum technology to improve people’s life, develop new business models, and build the jobs of tomorrow.
In regards to the fundamental questions of quantum physics, together with our team of world class scientists and leading thinkers, I am trying to stay at the forefront of breaking boundaries when it comes to the development of digital super intelligence, the relationship between classical physics and quantum mechanics, and the funky effects of the mathematical and theoretical framework in relation to our perceived reality.
There are many philosophical concepts that are now challenged by the new technology including a deeper understanding of intelligence, our mind, and consciousness. Even in relation to our overall understanding of reality, I believe quantum technology will play an essential role.
In a broad sense, our projects embrace all the cutting-edge ways of handling, transmitting, and processing information. Quantum technologies, along with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, form the focus of our thrust.
The fundamental topics that are at the top of our priorities include quantum parallelism, many-worlds interpretation, and quantum “free will” (i.e., principal unpredictability).
Next comes the no-cloning property. The no-cloning theorem states that it is impossible to create an identical copy of an arbitrary unknown quantum state.
Then there is the general problem of the origin of the arrow-of-time and the possibility of time reversal. A closely related theme is the origin of the second law of thermodynamics and the possibility of realization and exploiting the Quantum Maxwell Demon.
I referred earlier to Schrödinger’s cat experiment—a thought experiment alluding also to the role of the observer, and an illustration of the functioning of Schrödinger’s wave equation. It is a very good way to explain what quantum computing is all about. Think of a shoe box—you put a living cat into that box, in which there is also a certain kind of poison, contained in some glass. There is a 50 percent probability that this glass will be broken, releasing the poison, and that the cat will die. There is another 50 percent probability that the glass will not be broken, the poison will not be released, and the cat will stay alive. That 50-50 probability scenario is crucial when we talk about quantum random number generators (QRNG), it really has to be this quantum randomness, truly, for what happens, without any algorithms behind, and you don’t know how it will react. You close the box, you go away, and a couple of minutes later you ask yourself whether the cat is dead or alive. He’s either dead or alive, but as long as you haven’t opened the box, you can’t tell. In the conventional reality, from a classical approach’s standpoint, as long as you don’t open the box to make an observation, and even if you don’t look at it, you know that the cat can be definitely dead or definitely alive. The observer has then a role that comes into play by making an observation, and identifying one specific state—dead or alive. In quantum reality, as long as you don’t make an observation, that cat is the perfect combination of dead and alive, it is a coherence state. It is a superposition of both states. The cat is then described by the Schrödinger’s wave equation, a phenomenon that truly reflects the universe’s behavior. Quantum computing works in that stage where you haven’t yet opened the box. It works in that stage where the cat is both dead and alive. And in that state time is symmetric, and only through the observation, by the so-called “wave function collapse,” you create an apparently irreversible act and the arrow-of-time comes into existence.
Chivot: Quantum computing is poised for takeoff in various industries, and is said to be on the brink of becoming useful. Beyond the hype, what is the promise of quantum technology and the prospects for its advancement? What are some of the solutions, applications, and various fields within quantum technology that are the closest to having an impact on our lives and the economy in the near future?
Pflitsch: When Richard Feynman, the pioneer of quantum computing, passed away in 1988, “What I Cannot Create, I Do Not Understand” graced his blackboard. In the coming decade we will be bringing the ideas to life. We also need this progress, not only to build new jobs and push borders, but mainly because this technology is essential to tackle some of the biggest challenges for our species.
I believe we will see hybrid solutions emerge to achieve a more rapid stability of quantum computing before eventually quantum computers also reach a level of stable qubits (or quantum bits, the basic unit of quantum information) to actually achieve quantum supremacy for defined use cases. The timing is now important as leading governments, corporates, and investors are betting their money and hopes on this second revolution. The companies now actually working on practical use cases will build the advantage, just like other tech companies in the Internet era were able to do.
In simple words, quantum computing is important because it promises to be zillions of times faster. This means the problems that would have required a universe lifetime to solve it using conventional supercomputers could be solved in a split second by quantum computation, as demonstrated in one of our recent papers on quantum supremacy. And now we have the technical capabilities to implement it. From here, we will see an exponential growth, something that will have a disruptive impact on almost every industry. In a recent study, McKinsey forecasts the quantum computing market could reach $1 trillion by 2035; and the key positions are taken today.
Quantum supremacy is reached when a quantum computer outperforms the best existing conventional supercomputer. Large tech companies announced that they have already managed that, with a processor of around 50 qubits. We should see first how the big players may be able to deal with technical challenges, but a lot of experts suppose that somewhere between 50 and 100 qubits there can be that tipping point where we will truly reach quantum supremacy. And this could be reached in two, maybe three years down the road.
There is still some work to be done to actually reach a significant number of qubits and increase the coherence time in order for the quantum computers to run stable, with relevance to the economy. But Terra Quantum has already provided some breakthrough papers and information on supremacy and other algorithms designed for specific use cases in chemistry, telecom, and financial services.
Chivot: What is the role of quantum computing in the field of AI, a technology that is being increasingly deployed—why is it great for AI, and could you give examples of how it could be applied? Can we talk about “quantum machine learning?”
Pflitsch: It seems inevitable that machine learning capabilities of any stable quantum computer would open completely new areas and possibilities. When it comes to AI, there is much fuzz, although we cannot really define what intelligence is. In terms of predictions, pattern recognition, statistical data, and machine learning technologies such as AI are based on our common and classical understanding. Classical AI is very useful of course and helps to solve many critical problems, but where is intelligence in AI systems coming from as they are based on empirical, past data?
If we want to move towards strong AI and elements of “creativity” in machine learning, we have to apply it on quantum computers. Especially in machine learning, where it’s all about decision trees, quantum computing and algorithms, which by nature deal with Schrödinger’s wave equation and bifurcations, will have a big optimization impact.
I strongly believe quantum computers will play an important role. Not only in factoring large numbers and complex simulations, but also in regards to taking on some of the most complex challenges humanity faces—be it ecological threats, coping with future viruses and pandemics: The new solutions built on future quantum technologies will play an essential role. Quantum will further revolutionize various corners of technology, from cars, planes, medicines, and various processes in industry producing batteries and fertilizers.
As for Terra Quantum, we now focus on exactly that combination of AI and machine learning techniques applied in the quantum environment.
I believe all innovations in medicine and neuroscience will have to bring quantum into the equation to grow and take leaps. At Terra Quantum, our focus for the next couple of years is really on specific use cases, for which there is the right computing power and technological capabilities. We already develop quantum algorithms for cryptography, for the chemistry industry, and for the financial services sector. All optimization problems can soon be simulated much more precisely and quicker. For example, in the pharmaceutical industry, this will mean faster drug development, as you can use quantum computing to test and simulate molecules’ chemical behavior.
I believe all organizations relying on the transmission and exchange of data digitally will have to upgrade to the quantum age. Every company whose business is about security, cybersecurity, such as financial services providers, should start preparing for quantum computing—very recently there have been warnings that it is time for companies to worry about quantum computing threats and attacks, as these can break today’s encryption methods. This is why there is huge market potential in quantum cryptography, that market is already relevant today. We are intensely working on encryption for digital information exchange on a quantum level.
Chivot: Terra Quantum aims to be “the European answer to breakthrough and accessible quantum computing technology.” What does that mean, and how do you intend to reach this goal?
Pflitsch: First of all, Europe has a tradition in the field of quantum physics. It has been 100 years since great European thinkers in the field such as Planck, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Einstein, Dirac, and many others scratched their heads with funky theories. Even today some of the leading thinkers in the field are found here, in Europe. Second, we now believe that Europe needs to envision a technological success story as it is lagging in developing other fields, and we believe this should be the field of quantum technology. Terra Quantum is independent and has received backing from one of the leading tech investors in Europe. In parallel, we are initiating a global ecosystem led by some of Europe’s leading thinkers and practitioners in this field to bring together the best of research, education, and actual use cases. Not only do we emphasize on our own cases—we also facilitate and bridge competences within the quantum technology space.
Terra Quantum aims to support the European ecosystem to drive quantum’s development.
Accessibility means we work closely with leading players and early adopters in the corporate space. But also we believe it is important to include various thinkers and talent to work in their interaction of various details as the field will include philosophers, psychologists, and others.
There are few teams of quantum physicists equipped with the needed critical scientific expertise, because you have to be really deep into this field to be able to bring quantum’s potential forward, further, and ahead. But there also are few people that could help bridge the gap between quantum physics, philosophical, mathematical physics and the business world.
Chivot: Which other frontier research areas do you see have promising and exciting potential?
Pflitsch: Well, that’s of course a blue ocean topic, let me try to be brief and let me stick to my area of expertise. For example, the other exciting cutting-edge theme not mentioned before is the quantum brain-to-(quantum)computer interface (BCI).
Terra Quantum is actively considering some quantum activities around certain brain functions, which could contribute to certain brain-to-machine-interfaces (also BCI) developments.
Another promising area is the quantum Internet, the connection of quantum information systems with totally secure information exchange.
We are coming closer to quantum supremacy. It’s just a matter of time, in terms of how advanced quantum computing is, in terms of the number of qubits, of the coherence time, and the stable performance of a quantum computer. And it will solve problems that you can’t even think about. The coming quantum age will see unthinkable, disruptive innovations!