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The Second Quantum Revolution

NIST’s Carl Williams and others believe we’re in the midst of a new revolution in quantum physics. The first revolution enabled inventions such as the laser and transistor, the basic building block of computers, when scientists knew the rules of quantum mechanics and built devices that followed those rules.

“Quantum mechanics is there, but we're not actually controlling all of the quantum systems at the individual level,” says NIST’s Ray Simmonds.

The second quantum revolution is all about controlling individual quantum systems,, such as charged molecules, to a greater extent than before, enabling even more powerful applications of quantum information. The method borrows a quantum logic approach from an experimental NIST atomic clock. 
Credit: N. Hanacek/NIST

“The second quantum revolution is where you're really using the quantum mechanics to do everything for you,” such as entangling individual qubits to transmit information, Simmonds says. “You’re engineering the quantum mechanics itself to do something, not, ‘Oh, I have a widget that has these special properties because of quantum mechanics.’”

The future of quantum information is an open book.

photo of strontium atomic clock
JILA’s three-dimensional (3-D) quantum gas atomic clock, an early example of the second quantum resolution, controls the interactions between strontium atoms to an exquisite degree to  enable atomic clocks that are more accurate than ever before.
Credit: G.E. Marti/JILA

“I would say the last five years are the most exciting it's been. And I think it will even get more exciting five to 10 years in the future,” Monroe says.

Chris Monroe: “It’s the Most Exciting Time Now”
Chris Monroe: “It’s the Most Exciting Time Now”

It’s still unclear whether it will be possible to build a quantum computer powerful enough to break current encryption protocols. Researchers still aren’t sure what kinds of discoveries they will make with quantum information science or what the most useful applications will be. But the stakes are high—and from nations to corporations, everyone is getting into the game.

“The reality is that the global race is on,” says Williams.

Created March 21, 2018, Updated April 5, 2022