Quantum Technology And The Global Space Ecosystem
Updated: Mar 14
According to the World Economic Forum, the global quantum computing market size is estimated to reach $35.5 billion globally, even as the technology has not reached maturity. The world’s leading economies are betting big on quantum to tackle myriad issues, from addressing climate change to eradicating hunger and disease and fending off cyber threats.
According to a McKinsey report, publicly announced investments into quantum technology companies in 2021 amounted to $1.7 billion, which represents approximately 20 times the amount raised by the sector five years prior and more than a twofold increase on 2020. Various other reports observe a higher number of quantum startups entering the ecosystem as well as increased government funding of research and development. The U.S., China, Canada, Great Britain and Germany have established themselves as global leaders in venture funding, and the Indian government launched the National Mission on Quantum Technologies and Applications, providing more than $1 billion for the establishment of several institutes dedicated to quantum computing, communications and cryptography.
These numbers signal opportunity. Quantum may be still in its infancy, but the potential to accomplish bold things is there and so are the dollars to drive innovation forward.
What Exactly Is Quantum?
Quantum physics explores how matter and energy behave at the level of atoms or subatomic particles. When applied to computing, quantum theory enables a massive leap forward in terms of speed while requiring less energy for power.
Space Will Be The Driver Of Quantum Innovation
Here are three keys of how space can help unlock quantum’s power for advancements:
Cold: Quantum computers function at their best at temperatures nearing absolute zero. That kind of cold is difficult and extremely expensive to produce on Earth, even in frigid polar regions. But outside Earth’s atmosphere, extremely cold temperatures can be achieved by simply providing shade. Instruments on the James Webb Space Telescope can deliver incredible infrared pictures of deep space because of extreme cold. The instruments on Webb were cooled to 447 degrees below zero, a condition that’s cost prohibitive to attain on Earth but can be reached with relative ease in space.
Controlled environment: To reach correct answers, quantum computing needs its subatomic parts to function in an interference-free vacuum. That’s another piece that is difficult and expensive to attain on Earth but comparatively simple and cheap in space.
Access to vast streams of data: On Earth, we’d be required to build physical data pipelines to feed voracious quantum machines. By contrast, in space, information flows freely. In fact, the world is increasingly turning to space for data services from phone and internet signals to secure laser communications for national security needs.
Although quantum technologies are still in the early stages, exciting work is happening in Europe, where quantum tech provides secure communications on the ground. Groups led by the European Commission will extend them into space to develop complementary networks of distant nodes. They also have plans to use quantum for space-based sensing of the Earth to assess the environmental impact of climate change and more.
Here in the U.S., the ISS National Laboratory is conducting research in space to determine the viability of potential applications. These include “communication solutions (time keeping for banking, GPS), coded satellite-based transmissions (‘quantum cryptography’), and very sensitive sensors for faster computers and improved communications, navigation, and healthcare.”
Risk Vs. Reward
There are risks involved with developing quantum computing, however—including two with steep consequences. The first is found in quantum’s potential to issue incorrect answers. Unlike traditional computers, which are essentially a vast array of on and off switches, quantum functions much more like a series of dimmer switches with a variety of settings that can be predicted but not seen.
That means answers in the quantum realm are predictions rather than absolutes. Honing the accuracy is necessary for the future of quantum computing. When astronaut lives are on the line, for example, 99% accuracy isn’t good enough.
Additionally, quantum computing should be considered a tool like any other. A hammer can build a home or break a window. Quantum computing can unlock a bright future, but if harnessed by aggressive totalitarian states, it could be used to target weapons, spy on populations with unimaginable fidelity, and allow dissent to be crushed with a few keystrokes.
Heeding The Call
Risk has always been inherent in “space.” One needs only think of the Challenger crew for a painful reminder that no mission is guaranteed. But imagine where we would be today if we hadn’t tried to explore, if Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong had never been given the chance to walk on the moon and, therefore, all of the life-changing innovations for people across planet Earth were not able to be tested and applied.
Absolute focus on assessing and minimizing risks goes part and parcel with space; building better technologies to help us get there is an element of it. Our global space ecosystem will overcome the accuracy challenge with the help of other technologies, such as digital twins.
In terms of partnership, and the fear of quantum solutions falling into the wrong hands, this is not a James Bond movie. From Apollo-Soyuz easing the chill of the Cold War to the example of peaceful cooperation set by the International Space Station, humankind looks to space as a global symbol of unity and liberty. This international collaboration and respect will help ensure quantum computing stays on course.
By working together, we keep each other in check. By collaborating on technology innovation, we can take quantum to its fullest potential.
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