Despite its reputation as an industrial and research powerhouse, Germany has fallen behind when it comes to quantum computing. But a new computer at home could change all of that.
A new quantum age could be on the horizon in Germany. The country wants to catch up with industry leaders China and the US in the realm of quantum computing, a technology that could offer huge strategic advantages to the economies that master it.
On Tuesday, American tech company IBM and the Munich-based Fraunhofer Institute unveiled a quantum computing collaboration centered on the new IBM Quantum System One computer, nowthe most powerful quantum computer in Europe.
China and the US hold far more patents on quantum computing technology than Germany does, despite the European country being home to a little-known but highly active research environment in the field.
"I would say we have flown under the radar for a long time," says Christian Ospelkaus, professor for quantum physics at Leibniz University Hanover. This is partly because some of the funding in the past simply ran under other — often scientifically technical — headings, he told DW.
"It didn't say: "We are building a quantum computer," but rather said: "Let's study a 20-ion highly entangled state."
Now QUTAC and the IBM Quantum System One are bringing this expertise out into the open.
Germany had long been strong in all the areas you need to build quantum computers, the professor said. Now it's just a matter of going through with it.
"We need our own hardware in Germany, hardware that we develop ourselves, not hardware that we let someone talk us into buying from afar," he argued.
"For it to go forward, there also has to be a corresponding market that stimulates the development of these devices. And that's where the industry can do a lot, of course."
Unlike standard computers, which process functions in a binary fashion, carrying out tasks that use fragments of data that are only ever a 1 or 0, quantum computers can consider the implications of both 1 and 0 at the same time. The data fragments on a quantum computer, known as qubits (short for "quantum bits"), significantly boost its computing power.
Using e. g. individual atoms or superconducting circuits, quantum computers can perform calculations at far greater speeds than existing supercomputers.
Quantum computers today are just starting to outstrip what standard computers can still do, says Ospelkaus, but not necessarily to the extent that there is an added value. Instead, scientists often construct problems that a classical computer cannot solve, but that a quantum computer can.
"Then you have a problem that you've worked on that the classical computer didn't solve, but the problem wasn't useful in itself," said Ospelkaus.
Now that is starting to change. "We're just getting to the point where, for very selected cases, these machines are really already spitting out useful results," he added.
It's these useful results that industry players in Germany have been interested in for years.
Many of the companies making up QUTAC already have quantum specialists on the payroll, and these teams are becoming ever more important, says Ospelkaus. A LinkedIn post about QUTAC from Volkswagen's CIO even linked to a job posting seeking a quantum specialist to help the carmaker identify potential applications for quantum technology "with the ultimate goal of achieving an operational advantage for Volkswagen."
There are many ideas about how quantum computing could help the industrial sector. A video from BMW suggests that quantum computers could help industrial robots find the most efficient way to apply sealing material to seams on a car, saving the German auto giant time, cost and materials.
Other applications for quantum computers include helping identify the most efficient and least costly routes for transporting goods and material; they could improve machine learning, helping computers to better understand natural speech or increasing their ability to "see" and identify objects that show up on their cameras.
Many also point ambivalently to the fact that quantum computers have been proven capable of cracking encrypted messages. This technology could lead to the development of more secure alternatives to encryption, though experts are mixed about the true risk of this application.
Much research still needs to be completed for these ideas to become realities.
A large and revered research institute, Fraunhofer will now use the new quantum computer to perform tests with machine learning, optimization and more. Companies, including those outside of QUTAC, and other interested parties can sign up with the institute to conduct experiments of their own and become familiar with the technology.
On its website, QUTAC says it plans to begin by identifying possible industrial applications for quantum computing.
Germany appears to be developing what Ospelkaus calls "a comprehensive quantum ecosystem." He points to initiatives like the Quantum Valley Lower Saxony initiative, which are popping up throughout Germany.
"Eventually, we will see a quantum ecosystem in Germany where industry and academia, users and hardware developers, system integrators and suppliers, small and large companies work together to push the development of this technology."
A "real quantum advantage" can be expected relatively soon, he adds, with a broad application still five to 10 years away.
"And the furthest away is probably actually cryptography," he says. "I'm not worried about my RSA encryption yet."