Charles Bennett, Gilles Brassard and Peter Shor were recently honored with the BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Basic Sciences for their outstanding contributions to the field of quantum technologies.
Inaugurated in 2008 by the major multinational Spanish banking group, BBVA, this international award program recognizes significant contributions in scientific research and cultural creation and this year reached its twelfth edition. We recently reported that Vladimir Vapnik, was among the recipients in the ICT category for fundamental contributions to Machine Learning and at the same time the Basic Sciences category singled out Quantum Computing and Cryptography.
This video from the BBVA gives the background to the award and shows how Skype enabled the ceremony in Spain to be shared with the laureates, Peter Shor now Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gilles Brassard who is Canada Research Chair in Quantum Information Science at the Université de Montréal and Charles Bennett at IBM Research.
As the citation points out:
The work of the laureates spans multiple disciplines and brings together concepts from mathematics, physics, and computer science. Their ideas are playing a key role in the development of quantum technologies for communication and computation.
Bennett and Brassard invented quantum cryptography in the 1980s to ensure the physical inviolability of data communications. Their BB84 protocol, which is generally acknowledged as the first practical application of the science of quantum information, underpins the security of all our internet communications and transactions, and is based on the existence of mathematical problems that computers cannot solve.
The importance of this work became apparent 10 years later when Shor, whose algorithm is named after him, discovered that a hypothetical quantum computer would render effectively useless the conventional cryptography systems underpinning the privacy and security of today’s internet communications by being able to find the prime factors of large numbers. To quote his own words from the video:
“Current cryptographic systems depend on the difficulty of factoring numbers. If you could factor numbers quickly, you could break all the codes of today’s systems. What I showed is that a quantum computer could factor large numbers fairly quickly. Of course nobody has actually built a big enough quantum computer to factor those numbers yet, and it will probably be years or decades before they do.”
Shor’s other landmark contribution is that of quantum error correction; recognised by the BBVA award committee as:
an essential requirement for enabling and scaling quantum computations.
Quantum computers are, by their very nature. exposed to a large volume of noise, causing numerous errors. Before Shor’s finding, it was not believed theoretically possible to isolate quantum computers to such an extent that errors could be eradicated. As Shor recalls in the video below:
“Everyone thought that you couldn’t correct errors on quantum computers because as soon as you try to measure a quantum system you disturb it. In other words, if you try to measure the error so as to correct it, you disturb it and computation is interrupted. My algorithm showed that you can isolate and fix the error and still preserve the computation”.
This hopeful finding propelled quantum computing forward. Although Shor believes that it will be 5 or 10 years before a quantum computer can do anything approaching useful he is optimistic that these machines will deliver revolutionary applications in for instance, biomedicine
“At the moment, it takes enormous amounts of computer time to simulate the behavior of molecules, but quantum computers could achieve that, and help design new drugs.”
The leap forward in quantum technologies witnessed in these last few years, and currently being fuelled by the impetus of the global pandemic, is an advance which draws heavily on the pioneering contributions of the laureates honored by the BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award.
Quantum Computation on edX – News of a 3-part course from 2018 taught by Peter Shor, now archived which means you can still access its content.
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