28 February 2017

Who will buy quantum technology?

A new contender for the role of “technology that will change the world”, quantum technology (QT), has yet to provoke declarations from the usual grumpy sources that it will bring an end to civilisation as we know it, with warnings that it will wreck your health, the environment or your mental faculties. Also thin on the ground is much considered thought on how QT could influence us in any way, or how the public will respond to something that isn’t the easiest area of science and technology to explain.

The people having fun in this new playground have yet to come up with a pocket definition that they can show to us and lead discussions of the likely impacts of QT.

Perhaps that is a part of the problem. You can’t rail against something that you don’t understand. Nanotechnology, on the other hand, just means “very small” and has led to shelves of reports and numerous studies on safety and the environment.

One of the self-appointed defenders against nasty technologies, ETC Group, not only went for nanotechnology, it is now “tracking” synthetic biology, another of the technological saviours. As yet, this organisation has paid little attention to QT.

What follows is a short account of the small amount of material that came up in a recent conversation on a mailing list of people who spend their lives thinking about “science in public”, and how to engage the wider world discussions of what they are happy to have QT do for them.

Early engagement

The first source on this is one of the few reports on the subject comes from ScienceWise, Public attitudes to quantum technology. The report describes itself as “a review of information on the views and values of the public on quantum technology available at time of writing, April 2014”. The authors lay their cards on the table early on with the statement that “Despite an extensive web search, there seems to be no evidence of the views of the public on this topic.”

Three years on and the landing page for this project says “No one has commented on this page yet.” Perhaps this is another sign that there is still little public interest in QT.

Fortunately, the Networked Quantum Information Technologies Hub (NQIT), a watering hole for players in this new game, is aware of the need for an active approach to “engagement”. Last year, NQIT paraded itself with a stand at the Cheltenham Science Festival.

QuantIC, the Quantum Imaging Hub based in Glasgow, also does ‘outreach’ in this area.

There has been a flurry of video activity:

Last September, St Andrews University put on a quantum physics show, called Quantum Digits and Dances, for Explorathon.

Then there is Quantum in the Cloud, a project which aims to provide resources for anybody interested in quantum technologies. This comes from the Centre for Quantum Photonics, led by Professor Jeremy O'Brien, at the University of Bristol.

On a wider front, the EU is an active player in QT, coming up with research programmes and promoting what calls its Quantum Flagship. (The European Commission tells us that “Future & Emerging Technologies Flagships are visionary, large-scale, science-driven research initiatives which tackle scientific and technological challenges across scientific disciplines”.)

In February 2017, the Quantum Flagship High-Level expert group put out its Intermediate Report. Mostly about the science and technology and how to turn them into business opportunities, the report does say that “further measures are recommended to create better market transparency, to stimulate and support quantum start-ups and to reach out to the public, to stimulate awareness about quantum technologies’ opportunities”.

As yet, then, these are early days for wider discussion of quantum technology and how it will sell in the real world. But this is likely to change as real applications surface along with user friendly descriptions of what quantum technology is all about.

05 February 2017

How the climate has change

One of the delights of having a messy office is that you sometimes stumble upon an entertaining piece of paper. For example, on 8th November 1990, The Times published a piece by its science editor under the headline “Is this really a scientist speaking?”

It was about a speech that the then Prime Minister, a certain Margaret Thatcher, had given to the World Climate Conference. The Times piece quotes her as saying “We must not waste time and energy disputing the report of the Inter Governmental Panel on Climatic Change, or debating the right machinery for making progress.”

The science editor took issue with this, complaining that, for all her claims to have a background in science, “Somewhere along the way,” Mrs Thatcher “seems to have abandoned her scientific scepticism and adopted the simple clich├ęs of the environmental activists.” He then goes on to write “There are many things in the IPCC report that must be disputed, energetically. As a scientific hypothesis, man-made global warming is plausible but unproven.”

Even a quarter of a century ago, that was a pretty brave statement, although one that appeared more often than you might think. Today, it seems almost quaint.

The closing paragraph, after complaining that the whole scare was based on dodgy models, is chilling, though. “A couple of cold winters will take the froth off the debate, and allow us the time we need to discover whether or not the earth is really warming up. Meanwhile, the overheated rhetoric in Geneva is premature and potentially very damaging.”

We didn’t get those cold winters. Snow is a novelty for many young children living in southern parts of the UK. We did get a run of the hottest summers on record. So perhaps the problem was that the rhetoric in Geneva was not hot enough.