Is quantum innovation the future of tech?

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Exclusive interview with Global Chief Scientific Officer of Thales, Marko Erman.

The mysterious quantum realm, or at least a Hollywood version of it, made its way into pop culture via the recent superhero film, Ant-Man. The hero shrinks down to a subatomic level - even smaller than atoms - and encounters a bizarre world that warps space and time in unpredictable ways.

At such miniscule scales, the fundamental laws of physics simply break down. But scientists have found ways to store information in individual electrons, making quantum communications possible. Or, they can measure the positions of atoms in incredibly precise ways to design navigation systems.

“We’re working on a navigation system based on quantum physics, that will be so accurate that you don’t need any more GPS,” explains Marko Erman, the Global Chief Scientific Officer of French defence and aerospace giant, Thales. He shares the real-world potential of this mysterious, but exciting field.

Beyond the electrons

Quantum physics will shape Thales’ trajectory over the coming years, says Erman. At least two-thirds of their business will be impacted in some way by new quantum devices and systems in the next 5-10 years, he announced in November at the Saclay research and technology cluster in the south of Paris.

Quantum sensors, quantum communications and quantum computing are the three main areas of focus in Thales’ research collaborations with the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Université Paris-Saclay. It is theoretically possible to build sensors that are ten thousand times more accurate; develop new energy sources; and create ultra-secure communications.

“When people built atomic clocks, they never thought about global positioning systems. They didn’t make the connection,” says Erman. He was referring to quantum positioning, which can determine the position of a moving object with an almost absolute precision. Imagine being able to navigate submarines or underground vehicles without a satellite connection. “It’s possible, below seawater,” Erman continues.

This technology has potential in the air too. If the GPS is not working on a plane, the pilot would be able to land at the destination with an accuracy of up to 20 kilometres, based only on the onboard inertia system, according to Erman. With a quantum positioning system however, it can land with the precision of within a metre. And in the military, quantum sensors within radar systems could help pilots detect suspicious flying objects or drones much more accurately in crowded airspace.

There are also quantum applications in the medical field. Take cancer treatment, for example. Current therapies can be destructive towards healthy cells, and not very targeted. Quantum devices could turn this on its head, and allow doctors to zoom in on individual diseased cells. “I think the next phase of bio science is personalisation and going down to the cellular level; this would not be possible without quantum devices,” Erman explains.

The burgeoning quantum innovation space holds great potential to transform the world as we know it. Right now, it is not particularly constrained by much regulation, Erman notes. “Unlike genetics or artificial intelligence, which have a lot of debate about the societal impact and ethics, quantum escapes from that.”

Research in Asia

Besides its huge focus on quantum innovation, Thales is continuing to build on research in its traditional verticals. Singapore is Thales’ only Asia research hub, where the company works with Nanyang Technological University (NTU) on space research such as nanosatellite technology.

The city was chosen as it is “very dynamic, is very high tech oriented”, according to Erman. What’s more, “the government wants to push innovation and there are problems that are unique because of the size, the mission,” he continues. “It’s an interesting place to be.”

Singapore is also where “you have land, air, sea, and you can basically address all aspects in one place,” adds Herve Jarry, Chief Technical Officer of Thales Solutions Asia. “I think also with the proximity of people, different agencies, it is quite easy to interact.”

In September 2019, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore has announced a S$30 million Joint Aviation Innovation Research Lab with Thales to build advanced air traffic management technologies. These are meant to augment air traffic controllers’ abilities in a stressful environment, Jarry explains.

“We've been doing some work for instance with the ATM Lab in NTU on the interactions with different sensors and heartbeat, ECG, and so on,” Jarry continues. The work will also look at how to reduce the cognitive load on air traffic controllers so they can “handle more objects”, he adds. Other research areas in Singapore include artificial intelligence and digital identity, Jarry goes on to say.

In the lonely spaces between protons and neurons, there exists a strange quantum world which does not always make much sense. But what does make sense is how it can improve communication, health, transport, and more, in ways we can’t fathom today. As Erman puts it: “It’s beyond imagination.”