How quantum physics can make Israel more secure

How quantum physics can make Israel more secure

The prime minister's freshly announced project recruits some revolutionary technologies and excites scientists

A Merck researcher does work on quantum materials (PRNewsFoto/Merck KGaA)
A Merck researcher does work on quantum materials (PRNewsFoto/Merck KGaA)

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced with great pomp a project that would enhance Israel’s intelligence gathering capacities through the use of quantum technology.

“I will soon declare the ‘technological scientific program to strengthen Israel’s security,’” Netanyahu told science ministers and delegations from 25 countries at a convention in Jerusalem.

“Among other things, the revolutionary program will advance Israel in quantum technology. That field is vital for Israel’s intelligence,” he said, expressing his hope that Israel would become a global leader in the field.

In the wake of this declaration, The Times of Israel asked Italy-born physicist Dr. Emanuele Dalla Torre, a member of Bar-Ilan University’s center for quantum technologies, to shed some light on what quantum technology is and how it can aid in intelligence-gathering.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) at an international science ministers convention in Jerusalem on May 28, 2018. (Jorge Novominsky/GPO)

Quantum physics, discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, describes the properties of microscopic particles. Within the scientific community, the study of quantum physics is considered as revolutionary as the study of nanotechnology, and the US, China and European countries are rushing to develop technologies based on quantum principles, vying for a leading spot in the emerging field.

Netanyahu’s announcement is amazing news for Israeli researchers in the field, Dalla Torre said. “If you have the potential for this technology, you want to be there,” he said. “If you don’t invest in research, you won’t have the know-how.”

Quantum physics is different from regular physics. One of the key principles of this exciting science is the superposition principle, which says that unlike regular items, which can be in only one location at any point of time, tiny particles can be both here and there, at the same time.

“Just like waves that are at more than one point at the same time, so also quantum particles can be at more than one point at any given time,” Dalla Torre explained by phone. This phenomenon is also called the particle-wave duality.

The main challenge, Dalla Torre said, is to transform the theoretical and experimental knowledge that has been accumulated in academia into useful technology.

Dr. Emanuele Dalla Torre, member of Bar-Ilan University’s center for quantum technologies (Yoni Reif)

Quantum physics is “inspiring” and researchers don’t really know yet how much they actually understand about the field, said Dalla Torre. The challenge, he said, is to “take this idea and make a device or technology out of this. That is the buzz.”

There are three leading technologies that stem from quantum physics, he explained: quantum sensing, which is the creation of devices that do precision measurements using quantum particles. You use this application when you need to be extremely accurate with timing. A quantum precision device has already been developed, Dalla Torre explained: namely, the atomic clock device, which uses an electron transition frequency as a standard for keeping time. Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system uses an atomic clock as part of its systems, Dalla Torre said.

The second technology is quantum communications, which enables the secure transfer of communication for files and data. In August last year, China became the first country worldwide to implement quantum technology in its Jinan Project, said to be the world’s first un-hackable computer network.

The third technology, he said, is considered the “holy grail” of quantum technologies: quantum computing. “The idea is to create a computer using quantum particles,” he said. This could mean using electrons, photons, which are tiny pieces of light, or even tiny wires of super-conductors in the computer.

“The idea of quantum computation is based on the principle of superposition,” he said. This principle would allow the computer to run calculations in parallel — at the same time — thus speeding up the calculation process.

But because single quantum bits are slower than regular computer binary digits, or bits, the basic units of information used in computing and digital communications, you need a very large amount of quantum bits to actually revolutionize computing, Dalla Torre explained.

Illustrative image of a blue glowing Quantum comuter (sakkmesterke; iStock by Getty Images)

Researchers around the world have already created small quantum computers, but they are not yet good enough to do complex calculations, said Dalla Torre. The computational abilities of these computers have jumped from 15 qubit (quantum bits) to 70 qubit in a year, he said. This creates a computer that is more complex than a regular computer, but to be useful it needs to have thousands or even millions of qubits. The big question is how much these speeds will further grow.

If a high-speed quantum computer can indeed be built, it will be able to factorize large numbers and do complicated mathematical calculations at very high speeds, he said. This would enable users of these computers to crack the RSA protocols, the cryptosystem that is widely used to secure data transmission on the internet, and access this information.

“If I have that technology, then I can understand and read all of the messages transferred over the internet,” said Dalla Torre, which cannot be done today. But this is a long-term project, and its success is not guaranteed.

Quantum computing, he said, is still at a “very basic level” of readiness. And even if researchers will never actually get to the holy grail, he said, any advance in the field will help other aspects of quantum technologies, he said.

Bar-Ilan University is positioning itself to be a national leader in the field of quantum science, and in June last year it opened its center for research and development of quantum technology, the Quantum Entanglement in Science and Technology (QUEST) Impact center.

In Israel, the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education said last year that it would invest tens of millions of dollars in quantum technology research in its five-year plan. The European Community is also supporting the development of quantum technology through a one billion euro program called “Flagship.”

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