CERN ready to take on the quantum shift

2 CERN Data Center (Veronica McQuade/CERN)

Known for its particle accelerators, CERN has made it clear that it will not miss out on quantum technologies.

Straddling the Franco-Swiss border, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is home to the world’s largest physics laboratory and a gigantic particle accelerator. Yet since 2020, little known to many, the prestigious centre has embarked on a programme in quantum technologies, the Quantum Technology Initiative (QTI).

CERN is also one of the scientific partners behind a proposal by the Geneva Anticipator for Science and Diplomacy (Gesda) to establish an institute dedicated to quantum technology, the Open Quantum Institute (OQI), by 2027. And why not? It was after all in Geneva, at CERN, that the web was invented.

In recent years, quantum technologies, covering a wide spectrum ranging from quantum computing to quantum sensors and networks, have been considered a strategic research area for governments. In October, research in the field was recognised when a trio of scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.

A breakthrough that some expect may give rise to a “quantum advantage” – in other words the superiority of quantum computing over traditional computers – is still a long way off. But whether it is yet another “hype”, as the tech world has often seen, is a question being debated within economic circles.

Meanwhile, since 2018, CERN's flagship particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), has undergone several shutdowns due to renovations. The latest is expected to be completed over the course of 2029. The aim is to increase the “luminosity” of protons’ beams allowing the number of possible collisions to increase. Physicists hope this will increase the probability of detecting new rare particles.

This project includes the installation of new sensors and new IT infrastructures to process the colossal quantities of data that will  be produced as a result. Once the final shutdown ends in 2029, the volume of data processed is expected to be multiplied by ten.

We spoke to Alberto Di Meglio, head of innovation in the CERN information technology department, about CERN’s plans.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. When did CERN become interested in quantum technologies?

Alberto Di Meglio: I am often asked this question, in two very different ways: either I am asked why CERN is interested in quantum technologies, or I am asked why CERN is not more interested in them.

Quantum physics is nonetheless at the heart of particle physics, at the heart of what we study at CERN. Regarding quantum technologies, they must be considered in the broad sense, in particular by integrating the subject of quantum sensors. It's not just quantum computing. Long before we spoke about a quantum computer, CERN was already making quantum sensors, for example, to study the properties of antimatter particles.

Could you tell us about the Quantum Technology Initiative that you coordinate, and which was launched by CERN in 2020?

The idea of the QTI comes from the broader framework of CERN openlab, which I have also supervised since 2012. The goal of CERN’s openlab, created in the early 2000s, is to build public-private partnerships with industry players. Today, we are very interested in all computational aspects (data centres, algorithms, big data, artificial intelligence). The main idea is to use new technologies for the benefit of both CERN and industry.

In 2017, we began to take an interest in what was being done in quantum computing. In 2018, finally, we held a large event dedicated to quantum computing applied to high-energy physics in the main auditorium of CERN, attended by more than 400 people from CERN. We understood that there was a real interest in the field in the physics community.

Following this, in 2020, we proposed the idea of the QTI, which combines all the interesting issues for CERN regarding quantum technologies: computing, sensors, communications, but also the theoretical aspect. Today, we are in our third year, and we have about twenty collaborative projects underway, notably with IBM and several universities in CERN member states.

What’s the interest for CERN in these projects?

The QTI remains very focused on physics, and on the benefits that CERN has identified for quantum technologies. We want to capitalise on that, even if we are aware that the full potential will not be reached immediately. Some quantum sensors could help us detect much lower energy levels. This can be valuable in seeking to finally detect new particles outside the standard model [a model which is considered a “bible of physics”, but known to be incomplete.]

Furthermore, there are more strategic programmes in Europe, Japan and the United States which revolve around these technologies. The idea is for CERN to position itself as a high-level interlocutor on these issues in dialogues with these stakeholders.

In your opinion, is quantum technologies currently a trending issue? In early January, an article in the Financial Times went as far as to mention a possible quantum “winter”, similar to the winter in artificial intelligence (AI) that has experienced several periods of crisis during  the 1970s and 1980s.

When I began to take a close interest in quantum technologies five years ago, I realised how fast they were evolving. Even artificial intelligence has not advanced as quickly. Certainly, there is a lot of hype, but also a lot of concrete possibilities. Like all technologies that make the headlines, you have to make allowances: no technology is magic. Five years ago, we were talking about applications of quantum computing for 20 years from now. Today, it’s expected that they may be possible in five to ten years. There is still this need to find ‘killer applications’ for quantum computing.

The current problem with quantum computing is mostly an engineering problem. If we want to sum up, it is that we have to deal with both quantum entanglement [one qubit will affect another, from a distance. See below] and quantum superposition [a qubit does not have the value 0 or 1, but some probability of having one or the other value.] We already have small quantum computers that can be used in practice, from a few tens to a few thousand qubits. However, for the quantum to fully reveal its potential in the face of complex problems impossible to solve for traditional computers, we would need computers with several hundred thousand qubits and more.

The concern is not only to build these qubits, but to put them together: when we increase the number of qubits, the “noise” – a source of error in the calculations – increases in a way that is not proportional to the number of qubits. It is an engineering issue, a chain of custody.

The step to be taken is of the same order of magnitude as between the first computers and the first printed circuits in the 1960s and 1970s. But a quantum winter, like the AI winter? I don't think so: the problem with AI is that the theoretical computing side was 20 years ahead of the capabilities of the hardware infrastructure. With quantum computing, the two aspects, hardware and software, progress at the same level.

CERN is also one of the partners of the Open Quantum Institute (OQI), a global centre for quantum technology announced by Gesda at the end of 2022, which is due to open in Geneva between 2025 and 2027.

Right. Roughly two years ago, we were contacted by Gesda, which wanted to know if CERN was interested in a project assessing the impact of quantum technologies from the perspective of their impact on society. We started with the observation that it was necessary to avoid the creation of a “quantum divide” , in the same way that we observe today a digital divide in certain places in the world. Of course, for the moment, quantum technologies remain expensive, but there is still a risk of seeing a quantum divide in the future, even as the cost of access to these infrastructures drops, since not all countries have the same initial advantage.

We therefore worked with Gesda and other international partners for 18 months to create the concept of the OQI, which we felt was consistent with CERN's mission. Of course, the heart of our activity remains physics, but a significant part of our mission is to contribute to society, and we have several programmes underway in this direction.

Read more: GESDA reveals plans for Geneva quantum hub and science diplomacy curriculum

What are the next concrete steps ahead of OQI’s operational launch? Where do we stand today?

We are still building on this idea. The OQI will be funded for two years during incubation, from 2023 to 2025, which will begin in March. One of the first steps will be to define the governance of the OQI. We will not necessarily create a new international organisation on purpose, but we can link it to another international organisation. CERN was consulted to best define this governance, in order to guarantee that the work of the OQI does not belong to a single country.

Concretely, the academic and industrial partners (including CERN, the two federal polytechnic schools, the University of Geneva, IBM, Microsoft) work together with several international organisations in Geneva to define a certain number of concrete problems, as many employ cases where quantum technologies could be of use to the common good, meeting the sustainable development goals as defined by the United Nations.

Some of these problems are real challenges in terms of technical implementation, others are mainly computational optimization problems. CERN is a particular driving force when it comes to the development of efficient quantum computing algorithms – which represents a third of the resources devoted to the Quantum Technology Initiative internally.

The purpose of the OQI will be to act as an “honest broker”. The metaphor is that of brokerage: if you need a loan, you contact an intermediary capable of interacting with the banks. The OQI will be able to play the same role in terms of quantum technologies, by bringing together demands and technological solutions.

A brief lexicon of quantum computing

Bit or qubit, what's the difference? Unlike the bit, the most basic unit of information which is either in a state of 0 or in state of 1, the qubit — or quantum bit — can be simultaneously in both states, which is called quantum superposition, meaning that a qubit has a certain probability of being 0 or 1.

The problem is that this phenomenon, if it can be described by mathematical formulas, is difficult to observe: how to know that we are indeed observing the intrinsic state of the qubit, and not the influence of the external environment, which can interact remotely according to the principle of quantum entanglement? Quantum physics postulates that two molecules can influence each other, even at great distances.

This results in an often non-negligible error rate in the reading of qubits. The latter must then be calculated by comparing the measurements with predicted values, often from simulations carried out on traditional computers.

This article was originally published in French in It has been adapted and translated into English by Geneva Solutions.

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