Quantum leap

Quantum leap

University of Waterloo researchers take computing to the molecular level, leading to tiny, power-packed computers and security systems
July 1, 2007
In Raymond Laflamme’s universe, objects can occupy more than one space at the same time. Sound crazy? Well, it is, but not in the conventional sense. Occupying more than one space simultaneously is one of the properties of quantum mechanics that Laflamme, the director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, explores daily. He exploits these conditions to develop information processing applications that could revolutionize our lives in the coming years. And, it was precisely this research, along with the infrastructure, the environment, and the critical mass of expertise in Waterloo that attracted Laflamme back to Canada from the renowned Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Since the first prototypes of clunky computers were built in the 1940s, researchers and engineers have been shrinking the size of transistors that make up a computer’s brain. Transistors manipulate units of information called bits. By making the transistors smaller, the bits can talk to each other faster. For the last half century, computer technology advanced so much that engineers have been able to double the information packed into the transistors every two years. Information processing devices continue to shrink and speed up; just look to Research in Motion’s Blackberry for proof.

If this trend continues, by 2020, transistors could be the size of atoms, says Laflamme. That’s where a new challenge comes in. Molecular circuits will not perform in the physical universe the same way that larger circuits do. This is where the leap to the quantum universe occurs. “When we reach the size of atoms, the laws of physics change,” Laflamme explains. “We go from what we call the classical world of physics…into the laws of quantum mechanics.” Those laws include two central properties: a quantum object can be in more than one place at once, and, when anyone observes a quantum system, they leave a “fingerprint” behind.

“It turns out those two properties of quantum mechanics can be turned into technologies,” says Laflamme. And so, at the Institute for Quantum Computing, Laflamme and his colleagues are using these properties to develop quantum cryptography. Currently, cryptographers write codes based on factoring prime numbers. These codes form the basis of security systems used, for example, by bank and airline websites to protect consumers’ personal information. The encryption is based on the premise that it would take years for a computer to break the code and decipher the string of prime-number factors.

Eventually, however, quantum computers will be able to solve massive mathematical problems exponentially faster than classical computers, thereby rendering today’s encryption useless. Laflamme and the team at IQC have created a quantum cryptography prototype that links two computers in different locations. Now they’re developing a quantum security code. It’s based on the property that if someone observes a quantum system, say by intercepting a secret message, that eavesdropper will leave a fingerprint behind. This fingerprint will allow senders and receivers to identify whether their messages have been intercepted.

In 15 to 20 years, Laflamme expects the implementation of quantum computation. Once quantum computers are built, people will be able to take control of the quantum universe. “We’ll arrive at a new era in the world of technology, when we control a new force of nature,” says Laflamme. “This technology will change the way we do things and the fabric of society itself.”


In our expanding digital economy, the safe transfer of information will only grow in importance and demand. Therefore, commercializing quantum cryptography will prove extremely lucrative to companies that can offer safe ways to encrypt data.

Raymond Laflamme and his team are helping to develop a quantum security code to do the job. If successful, the financial boon could be huge. On the premise that only 1,000 companies upgrade their security systems based on the new code, Laflamme estimates the revenue for Canadian security solution companies to be upwards of $170 million. Globally, that revenue could reach $1.7 billion.

It’s no surprise then, that in the security and intelligence fields, this research is hot property. The Communications Security Establishment is already working with the institute, and has hired some of its graduates to assess the impacts of these new technologies. The U.S. National Security Agency and its equivalents in Britain and Australia are also researching the technology. “We know that the intelligence community is definitely investing in this very seriously,” says Laflamme. “It is their hope for the transmission of secure information in the future.”


For Mike Lazaridis, president and co-founder of Research in Motion, creating the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Waterloo and enabling the research of Raymond Laflamme and his colleagues was an easy business decision. “We realized we could build something around Raymond and his research—something that was unique and absolutely cutting edge,” says Lazaridis. He believes quantum technology and cryptology will lead the next technological revolution, and quite simply, he wanted his company, and Canada, to be involved. Lazaridis gave $100 million to set up the Perimeter Institute and donated another $50 million to the university to help establish the Institute for Quantum Computing.

While no one can accurately predict the next “killer application” that transforms society, Lazaridis is sure that quantum science—and the people who understand and can exploit it—are the right place for his resources. “There are so many areas in quantum technology that have potential for commercialization,” he says. Given the success of the Blackberry, Lazaridis clearly knows a good investment when he sees it. “Canada is already a world leader in quantum information technology,” Lazaridis says. Although Canada doesn’t have the scale and sheer numbers of emerging economies, “we can build very difficult-to-replicate teams of researchers and entrepreneurs that will provide a unique capability and value to the country, and will be part of the branding of the country.”

Learn More

Visit QuantumWorks and the Institute for Quantum Information Science at the University of Calgary.