Experts around the world, including the Quantum Metrology Unit of Britain’s National Physical Laboratory have been working for years on defining a second of time. If they had asked me I could have told them; in fact I am so familiar with the concept that I use it all the time, as when my wife asks me to do something and I actually say “OK, just half a sec” and if she is patient enough she will see just what I mean. Anyway it seems the boffins want to use quantum technology to do this even though 60 or so years ago the caesium atomic clock was arguably an application of quantum technology. Since then they’ve probably been working on making a simple application seem confusing to the rest of us.

Mention quantum mechanics to me and I think of something being in two places at the same time or in a different energy state at the same time. Just as pathetic as the definition of a second is the idea that two atoms separated by a great distance can somehow communicate their condition to each other. My wife has had this power of knowing what I am doing for as long as I have known her but I use a ruder word than entanglement to describe it. Again the fact that a particle’s exact position can never be known with certainty until it is measured is just a normal domestic situation – could be the pub or anywhere. The theory has been well understood by mathematicians for nearly a century and by marriage guidance counsellors for even longer. As for the behaviour of particles being counter-intuitive, well again just an every day situation. In fact one of the most influential British experts is Sir Peter Knight who neatly illustrates the quantum paradox – he was a knight but not a knight until his position was fixed.

However it does seem that quantum computers can do things which I would find tedious or boring, like working out the prime numbers that multiplied together make a very big number. Yaaaawn. OK so it is all tied up with cryptographic protocols and that sort of thing. It seems that whereas conventional computers work only on one value of a bit at any one time the quantum computer, if all the cubits are entangled at the same time, can work exponentially faster. The domestic analogy is a wife swapping party.

Google is said to be the furthest on with a quantum computer. Who cares? I already get about 2 billion results in six seconds when I do a search. Microsoft is said to be most advanced with the software needed to achieve this warp like speed. And what about the hilarious wordplay on a quantum term by the aptly named start up software developer LIQU¦>. Must have had Sir Peter and the team falling off their chairs.

We can all rest easy though. Microsoft’s Krysta Svore tells us that a thorough analysis of the energy intensive nitrogenese reaction to make fertiliser will take only a day or two on a 100-logical-qubit quantum computer whereas on a conventional supercomputer it would take billions of years. That’s one of my worries taken care of then, plus a bit more spare time.

© J R B Livesey 2017