From Babbage to quantum computer: Which are the socio-cultural conditions for radical innovation?

Quantum technology, as an emerging field of physics and engineering, will be a disruptive technology, affecting multidimensional parts of our lives and businesses, “but for now, as we do not have a crystal ball, we do not have a clear picture and we cannot know how the disruption is going to happen” (Dr. Araceli Venegas-Gomez).

Quantum physics is the study of matter and energy at a fundamental level, which is underpinning a new field of emerging technologies such as quantum computing, cryptography, sensors, simulation, measurement, and imaging.

This CIMR Debate ‘ From Babbage to quantum computer: Which are the socio-cultural conditions for radical innovation?’ – held on March 15th 2023 – aimed to  shed light on the historical context of quantum, and its present and future contributions to technology and innovation.

Saverio Romeo, who chaired the session, was inspired to organise this debate from his connection with two research projects: one led by Dr. Hugh Lawson-Tancred, looking at implications of the history and the evolution of computing today in which quantum is integrated, and the other a collaboration with Professor Helen Lawton Smith, aiming to better understanding the dynamics of entrepreneurship in quantum technology in different areas in the UK .

A brief history of computer machines

The debate started with Dr. Hugh Lawson-Tancred who narrated the history of computer machines. Hugh provided a brief history of computing until 19th century, and the criteria needed to develop computers.

The pre-conditions for an IT take off, as Hugh described, are:  hardware, software, electricity, measures of transmission between various computers to get networks going, memory as a storage facility and applications that define what it is used for.

By the start of 19th century, the French developed a mechanical loom, which then was elaborated into a digital-automatic approach to weave silk (by Joseph Marie Jacquard) at a rate of 24 times faster than doing it manually. Later on, Gaspard de Prony, who was fascinated by Adam Smiths’ hierarchical approach to division of labour, produced tables to look up the results of calculations classified in columns to prevent the need for individual calculation of complicated multiplications, but the manually produced tables were difficult to create and prone to errors.

De Prony’s methods of producing tables inspired Charles Babbage (1822-1842) in the UK who invented a model “Difference Engine”, a machine that was capable of producing the appropriate differences between elements in a column of a table. After human input for each column, the Difference Engine could produce the remaining entries systematically and correctly, and the machine itself could print out the results (thereby avoiding the equally serious risk of typesetting errors).

Babbage’s next project was the “start of the first computer”. By early 1840, Babbage developed the concept of an “Analytical Engine” that would have included operation cards and variable cards in the front section, a location for memories in store in the back section, and a steam engine. Babbage gave a lecture on the machine for Giovanni Plana’s group in Turin, who was interested in hearing about Babbage’s Analytical Engine. This was subsequently reproduced in French by a member of the group, Luigi Menabrea. Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician who had worked with Babbage for some years, translated the text into English and added notes of her own. These notes, annotations and commentary greatly exceeded the length of the original text, and contained a number of extremely interesting suggestion for how this machine could be used. She also made a number of remarks which clearly suggested that she got the notion of a general process of “digitalization of information” which is now honoured as the “basic concept of software”.

The end of the first half of the 19th century witnessed the first nonbiological generation of electricity and the crucial stage of discovering electromagnetism, the magnetic field associated with the current which is capable of carrying a signal. The discovery of the magnetic field around an electric current – the key concept of the Electric Telegraph – was first exploited in 1830-1840, after Faraday had systematised the laws of magnetism.  The idea of large-scale digital storage was introduced by Herman Hollerith in the United States who was the founder of what ultimately became IBM. Hollerith developed a calculating machine used in 1890s census, which relied on using cards to store information. From then on the notion of an integrated memory was pretty much established.

Hugh then continued the journey by introducing the notion of applications in computing technology that could have been used as a base for many practical, commercial, administrative and military purposes at that time. However the main potential application of computing technology was in science, and particularly in the area of astronomy, most notably in the calculations which led to the discovery of the planet Neptune in the 1840s. 

Hugh opened up a discussion of the rationale behind the slow pace of progress in technology despite the existence of all ingredients. He suggested that the most plausible answer today is that there was something wrong with the networks. In this sense, he discussed the significance of Science Technology and Society (STS), as well as social and cultural factors, as the locus of networks issues. In particular, Hugh focused on several network distorters: nations, genders and class. The scientific networks in the 19th century were distorted due to limited communication systems; but scientists from different nations within Europe and America still actively exchanged ideas and collaborated in the spirit of the Enlightenment “republic of letters”. However, the flow of ideas was suboptimal in various ways.  An example is the professional rivalry between two groups of people crucial to science at the time: those who were mathematicians (but called themselves philosophers) or possibly observers of the world (or naturalists), and those who produced things which could be used to do science with. The two groups formed rival elites that didn’t happily coexist. Gender can be regarded as a distorter to some extent, but it was a porous barrier as there have been several distinguished female scientists known to be in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. The third criteria, class structure, did exclude lots of people from scientific networks, though it also was to some extent porous. Obviously, class and gender barriers greatly impeded the development of networks, but so too did the rivalry between, in effect, blue and white collar elites. In the present age, the barriers of class and gender have been intensively studied and, hopefully, largely superseded, but the problem of rival elites is more insidious and may still deserve study in the interests of optimising innovation in the 21st-century.

An overview of quantum computing and its challenges

In the second part of the session, Dr. Araceli Venegas- Gomez provided an overview of the emerging field of Quantum technology and Quantum computing. According to the Gartner Hype Cycle of Emerging Technologies, all emerging technologies will go through a pattern of innovation trigger, peak of inflated expectations, through of disillusionment, slope of enlightenment, and plateau of productivity. AI has gone through this cycle at least four times in history: people thought that robots were going to be around the corner, but when this did not happen, people got disappointed and lost interest.

Araceli suggests that with quantum we are in a situation where we think we know what is going to be like, but we really don’t have the ability to picture how exactly quantum is going to revolutionize computing and our society as a whole. It is hard to make all stakeholders – industry, policymakers, the general public – really understand why quantum is so important and why they should care about putting money into the science to create this new emerging market.

While quantum technology is not new, and there are a lot of technologies around us that are based on quantum phenomena, the novelty with the new quantum technologies is that scientists are now able to control only one single particle, and this radically increases the potential of the technology, so much so that we talk about a Second Quantum Revolution.

Classical computation works with bits, and they either can be one or zero, so, there can be just an array of zeros and ones. But in quantum computing there is the concept of qubit (the basic unit of quantum information), which could be close to zero, or close to one or anything in between. While this increases computational possibilities massively, there are also technological problems to be overcome, in particular the fact that the reading and travel of information between qubits is full of errors, meaning that quantum computers will not be available in a very short time frame.

Araceli then referred to some national efforts and investments on quantum technologies. More than 10-15 years ago, countries like Canada, Singapore and Spain created their first quantum technologies research centres. Back in 2018 the European Quantum flagship, and then the US national program were launched, which were a trigger for bringing up the discussion of quantum technologies. The United Kingdom introduced the first national program with government funding for Quantum technologies in 2013, and in 2023 the government is setting up a new strategy and about £2.5 billion funding. More governments are considering the opportunities that quantum technologies can bring about and refer to it as a global ecosystem.

Araceli also mentioned the role of spin outs and startups in quantum technologies in the last years, moving from academia to develop specific uses for quantum technologies, as well as startups that operate in enabling technologies and consider quantum as part of their strategies.

In continuation, Araceli emphasized the powerful role of media in [introducing] emerging technologies such as quantum computing which is unpredictable and disruptive. An alarming issue with media is whether what people read about emerging technologies, is accurate, understandable and reliable. Some examples from media:

AI, quantum computing and 5G could make criminals more dangerous than ever, warn police.”

Is quantum computing ushering an era of no more secrets?

Policymakers and governments have a role in monitoring the accuracy of information they receive. There is also the need to prepare a mitigating plan in which risks and opportunities are identified.

In answering a question about all kind of risks that quantum computing may bring about, Araceli explains that governments and policy makers are at very early stages now and this requires a collective collaboration to mitigate the risks, as there are many questions that are unanswered yet. However, some efforts have been made since 2018 to prepare some white papers about quantum computingethics. From the end of 2020 and throughout 2021, the World Economic Forum worked on quantum computing principles, that is the ethical principles that ideally, should be followed when implementing quantum, similar to what happened to AI, nanotechnology and biotech.

Part of QURECA’s mission is to bridge the language gap from academia to industry to government and to the general public so that all stakeholders share same understanding of what quantum means to create a general overview about quantum technologies. QURECA provides educational resources from online courses to specific programs depending on the audience and business sector, from high school to professionals, even video games, and also organises events, such as workshops and career events to bring together people looking for jobs and companies looking for people around the world. This brings us back the full circle to the importance of having functioning networks and information flows so that technologies can be developed responsibly and with the involvement of a broad range of stakeholders.

We thank all the participants, the presenters and chair, for a lively and informative session.

A video of this debate is available here.