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Chicago bets on quantum tech as 'next big thing' for its future

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The idea that properties of quantum mechanics could be harnessed to make a new kind of computer was first touted by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman in the 1980s. Unlike conventional computers, which interpret data in “ones” and “zeros,” quantum machines can store information in multiple forms—ones, zeros, both, or something in between.

That ability allows a quantum system to multitask in ways today’s binary equipment cannot, rapidly decreasing processing times. But while computers with those capabilities are still about a decade away from widespread commercial application, quantum communications could become available much earlier, according to consultants McKinsey & Co.

That’s where Chicago excels. The third-biggest US city already has the country’s longest quantum network—124 miles connecting the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in the outskirts to the University of Chicago and the Chicago Quantum Exchange, a hub for advancing quantum technology.

“There is this misconception that quantum is only on the West Coast or the East Coast,” said Marco Pistoia, head of global technology applied research at JPMorgan Chase & Co., which joined the Chicago Quantum Exchange as a partner in 2020. “In reality, Chicago is a big center for quantum.”

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The finance industry, another stalwart of Chicago, will be one of the biggest beneficiaries. Quantum computing will help algorithms sort large amounts of data and solve complex mathematical problems that would take traditional machines days, months and even years.

Long before, quantum communications will solve a more basic problem: How do you ensure no one can clone your 16-digit credit card number when you buy something online? Or get hold of your email and social media passwords?

Quantum communications guarantee that any message intercepted gets destroyed, said David Awschalom, vice dean for research at the Pritzker School for Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago, and founding director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange. So not only will a hacker be unable to get the information, but the parties of the attempted hack will also know someone tried to intercept it.

“That’s baked into the fundamental aspects of quantum science, so this is a great thing for communications,” Awschalom said in an interview. “Not a great thing if you’re hacker, but a great thing for communications because it is quantum secure.”

The technology could also be used to make elections more secure. Switzerland has used the so-called quantum-key distribution to protect its local elections. It’s this technology that students from Chicago’s Kenwood Academy High School tested last week in a vote on the question: Should social media companies be allowed to censor information/misinformation?

“Knowledge is power,” Obama told the students. “If you know how to sort out good information from bad information, you will have more power to make good decisions that take you where you want to go.”

Chicago and other cities around the world face a huge talent gap. Demand for workers outpaces the number of graduates times three, according to McKinsey, which compared active job postings as of December 2021, with the number of graduates ready to fill such roles.

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