In September 1997, I was just a 7-year-old kid when the film Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s epic novel, hit theaters. Some years later, I saw that amazing picture, which focused on the life of an astronomer (interpreted by the great Jodie Foster) who discovers a signal traveling in deep space, and after a huge effort to analyze and decrypt the data, she finds it contained the blueprints to build a machine that should allow humans to travel to distant galaxies. It is a beautiful movie with fictional details, but maybe not everything that was portrayed in Contact was meant to be a fantasy forever.
We are currently living in a technological revolution, and more than 26 years later, let’s reflect upon how much the world has changed.
Mobile communications and connectivity are enabling services and applications that some years ago would have been unthinkable. Just to highlight some examples: instant communications, financial services, critical infrastructure (for example, smart grids), data centers, automatized factories, production centers, and others, are powered today by access to the internet.
Just consider that nowadays, we carry in our pockets smartphones with thousands of times more processing power than the computers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that made the calculations to take Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon’s surface in 1969.
Beyond number crunching, computing is now endowed with “inference;” that is, the capability to reach conclusions from premises. This was previously thought to be the monopoly of humans, but human-created intelligence is now at our fingertips. This is why the era of AI artificial intelligence) is here to stay, developing so fast that some months ago, Elon Musk (the founder of Tesla) and hundreds of technological experts and scientists published a signed letter warning that the development of AI engines is advancing at a dramatic speed, and needed to be paused to give time for analysis and reflection about the potential dangers.
But AI and telecommunications are not the only tools that continue to advance, since quietly, but swiftly, another powerful technology is currently under development: quantum computing.
Quantum computing is a new level of supercomputing that will have profound implications for everything. This type of computer can perform extremely complex arithmetical operations and number crunching at speeds that exceed all current limits, and that would take years for usual computers. This new technology will have impacts for almost every productive sector and will boost substantially research and development capabilities.
Many countries are working on their own quantum computing strategies, and Finland, characterized as always being a technological frontrunner, is no exception.
In Finland, quantum computing is now a reality. Finnish company IQM has delivered its first quantum computer to Finland’s Technical Research Centre, VTT, and the Nordic country has ongoing quantum cooperation with the US, Germany, South Korea, and Israel.
As in the case of AI, the global race to develop quantum computing is now in motion, since the benefits that this technology can provide will be extremely valuable.
In a simple, but amazing example of its potential, imagine that by using the extremely powerful number crunching that quantum computers can perform, physicians will be able to perform extensive diagnostics and calculate all the probabilities for developing lethal diseases, and, on some occasions, this could mean receiving treatment well in advance, yielding huge potential and hope for saving so many lives.
At the same time, the benefits that quantum will bring come along with potential risks and threats. Quantum computing is so powerful that it will be able to override or crack any password, or decipher encrypted communications that are not conceived to withstand the quantum computing challenge. Critical and personal data, like bank accounts, secure government communications, health records, social networks, and basically every single piece of data could be compromised. Privacy would be at a huge risk.
This means that policymakers and technological experts will need to address this potential threat, and all the standards for securing our data will need to be upgraded and redefined. It will be a huge effort that will require coordination among societies, governments, and other stakeholders. It is very clear that quantum computing will be a major technological game changer in the coming years, especially when it becomes commercially available.
Finally, I would like to close this article with a futuristic possibility, like the scenario shown in Contact regarding signals traveling through outer space. This is very real, so let’s understand the reasons.
For people like me who work in the telecom industry, the term “radio spectrum” is of key importance. All our mobile and satellite communications, connectivity and broadcasting are enabled by these frequencies that we use as a “superhighway” for transmitting and receiving our data. Radio spectrum is among humanity’s most important assets, a resource with immense economic and strategic value, although it is something that we cannot see with our own eyes.
In deep space, these electromagnetic waves also exist, and even propagate faster due to vacuum conditions. This is how human made satellites and probes transmit and receive data.
Recently, astronomers detected a mysterious blast of radio waves that have taken 8 billion years to reach Earth. This is just the latest case among the many you can find reported by various media channels.
For many ages, we have looked toward the stars wondering if we are alone in an infinite universe. Certainly, more signals could be traveling through the universe that will be discovered by scientists. Could these signals contain information or messages from civilizations that are more advanced than ours? Could quantum computing power help us to decrypt possible interstellar messages? Even help us to understand the meaning of the origin of life itself? Today, the amount of astronomical data available is by far greater than what is possible to process with current capabilities. We probably have enough data sets to understand many mysteries but are limited by our non-quantum computational constraints.
I feel very privileged to be witnessing one of the brightest chapters of technological development, hoping that we are able to embrace it wisely to get the benefits, address the threats and risks, and assure that we are on the right path, full of hope for humankind’s well-being.
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