Shift focus from silicon chip or get left behind, physicist warns

Reputation and jobs at risk if focus remains on silicon chip as world moves to quantum computing

 

One of the world’s leading physicists has warned Ireland risks falling behind other countries and losing its international reputation as a high-tech location if it continues to concentrate resources around silicon chip computing.

This could lead to large swathes of Ireland’s computer industry becoming obsolete and put many jobs at risk.

Ireland’s approach so far has been hugely successful, but a shift to quantum computing is already happening and the country is not sufficiently geared up for this, according to Prof Séamus Davis, who is based at Cornell University in the US. He is a native of Skibbereen and a graduate of UCC.

Quantum computing takes advantage of the ability of subatomic particles to exist in more than one state at any time. Due to the way the tiniest of particles behave, operations can be done much more quickly and use less energy than classical computers.

Prof Davis believes a significant proportion of resources in terms of research funding and development of expertise needs to become focused on the future of information technology, including the development of quantum computers and the pursuit of a new generation of superconductors.

His latest research breakthrough on “room temperature supercomputers”, the work of six research teams based in the US and Europe, is published today in the leading research journal Science.

It is a significant discovery on how electrons operate in subatomic material within an iron-based superconductor, which behaves like a perfect conductor of electricity, offering no resistance whatever to the passage of electric current through it. This will intensify a search which he predicts will ultimately lead to super fast computers that will use little or no energy and transform “uncountable things”, especially in IT, medicine, energy and transport.

In an interview with The Irish Times, Prof Davis said: “Ireland’s investment in information technology is based on silicon. That has been wonderful, miraculous in many ways. But it’s a risk.”

Research budgets

That policy, he added, including an emphasis on supporting high-tech industry, was correct for its time, and IT companies in Ireland continue to be highly successful. But the approach, in terms of best serving society, the economy and industry, would be to put 5-10 per cent of research budgets for starters in solid state physics, “to have a foot in the door of the future”.

If Ireland did not want to be left behind, that required asking “What form will IT take in 20 years; in 50 years?” and consideration of what happens “when silicon stops”. He added: “I take that question very seriously. Having worked in the US, I have seen an industry disappear in five years. That may be hard to swallow for some people. But it happens all the time.”

To answer the question, it necessitates conducting the right research, developing laboratories and training people. It requires applying resources to quantum computing, the generation of quantum materials and development of quantum technology. This troika is “the keystone of future research” that is being pursued in other countries, most notably in China.

It was not the role of business to do this, Prof Davis said. Intel, for example, was developing the most advanced Fab chips and CPUs in computers, but it was involved in manufacturing and operated to make a profit.

Prof Davis stressed he was not criticising the Government or those involved in science research or industry as “everybody is doing their job very well”, but if they wanted to stay in advanced technology, they had to look more to the future.

Concerns

He confirmed he had outlined his concerns last year to Science Foundation Ireland, the Government body which has an annual budget of €160 million and has successfully revamped science and engineering research in recent years. This has been reflected in Ireland’s improved standing in global research.

Quantum computing was going to happen, he added. IBM has already developed a quantum computer which makes use of the quantum states of subatomic particles to store information. Scientists, physicists and others working in advanced IT in Ireland were “acutely aware that these things are coming”, and conscious of the need to adjust the technology portfolio to ensure what will be needed in 25 years “if silicon is not going to do the job”.

Likewise, he predicted it was only a matter of time before the “room temperature superconductor” was going to become available, and that would be “before we have a laptop quantum computer”.