One of the things I like most of my academic job is the opportunity to visit different places and interact with different communities. Already during my PhD at the University of Salerno, Italy, we had substantial funding to travel for workshops and conferences, and I exploited the opportunity as best as I could.. undoubtedly this helped me to promote my work and acquire networking skills that have played an important role in the development of my career. Today, I strongly encourage my students to do the same, and they are always happy to visit exotic locations for the sake of science. Moreover, we are ourselves, as a research group, creating such opportunities for a broader community of early career researchers. The most concrete example is the Quantum Roundabout postgraduate conference, which has become a tradition in Nottingham organised by my most junior students every other year. We are about to host the third edition on July 6th-8th, and I very much look forward to the scientific presentations and ideas exchange; Rosanna, Bartosz and Pietro are working so hard to make this a memorable event.
This week I am away attending a different type of event, at least different compared to my usual scientific conferences. I have been honoured as Young Scientist by the World Economic Forum (WEF), which means I have been selected within a group of 45 scientists under 40 years of age, including a delegation of European Research Council (ERC) Grantees, to attend the 10th edition of the WEF Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin (China), also known as Summer Davos 2016. This events brings together our (relatively small) group of scientists, a group of Tech Pioneers (promising entrepreneurs at the initial stages of their ventures), a large number of companies, press, and financial delegates, and world leaders including the Chinese Premier, the Canadian Minister of Innovation, etc., for a total of over 2000 participants. In a beautifully designed Convention Centre, we have all sorts of sessions from 7.30am to 6pm to learn and discuss around the main theme: The Fourth Industrial Revolution and its Transformational Impact.
So what is this all about?
Before coming here, I only knew about the First Industrial Revolution, the one triggered by steam engines in the late-eighteenth century. Apparently, there have been two more, which are still continuing through today. The Second came about a century later, with the development of electricity and mass production. The Third started last century with the transistors, consumer electronics and computers. What more?
Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the WEF, argues in his latest book (published in January 2016) that we are on the verge of a Fourth revolution, triggered not by a single breakthrough, but by a confluence of new technologies which are having a rapid transformational impact on society. Let me quote from the introduction of his book:
We have yet to grasp fully the speed and breadth of this
new revolution. Consider the unlimited possibilities of
having billions of people connected by mobile devices,
giving rise to unprecedented processing power, storage
capabilities and knowledge access. Or think about
the staggering confluence of emerging technology
breakthroughs, covering wide-ranging fields such as
artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the internet of things
(IoT), autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology,
biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and
quantum computing, to name a few. Many of these
innovations are in their infancy, but they are already
reaching an inflection point in their development as they
build on and amplify each other in a fusion of technologies
across the physical, digital and biological worlds.
(K. Schwab, “The fourth industrial revolution”, 2016)
Yes! Quantum technologies are part of this revolution. These are exciting times for doing quantum research, and while our current projects may not directly feed into the big technological transfer exercise being brought forward right now in the UK and in many other countries (China on top, but also Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, and more generally the European Union as a whole through a €1Bn Flagship Initiative — whether we will be part of it or not ), they most likely will form the basis for a new generation of more efficient, and more robust quantum technologies in their future iterations. With an eye towards practical applications, we are in fact working on developing more concrete schemes for quantum parameter estimation and multiuser communication, to understand resources which enable them to operate better than classical ones even in the presence of noise, with suitable tailoring to the environmental conditions. We are also thinking more in detail about integrating and hybridizing some of the key emergent technologies that will form the core of the Fourth industrial revolution, such as quantum metrology and advanced manufacturing, in order to develop better sensors for industrial applications, to monitor and control the 3D printing of complex structures. Hopefully, in a few years, we will see some of our ideas developed in practice, in collaboration with engineers and industrial partners.
This event was and is very useful for me to remind myself, as a research leader of a team with many junior members having different inclinations and aspirations, and as a young scientist still very actively enjoying to put my hands on mathematical problems and thrilling for discovery of the most basic physical facts of our universe, that scientists at any stage of their career need to achieve increasingly more impact outside the ivory tower of academia. I was exposed to stimulating discussions with the Editor in Chief of Nature, the President of the ERC, as well as a community of scientists across a broad range of disciplines, and some tech pioneers who transitioned from academia into their own enterprises. I don’t foresee myself ever doing such a step (I love my position and the freedom attached to it too much), and my research is perhaps still too fundamental to allow for such a possibility to be even considered, but I am prepared now to seeing in the future someone of my students bridging out towards a start-up company, e.g. developing an original application of quantum information theory, and in which I would be happy to maintain a collaborative involvement on the purely scientific side. I am already amazed at the variety of my students’ interests, i.e. towards data science, machine learning, quantum algorithms, and maybe this transition may happen sooner rather than later.
During the various meetings, forums, IdeaLabs, I was also exposed to a variety of really cool science, such as how can we turbocharge our immune system to better defend ourselves against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, how to develop a sat-nav for navigating the brain to remove brain tumor cells without damaging the healthy ones, etc. I feel even more proud to be supported by the ERC, that is funding also such an interesting science, which is no doubt having a more concrete impact on humanity than my fixation on the quantification of quantum correlations … at least, for now! In the current geopolitical climate (BREXIT was a huge topic of discussion here, with lots of uncertainties, as one can imagine), I hope our rulers and most importantly the public remain aware of the crucial role played by European funding in the development of British science and leadership. Perhaps it is our fault as scientists as we missed the opportunity to enthuse our local communities (speaking for myself, in particular in the Midlands, the top pro-Leave regions as reported in the statistics) about the benefits of European integration for science, and the benefits of science for society at large. This is another memento for the future.
We have a responsibility as scientists to pursue truth, to create knowledge, and to nurture talent of the next generations. But we also have an ethical duty for stewardship towards the society, the taxpayers, the public who entrust us to drive the world forward and address global challenges with creativity. We need to try harder to communicate (neither dumbing down, nor hyping up) our intentions and outcomes.
In this respect, I believe the WEF is offering unique opportunities for bringing together policy makers, scientists and innovators, to develop the agenda for the future of the planet. I feel humbled and inspired to be part of this.
In a few hours, I will be interviewed in a briefing panel about what, in my view, can be the transformational impact of the Fourth industrial revolution. I hope (if I won’t be too tired, as I ended up not sleeping at all!) to convey some of the points and experiences I shared in this post. As for answering the question itself, well, I think by definition a revolution is an event whose impact cannot be predicted. Thinking back to what I have now learned to be the Third industrial revolution, it is a curious anecdote that when the transistor was developed and brought down to a reasonable size, the best application people could envision for such technology was hearing aids. We have all seen how history was made instead with the advent of computers and all modern consumer electronics based on transistors.
In a language more familiar to my research field, these developments are often flagged as Quantum Technologies 1.0, since the transistors are based on semiconductors, which are modelled according to the laws of quantum mechanics. However, these technologies do not fully exploit the potential of quantum physics, in particular entanglement, nonlocality, and superposition effects. Quantum Technologies 2.0, exemplified by the quantum computing mentioned by Professor Schwab in the reported quote, are designed instead to exploit such resources, and are those which are fuelling (and perhaps will be driving) the Fourth industrial revolution. My short-term expectation is to witness the feasible proposal of some innovative application of Quantum Technologies 2.0 to healthcare, bioengineering, or advanced manufacturing, developed by the next year, and hopefully presented at the 11th WEF Annual Meeting of the New Champions, where I hope to be invited again.
[Update] For those interested: my issue briefing can be viewed here.