ERC Discoveries | Jeremy O’Brien: Quantum revolution

Jeremy O’Brien
Director of the Centre for Quantum Photonics, University of Bristol
Starting Grant 2009 and Consolidator Grant 2014

Jeremy O’Brien is Professor of Physics and Electrical Engineering at the University of Bristol. His current work focuses on bringing quantum computing into reality, with the potential to transform healthcare, energy, finance and the internet. Professor O’Brien is pursuing a photonic approach to manufacturing a large-scale universal quantum computer, exploiting the extraordinary silicon fabrication capability developed by the silicon chip industry.

I like to start each day running through the woods just outside of Bristol, and I find that the clean air and the exercise clears my mind, which then invariably turns to quantum computing, which is the subject that I pursue in my lab at the university. As I look at the countryside around me, I think about some of the applications for quantum computing that could help preserve that countryside and our life within it. One of the urgent problems that the world faces is CO2 in the atmosphere, and designing a catalyst that could efficiently extract CO2 from the atmosphere is a top problem that a quantum computer would be able to help with.

In 1994, when I was a second-year undergraduate student, “New Scientist” had a cover feature on quantum computing. It described the possibility for a quantum computer to bring about a new revolution akin to the agricultural, industrial, or digital revolutions. So, I was pretty well hooked from that point on.

A quantum computer is a device that is a fundamentally new paradigm for computation. We might have a problem like factoring, where it takes a conventional computer billions of years to spit out an answer, and it takes a quantum computer minutes. Making a quantum computer is an immense challenge because we need of order a million quantum bits, or q-bits as we call them, the equivalent of transistors in a conventional computer. Quantum computing promises to touch on pretty
well every aspect of our lives, society and economy. Ranging from the design of new materials, new pharmaceuticals to new clean energy devices.

I think the ERC is the world’s premiere organisation for funding frontier research. And the funding of that frontier research is absolutely critical. It is that exact frontier research that gave us the transistor, that led to the computer, that
enabled the digital revolution that we’re still in the midst of today. The computer revolution is still very much to unfold, and I think within a decade we’re going to start to see the world transformed by the benefits of quantum computing.