What comes after microelectronics?
Professor Gunnar Björk specialises in photonics. He is conducting research in quantum physics in the field of information technology, with a special focus on quantum information and quantum cryptography. Scientists in this field are working to develop the next generation of PCs – quantum computers. But they have a lot of work ahead of them and Gunnar is not sure whether quantum computers will become a reality in his lifetime. Research is still in its early stages and there is a long way to go before these computers become commercially available.
Gunnar Björk has a number of different roles – he is Head of the Linné Centre “ADOPT” (ADvanced Optics and PhoTonics), is a Coordinator for Optics and Photonics, and he conducts his own research. However, Gunnar has only time to spend about 30% of his time on his own research, which he considers is not enough. On the other hand, he is pleased that he is no longer head of a department, which involves performing regular administration tasks. He is far happier with his more strategic role as a Unit Coordinator.
Professor Gunnar Björk always likes to present the exciting prospects before he tells you about his own research. He wants you to understand the concepts before giving you the details. This time, our interview starts off with an update on developments in the field of microelectronics: How far can we go before all means of development have been exhausted? And what follows: When will quantum computers become a reality?
Enhanced performance and energy
We’ve been spoiled by a steady stream of faster, cheaper and more compact computers. But how long can this continue? We know that the possibilities in the field of microelectronics will soon be exhausted. The question therefore is what will become available instead.
“The electronics industry has now realised that the investment strategy it has successfully employed over the years is now no longer viable and that it must soon find other routes to pursue,” Gunnar Björk explains. Its current strategy will get it through another generation of computers, which in this context means two or three years.
Gunnar does not believe we will be seeing any rapid changes, however, since the industry has invested heavily in today’s technology. What we will be seeing in the near future are solutions that entail squeezing more performance out of current technologies. He explains three ways of developing today's computers.
“Spintronics is one solution that has been evolving in recent years. This technology exploits the spin of electrons to provide a more efficient way of processing and storing information.”
Spintronics has revolutionised the technology of using the information on hard disks e.g. in the M-RAM memory. The current focus is on creating a kind of transistor using spintronics that is smaller and more energy-saving than what is possible with common semiconductors. The 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to scientists for their spintronics research.
Gunnar expounds further, “Another way is to make the software more computationally efficient. “The constant flow of increasingly faster and cheaper hardware has made it “easy” for software engineers and computational performance has not had high priority. Software now has to become more efficient to squeeze out higher performance of the existing processors, and this development may last ten years.”
“Another way in which electronics can be exploited more efficiently is through the use of multi-core technology. We are not very good at fully exploiting parallel PC processors’ power and it is possible to get more performance while working with several parallel cores. It’s an extremely interesting area which, it is fair to say, is still in its infancy and where a great deal of interesting research is being carried out,” Gunnar remarks.
One area that has become increasingly important in recent years is the sharp rise in electricity consumption for IT and Internet services. This has led to a greater interest in energy-efficient IT. Gunnar doesn’t think that this issue is at the top of the agenda yet but it will soon be a high-priority issue if energy consumption continues to double every year in this sector.
Gunnar Björk’s own area is quantum mechanics in the field of information technology. There is tremendous interest among scientists to develop the next generation of PCs which may well be the quantum computer. But we shouldn’t expect to see quantum computers in the near future.
“I don’t think we're likely to see quantum computers in my lifetime,” laughs Gunnar Björk. “It will probably be at least another twenty years before quantum computers come into any real use. We are at the basic stages of research today.”
“Scientists in this field have been promising a bit too much and have not always been able to keep their promises,” Gunnar Björk remarks. “Many scientists have not been entirely honest and have overrated the possibilities. We’re talking about a huge, new and hitherto unknown field. It’s not possible for this technology to be immediately assimilated into practical applications.”
Gunnar explains, “Europe is actually the world leader in this area, which is one of the strongest growing fields in physics, engaging several thousand scientists in Europe. Austria has an entire institute, the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information (IQOQI), where a hundred or so scientists are conducting research in this field.
Quantum optics and quantum electronics
Optical data transfer has become so fast that the time for producing and detecting short pulses of light becomes significant. At the extreme, the special laws of quantum mechanics set the limits and scientists are trying to understand their limits and, at the same time, make full use of the available physical possibilities.
Gunnar points out, “We didn’t believe that our research team would be able to play much of a role in the creation of quantum computers. Instead we have focused on quantum cryptography, where we are at the cutting edge. We have already demonstrated functional system solutions and commercial enterprises are now taking over more and more.
One of the great advantages of quantum physics is that it enables new means of managing information in a fast and secure manner. Scientists have developed a method of transmitting information with the help of light particles in a way that, thanks to the laws of physics, guarantees that any attempt to eavesdrop will be detected. We are now investigating any possible “loopholes” in the security of this method caused by technical inadequacies.”
“Sebastien Sauge is currently working on “quantum hacking”, i.e., how it might be possible to hack into a cryptographic system,” Gunnar Björk explains. If all the components in such as system were ideal, the system would be 100% secure. In reality, no components are ideal, e.g. linear, so you have to identify all vulnerabilities.
Gunnar Björk is studying various aspects, including how light behaves if you tailor it to give quantum mechanics free rein. This involves studying the polarisation of light and how the vector nature of light can be changed.
Gunnar explains, “With conventional light, e.g. laser light, there is a limit to how much you can focus it. This limit is set by the wavelength of the light. If you want to create even smaller light spots (which are essential when producing patterns for the fabrication of electronic chips) you need even shorter wavelengths that are now being pushed towards the UV and extreme UV regions. Quantized light makes it possible to break the relationship between the light wavelength and the size of the focus, which is expected to have applications in the field of extreme lithography.”
His role as Head of the new Linné Centre “ADOPT” (ADvanced Optics and PhoTonics) has taken more time than he originally anticipated when the Centre was opened just over a year ago. It takes longer than expected to establish all the necessary contacts.
“We have been awarded funds to create an environment,” Gunnar says emphatically. “It’s up to us to decide the best way of creating a good environment. There are opportunities for interacting, participating, networking and establishing contacts. Once a month, we join up with the Swedish Optical Society and the trade association “Swedoptronics” for a social gathering, e.g. an “OPTOpub” evening, with two talks and social interaction across the field over a light meal.
There are about 100 academic scientists engaged in research at the ADOPT centre at KTH and there is also a group of scientists from Stockholm University working at the centre. One key aspect is to develop a good working relationship between Kista and Alba Nova. It’s more beneficial for us to work together as much as possible instead of competing with each other, and our collaborative activities have become more frequent since ADOPT started,” comments Gunnar.
He goes on to explain, “We have a lot of free rein regarding what we do with the funds. The funds are shared among many so we don’t allocate money to individual research projects. Instead, we support dedicated, individual scientists and various areas of broader usefulness like a joint research school, a series of seminars, improved transport between the laboratories, and so on. We have also recently launched a programme that allows postgraduates to apply for funds for small-scale projects of their own that do not fall within the framework of the current budget. It will be interesting to see what applications we get.
We have to submit a report to the Swedish Research Council in February about our activities at the Centre. We’ve still got a lot of work to do before then. Then in April it’s time for an interview with an assessment panel. And in June we will be notified by the Swedish Research Council about future funding.”
ADOPT is an academic centre but, true to habit, Gunnar looks outside of his own box and points to activities being conducted at ACREO’s Imagic Centre and AFOC (both of which are VINNOVA Excellence Centres).
The role of the Kista Photonics Research Center is currently being revised. It will probably be given a new name and its focus will change somewhat. There will be more “owners” to incorporate the research activities being carried out at Albanova and at AFOC. One of the objectives is to make Stockholm’s nationally leading role in the field of photonics/optics more distinctive.
Gunnar is also aiming for the Centre to become involved, on a national level, in Photonics21, the European Technology Platform in Photonics, in which Professor Lars Thylén has been a driving force.
“An initial stage in this process is to bring together the players in the Stockholm region and then expand our work to a national level,” Gunnar Björk explains. “We are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the Photonics21 arena.”
Gunnar enlightens us; “The best part about it is the opportunity it gives to work on the strategic issues. It’s not a day-to-day role that involves administration, finance and routine HR tasks. You need to work on a more long-term strategy for the field.”
And there are a number of problems that need solving – over the next few years several of the senior scientists/professors will be retiring and others are on long-term leave. We are going to have to ensure there is regrowth in this area. We need to examine how KTH’s president’s tenure track appointments can help stimulate young researchers in the area.
“We are a strong area that KTH ought to invest in more and that’s why we need to present a good plan for our development. After all, we’re talking about a handful of leading scientists here and it therefore shouldn't be too difficult to produce some good data since we think more or less along the same lines.”
That’s the reasoning from a person who prefers to see opportunities rather than problems.