Mikko Möttönen: “The quantum computer will revolutionise data processing”
Docent Mikko Möttönen’s research group aims at making Finland a forerunner country in quantum computing. The Smart Minds series introduces visionary people from the Helsinki Smart Region.
Mikko Möttönen felt a pull towards mathematics and physics from an early age. He enjoyed cracking difficult equations to such an extent that in secondary school he had to move on to high school mathematics textbooks because he had solved all the problems in his secondary school textbooks.
“I felt physics and mathematics were my means of changing the world”, Möttönen says.
After high school he applied to study physics at Helsinki University of Technology that is now part of Aalto University. At the university Möttönen was introduced to the theory of quantum physics, a field of physics that describes nature and its phenomena at the atomic scale.
Having only been exposed to classical physics before, Möttönen felt that the world of atoms and particles invisible to the bare eye was an exciting challenge. In no time he was hooked.
“Quantum physics was something new and different, miraculous even. The equations were much more difficult than in classical physics, sometimes even impossible to solve,” Möttönen says.
The holy grail of data processing
Now, 20 years later, Möttönen runs his own Quantum Computing and Devices research group that is part of the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Quantum Technology at Aalto University. The group focuses on superconducting quantum electronics.
Electronic circuits become superconducting when they are cooled below a certain critical temperature where they lose their electrical resistance. This means they conduct electricity extremely well and lose almost no energy at all while doing it.
“Superconductivity is one of the most important reasons for why quantum phenomena can be observed in circuits,” Möttönen explains.
Superconducting electronic circuits have been of deep scientific and economic interest during the last decade or so. This is because they can be used as quantum computers’ building blocks. The quantum computer is a sort of a holy grail of data processing since it can solve extremely complex problems very quickly. It might be able to model chemical compounds, such as complicated pharmaceutical compounds, much more efficiently than ordinary computers.
“The quantum computer might find answers to different problems more accurately, quickly or economically than an ordinary computer because it takes shortcuts made possible only by quantum mechanics. At the moment the world’s fastest supercomputer consumes 20 000 kilowatts. A typical quantum computer might spend only about 10 kilowatts,” Möttönen says.
The race to the top of quantum computing
So far only small prototypes of quantum computers have been built around the world. The race to build the first usable quantum computer is underway, and enormous amounts of money have been invested in quantum computer projects in countries like China, Great Britain, Germany and the United States.
In 2018 the European Union launched the Quantum Flagship project that provides funding with a billion euros for over 5 000 researchers. Mikko Möttönen’s group is amongst them.
Möttönen thinks that Finland is among the forerunners in the development of superconducting quantum technology. This is thanks to our decades-long experience in cooling superconducting circuits and the top know-how accumulated within the country. This has fortunately been noted. Möttönen’s research group alone has so far received grants worth around 11 million euros in total from funding instruments like the European Research Council (ERC) and the Academy of Finland. The amount is still only a fraction of what all of Aalto University’s quantum technology research has received.
“In Finland we already have the top know-how. Now we need more resources to make sure we have the best possible equipment. The combination of the two is the only way to keep receiving record results.”
“The more I do research, the more questions arise”
The quantum computer is thought to be an upheaval as massive as the ordinary computer some decades ago. Möttönen hopes that by educating people about the world of quantum physics, societies can prepare for the upcoming technological revolution and the beginning of a whole new industry.
“This is something that can actually improve the efficiency and well-being of the society. In order to get the most out of this new industry we need to educate the youth and inspire them to take an interest in the science behind it and learn more about it,” Möttönen says.
It’s been estimated that it takes four to ten years to create quantum computer that solves problems faster than an ordinary computer. There is still loads of work to be done, but the curious child inside Mikko Möttönen is still alive and well.
“The more I do research, the more questions arise. Everything I do stems from a childlike curiosity and will to experiment. I will always want to learn about new phenomena and the unknown,” Möttönen says.