2018 Australian of the Year Professor Michelle Yvonne Simmons (NSW) with PM Malcolm Turnbull, at a ceremony in the Great Hall, Parliament House, Canberra. Picture Kym Smith
2018 Australian of the Year Professor Michelle Yvonne Simmons (NSW) with PM Malcolm Turnbull, at a ceremony in the Great Hall, Parliament House, Canberra. Picture Kym Smith

Dark side to our next ‘space race’

IT'S been hailed as the next "space race" with Professor Michelle Simmons, the Neil Armstrong of our time.

On Thursday, the British-born physicist won the coveted Australian of the Year title for her pioneering work in quantum physics that will create a new breed of "super computer" that could revolutionise life as we know it.

But in addition to making incredible leaps in terms of medical science, weather prediction, financial investments and artificial intelligence (AI), it could lead to a "cryptocalypse" in national security where state secrets, your emails, bank accounts and credit cards are no longer safe.

That's according to Oxford University's department of computer science senior research fellow Dr Jamie Vicary who told news.com.au private companies like Google, IBM and governments are pouring "billions" into the race for "quantum supremacy" due to national security implications that would allow users to crack encryption codes with ease.

"It's not an overstatement to say that the whole basis of secure communication on the internet would be basically destroyed," he said about what some are calling the "cryptocalypse".

"You buy something off Amazon [and] there's a risk your credit card number has been swiped, people lose trust in the internet and e-commerce breaks down. This is the worst case scenario but it's plausible and it would happen at some point unless standards agencies and technology companies really get themselves into gear and change the way the internet operates."

Code breaking abilities are just one of the uses for the incredible technology that will allow computers to do a huge range of calculations simultaneously, rather than sequentially as ordinary computers typically do by tapping into the way subatomic particles behave naturally.

Dr Vicary said "you would be a fool" to predict when the technology will become widely available as it could be a matter of months or years.

"When it was all done in academia people were very open about it but now a lot of the exciting development is being done in industrial labs it's a lot less public," he said.

It could revolutionise the way drugs are designed, removing the need for trial and error by allowing computers to model simulations that are "just too hard" at present, he said.

"You won't have to just blindly try tens of thousands of drugs, you'll be able to really design your drug so it can treat your pathogen in an appropriate way. That's going to revolutionise medicine and the way we as a society develop treatments for diseases."

AI systems will also receive a "real kick up" when machine learning is powered by quantum computing that could allow robots to be exposed to much more information than is currently possible at the same time.

Quantum computers could also help people make money from complex financial markets, create ultra-efficient routes for delivery on global supply chains and allow database searchers to become much quicker by being "able to look at every element of your database simultaneously."

As Prof Simmons explained herself in an Australia Day speech last year, the practice will allow computers "to solve problems in minutes that otherwise would take thousands of years" through the ability to look at all outcomes at the same time.

"One thinks here of problems where computers work on large databases or consider lots of variables, problems such as predicting the weather, stock markets, optimising speech, facial and object recognition (such as self-driving cars), looking at optimising aircraft design, targeting drug development to the patients DNA, optimising traffic flow and working out the shortest possible delivery routes," she said.

"UPS in the US have determined that if they could shorten the distance that every one of their drivers travel each day by one mile, they would save their company $50 million per year. That's an ideal problem for a quantum computer. But this is a capability with widespread application. Indeed, a US defence firm has predicted that 40 per cent of all Australian industry will be impacted if we can realise this technology."

Prof Simmons' award is being hailed as a boon for STEM in Australia and on Thursday she urged young people to not get "sucked into wasting your time online but actually use that technology ... learn how to design things, how to build things."

She has also praised Australia's open research culture after once describing Cambridge in the UK as "too hierarchical", "esoteric" and filled with "pessimistic academics who will tell you a thousand reasons why your ideas will not work."

"I've really lived by four mantras - do what is hard, place high expectations on yourself, take risks and do something that matters," she said.

"I found people often underestimate female scientists ... In some ways for me that has been great. It has meant I have flown under the radar and have been able to get on with things."

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