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Is the "quantum leap" coming now?

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Digitisation as an opportunity for climate protection

Data centres in Germany consumed 18 billion kilowatt hours of energy in 2022, which is more than the energy consumption of the whole of Berlin. And only 3 % of the world's servers are located in the country. So it seems clear: the increasing importance of IT in all walks of life and  all branches of industry is not having a good effect on the CO2 footprint and global warming. But if you take a closer look, it is not quite so simple. After all, many data centres around the world have been built exactly where renewable energy is available because the World Wide Web can have its nodes anywhere. In addition, both the manufacturers of IT hardware and the operators of the data centres are working to reduce energy consumption - with success. In recent years, the performance of German data centres has increased by 90 % and their energy consumption by 63 %. So they have become more efficient.

By: Gerald Scheffels for ifm

The pace of digitalisation: There's still more to be done

Can there be more? Most certainly. It may even be that the word "quantum leap", which denotes an epoch-making technological improvement, will soon apply in the truest sense of the word.

The proof is at the University of Siegen. There, at the Institute for Experimental Quantum Optics, Germany's first quantum computer was already built and put into operation in 2010. It works many times faster than the fastest conventional "supercomputer". This is because while every "normal" computer works in binary, i.e. processes consecutive zeros and ones, quantum computers can superimpose zeros and ones, i.e. process them in parallel. One then speaks of qubits instead of bits. From 56 qubits, the computing power of the currently most powerful conventional supercomputer is reached. With each qubit, the performance doubles, and target sizes of far more than 1000 qubits are achievable. The performance thus increases exponentially, and tasks can be solved that one would not even dare to think of today - with  energy consumption that is  a quantum leap (to be more precise: 99.9%) lower.

Martin Hill is a doctor and professor of economics at the University of Siegen and at the same time initiator and promoter of various start-up companies - and also a member of the advisory board of ifm solutions GmbH. In an interview at the ifm SUCCESS DAYS 2023, he compared quantum computers and conventional high-performance computers: "The largest high-performance cluster in the world covers an area of about 20 tennis courts with server racks and has about the energy consumption of a city with 100,000 inhabitants. Our computer, which has the same performance, has the energy consumption of a single-family house. That's where you can see the relations and the  enormous savings potential."

But the advantages are not exhausted yet. In many industrial processes, it is the modern control systems that ensure energy-saving and resource-saving operation of plants and factories, for example. They control traffic flows, wastewater volumes or even steel production in such a way that the optimum is achieved with the least use of energy and resources. And it is precisely here that quantum computers will again enable quantum leaps - and thus be a major driver for successful climate protection.

When computers improve climate protection

"Quantum computers perform calculations that we cannot even calculate today, for example very complex versions of the "travelling salesman" problem. This involves optimising logistics routes by adding a large number of data. Normal computers cannot calculate these complete enumerations, but quantum computers can. The same applies to a completely different example: the simulation of formulations in the pharmaceutical industry, which is used to calculate the effects of drugs and their efficacy and  interactions. These are typical optimisation calculations for which we will use quantum computers in the future - and certainly also for the evaluation of weather and emission data to improving climate protection," says Prof. Dr. Martin Hill.

The quantum (computer) leap will come

So: the quantum leap is coming. In many industrial processes, modern control systems and software modules are already ensuring energy- and resource-saving operation of machines, plants and entire factories.

Digitalisation has already saved many gigawatt hours of energy consumption and the emission of many tonnes of CO2 - even though it consumes energy itself. No one has yet calculated the total balance - own consumption versus savings (and, by the way, an exact calculation of this magnitude would hardly be possible without digitalisation). But it stands to reason that the energy savings initiated by modern controls and computers are significantly higher than their energy consumption.

Curse or blessing, threat or opportunity?

There is therefore no reason to rail against digitalisation and see artificial intelligence as a threat. As with every new technology, there are opportunities and  risks for the environment and society. For Prof. Dr Martin Hill, however, the advantages  outweigh the risks: "I see digitalisation as a huge opportunity for German industry. First of all, you cannot resist this trend: Digitalisation will advance in many areas of life and work. We are not in pole position, neither in Europe nor worldwide. We have a huge amount of catching up to do. If we don't recognise this and finally get started properly, we will lose competitiveness in Germany and not only industry but also our society will fall behind. So digitalisation: Yes! Much, much faster than before! We need much more speed. There are huge opportunities and advantages here."

AI needs guard rails

And the AI? Isn't there a danger that it will get out of control? Martin Hill: "First of all, we have to see the advantages here, too. Just one example: In Germany, doctors spend about 60 per cent of their time on documentation and only 40 per cent on patients. If they use AI like ChatGPT in the future, this will of course bring great efficiency gains - and benefit the patient. But here we need a code of conduct so that the use of AI does not get out of hand morally and socially. For example, in Denmark, a person's social welfare entitlement is calculated with AI: Is that what we want? The question is justified. That's why we need guard rails for some areas of digitalisation, especially for AI."

Interesting topic? In the (German) video with Prof. Dr. Christof Wunderlich, you can learn more about quantum computing! Or visit the website of eleQtron, the first German start-up for quantum computer hardware!

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