Copernican. Atos has designed an unrivalled new-generation computer simulator. Let’s take a closer look with the company’s CEO.


Nothing will ever be the same again. With quantum  computing,  IT  is  entering  a  new dimension, that will revolutionise artificial intellingence,   cybersecurity  and  medicine.  It  is also a question of economic sovereignty. The Americans and the Chinese are investing massively in quantum, and Europe also has a part to play, says Thierry Breton, CEO ofat Atos, a global leader in digital transformation. On July 4, he unveiled the world’s most powerful quantum computer simulator.

Interview Le Point :

So what is a quantum computer? 

Thierry Breton: Without going back to the dawn of time, each period in human history has seen the dominant technology of its age creating a certain relationship between man and the world. My great- grandfather was part of the steam age. My grandfather saw the advent of electricity. My father witnessed the rise of nuclear technology. Today, with digitization, our generation is using computers based on the fundamental laws of classical macroscopic physics deriving, for example, from the works of Turing and Von Neumann (to sum up), which process information – “bits” – in the form of a 0 or a 1. But now we have entered a new world, where there is an explosion of data, the Internet, connected things, artificial intelligence, etc. Ever and ever more information. Ever and ever more computing power. And this is where the laws of quantum physics, dealing with the subatomic world, are opening up new horizons for us to
conquer. The quantum computer itself, which processes information in the form of quantum bits – Qubits – whose value is determined by the superposition of 0 and 1, will offer capacities  and  computing power that are totally frame of reference, the applications of quantum physics will give us a new way and a new means of understanding our world.

For mankind, it represents a true revolution…
It is still difficult to imagine how far-reaching the effects will be. Quantum physics, which has already given  us  the  laser,  MRI,  transistors,  GPS  and superconductivity, will take us much further ahead in a wide range of fields. For instance, in the medical field, through immediate use of the genome and early screening for diseases. Here’s another example. In just a few years’ time, GPS will achieve unprecedented levels of accuracy, to 0.3 millimetres, with all the applications imaginable for ballistics, climatology, geology, seismography, and also in particular for analysing  ice  melt  and  continental  drift;  or  for monitoring  the  resistance  of  major  constructions, skyscrapers, bridges, communication routes, etc. The ultra-fine reading of variations in gravitational fields will enable better representation of subsoils, which will of course be useful in the search for raw materials, but also for in the preparation of public works sites; or even for exploring the remains of lost civilizations, such as catacombs or major burial grounds of the past… In short, quantum physics is pushing the boundaries. Particularly in computing, with the quantum computer.

What has been driving this?
Moore’s Law, first declared in 1965 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, states that the number of transistors integrated on silicon chips would double every 18 months. That is now coming to an end. However, the race for computing power and miniaturization responds to a vital need. All new applications require ever more power. For example, did you know that a connected aircraft requires 5 terabytes (5000 billion bytes) of data per day? To achieve the levels of integration required to process this data, we have to file the silicon chips down to 10 or even 5 nanometres, i.e. channels with a width of barely a few atoms. At this level, when we are up against the limits of what we can do using classical physics, quantum effects start to attract our attention. The American Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman was the first to conceive what a quantum computer could be in this new universe.

« The laws of Quantum physics, dealing with the subatomic world, are opening up new horizons for us to conquer. »

You may be fascinated by this discovery…
Behind scientific discoveries, there are firstly exceptional individuals, and I am also fascinated by the European story. At the start of the last century, there was a small number of young European scientists barely into their thirties – the Germans Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg, the Austrians Wolfgang Pauli and Erwin Schrödinger, the Frenchman Louis de Broglie and various others – who conceived the basis of the quantum mechanics governing the subatomic world. Often counter-intuitive, their discoveries enable us to understand a large part of today’s world. In this instance, they are the basis for the Qubits in the quantum computer.

Is developing these famous Qubits a complicated process?
Yes, it is highly complex. That’s because, to conserve the quantum effects, there has to be no interaction with the outside world. Otherwise there is quantum decoherence. So how can that be achieved? Most researchersinthisfield workattemperaturesverycloseto absolute zero (-273.15°C). That’s true for the teams working under Daniel Esteve, Research Director at CEA, one of our collaborators. So long as there is no decoherence, the Qubits conserve their superposed states in their entirety, giving the quantum computer exponential computing capacity.

So we have reached the dawn of a magical machine that can make super-powerful algorithms work…
It’s not magic, it’s science! I like to quote Grover’s algorithm. When adapted to quantum computers, it allows us to recover data with incredible accuracy.

« A quantum computer would be able to instantly break any current encryption key »

Imagine, for example, that one day we could almost instantaneously retrieve a particular piece of data from among the 40 zettabytes of data – in other words, 40,000 billion billion – that man will generate in 2020. By way of comparison, that would be like being able to instantly locate a particular grain of sand amongst the 40 zetta grains of sand covering the Earth – a task that would take thousands and thousands of hours to accomplish with a standard computer.

Is it possible to imagine having a quantum computer in every home one day?
It certainly won’t be tomorrow! For a universal computer that is fully quantum – maybe 20 years, 30 years, maybe before…? No-one can say. At Atos, however, we think it is possible to produce quantum accelerators within a decade, with our Scientific Committee of the world’s top specialists, such as the French Nobel Prize winner for physics, Serge Haroche, or Alain Aspect, who has investigated quantum entanglement. Coupled with standard supercomputers, these accelerators will allow us to massively propel quantum algorithms to boost traditional machines.

Which other companies are particularly advanced in this sector across the world?
There’s D-Wave, for example, a Canadian company that has started to produce a quantum-type computer, limited to certain optimization operations. In fact, this machine is more like a first quantum accelerator than a universal quantum computer.

How do we compare with the global competition?
The Chinese and American giants, such as IBM, Google, and Microsoft, are investing heavily in this area. And also American military research (DARPA and NSA). In Europe, the European Commission, via the “Quantum Manifesto”, has chosen to support research into quantum applications and computers to the tune of EUR 1.3 billion. In our case, we have decided to dedicate one of the 16 Atos global research centres to the quantum computer. This is the centre at Clayes-sous-Bois, in Yvelines. We have just developed a first complete quantum computer simulator there, where new quantum languages and algorithms can be invented and tested.

That was announced on July 4 in Brussels, where the pioneers of quantum physics used to meet every year at the Hotel Metropole almost a century ago.
Yes. In fact, we have now succeeded in simulating the full operating mode of a 40 Qubit quantum computer, i.e. with a speed of 2 to the power of 40. My aim is to market this unique device, the Atos Quantum Learning Machine, to public and private research centres, universities, the Grandes Écoles, etc. It’s a global first. The idea is to start inventing the specific algorithms that will allow us to communicate and work with future quantum computers, as well as programming the first quantum accelerators linked to our supercomputers in the next few years. To do that, our researchers have developed a base language, aQasm (Atos Quantum Assembly Language), the first of its kind in the world. It means our researchers are already working on the new evolved languages and quantum algorithms that will enable us to accelerate the machines of tomorrow.

Is this a strike back from France and Europe?
Atos is the only European manufacturer of supercomputers, and it ranks in the world’s top 3 or 4. With 100,000 engineers in the company, we have one base in Paris and another in Munich.
We are a fundamentally European company. I remember that after Atos took back the IT division from Siemens (SIS) 6 years ago with its 30,000 engineers, Atos became the largest Franco-German industrial cooperation since Airbus. Our ambition has been to offer the skills of a European world leader in information technologies to companies in Europe and beyond, to support them in their digital transformation and data protection. In cybersecurity, a vital subject of supreme importance, Atos is also the European Number 1 and the World Number 4. With 14 security operations centres (SOCs) and cyberspace monitoring on 5 continents, we monitor the millions of access points, the billions of billions of data items, and the entire infrastructure of all of our customers, around the clock. Also in this domain, we have just announced a world first with the implementation of the first predictive cyberspace monitoring centres, aided by specific AI platforms intended for upstream identification of weak signals or the early indications of potential attacks.

Will quantum computers boost the potential of AI?
Of course! The development of artificial intelligence is above all the capacity to process the billions of items of relevant data to enrich specific algorithms, in hours, days, months, in what is referred to as the apprenticeship phase, in order to make the machines or robots faced with the external environment “intelligent”. To do that, the race for computing power is a vital challenge in order to reduce the time needed for this apprenticeship phase and to make machines and robots increasingly relevant.

Has there been a revolution in cybersecurity?
Internet security, the banking transaction system, and more generally all computerized communication is based on the RSA algorithm (named after its three American inventors – Ronald Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman). This principle of asymmetric encryption relies on the very great difficulty standard computers have in identifying the encryption keys formed by factoring a given number into prime numbers. But the computing capabilities offered by quantum computing include almost instantaneous factorization into prime numbers, made possible by Shor’s algorithm. It works in such a way that a quantum computer would be able to instantly break any current encryption key and would put the global Internet at extreme risk. That is why Atos, in close collaboration with the European security agencies, is already working on implementing the “quantum safe” security algorithms of the future, capable of resisting attacks by a quantum computer. Our quantum simulator is clearly the machine we need to start working on this new generation of encryption immediately.

In the quantum world,will there be more or fewer attacks?
You are asking the age-old question about cops and robbers, of course you don’t get one without the other… However, a different property of quantum physics is now  starting to be used: that of quantum entanglement. As an extreme simplification, when two particles or photons have been related in a particular way, what happens on one occurs instantaneously on the other, wherever they are located. This tested principle of entanglement itself enables almost certain protection of all point-to-point communications.

Has this new approach to the subject given you a new definition of God?
In fact, it is my relationship with time that has changed. When you study physics, eternity – as we imagine it – doesn’t exist. Nothing is eternal in physics. Everything changes. When you work with information, in a certain way you are working with time, processing time. So yes, all that has certainly profoundly changed my perception of time, and my relationship to it.

A new equilibrium is emerging between man, whose brain operates at the speed of sound, and machines, which operate at the speed of light. Should we be worried about this?
It’s a valid question. It has been asked systematically throughout the history of mankind, at each major technological rupture. Just think about those first train journeys  between  Paris  and  Saint-Germain.  Some people were advising passengers to close their eyes to avoid any risk of premature blindness… However, considering the scale of the changes that lie ahead-homo  extensis,  augmented  man,  super-intelligent autonomous robots, etc. – these questions cannot simply be swept aside. Before talking about controls and regulation, the initial response must be about awareness-raising, empowerment, and training the greatest number of people. It is a time-consuming task that needs to begin now, to avoid having to worry about the consequences that will inevitably follow. It is a challenge for society – both ethically and politically.