The world is moving fast, and technological advances are one of the main reasons why.
Today, we all hear and read about the disruptive power of AI and witness how various forms of AI are already shaping the lives of millions of people around the world.
However, there is another technology that may not get as many headlines in the popular press, but is expected to be at least as disruptive as AI - and that is quantum computing. With the power to radically change the way we communicate and process information, it opens up new ways of solving currently unsolvable problems, but also puts the encryption, we rely on today, at risk.
It is therefore not surprising that the GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar has identified quantum computing as a key technology, with strong potential for the future.
The Radar predicts that quantum computing will be used in real-world applications within 10 years, and that within 25 years these devices will have reached a level of maturity, that will allow them to perform simulations in chemistry and materials science that are simply not possible with conventional technology.
Decades of academic research into quantum computing has led to significant investment from both technology companies and government initiatives.
According to the World Economic Forum, total investment in a range of quantum technologies has reached $35 billion by 2022- with $2 billion invested in startups this year alone, a figure that continues to grow.
Both established companies and start-ups are taking advantage of the momentum and working on applications in areas such as quantum communication and sensing.
One of the pioneers is the Swiss company IDQuantique, a spin-off from the University of Geneva. Our two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, ETH Zurich and EPFL, are among the first universities to introduce master's programmes in quantum science and engineering.
This great dynamism is raising expectations of reaping the benefits of quantum technologies in general, and quantum computing in particular.
But what makes this technology so special?
What distinguishes quantum computers from classical computers?
To answer this question, you need to take a deep dive into quantum mechanics, the world of the smallest particles.
Now, trying to fully understand the details of quantum mechanics may be too much of a challenge for a medical doctor like me!
I have no problem admitting this, by the way ... because I find - forgive the expression - a quantum of comfort in the great physicist Richard Feynman, who said in 1964: "I think I can safely say that nobody really understands quantum mechanics".
Did he make this statement to reassure politicians or was it the coquètry of a physics genius?
Either way! Since then, science has made important progress in understanding the foundations and implications of quantum mechanics. But the world of qubits, with their intriguing properties such as superposition and entanglement, still holds many secrets. And no less challenges, which I see mainly on three levels: fundamental, technological and societal.
Physicists, chemists and other scientists regularly come across completely unexpected phenomena, such as exciting properties of materials, which in turn open up new pòssibilities for applications. This is the fundamental level - still a very active area of research.
The importance of basic research is also reflected in recent Nobèl Prize winners: Just a few days ago, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to quantum researchers. And last year it was quantum researchers, who won the Nóbèl Prize in Physics for their work.
Going back to Richard Feynman, he was a leading figure in a group of scientists, who had a vision in the 1980th of a new kind of computer, based on quantum mechanics that could allow us to design entirely new quantum systems.
This has become known as the second quantum revolution, in contrast to the first revolution 100 years ago, for which brilliant minds such as Max Planck, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein and others laid the foundations.
We can now control quantum systems - phòtons, atoms, ions, molecules and others - with such precision, that we can make them do almost anything we can think of.
And there are many things that scientists and èngineers are thinking about - quantum devices for secure communications or for measuring magnetic fields, with a precision that we could only dream of 15 years ago.
I’m thinking of the development of new drugs, more energy-efficient ways of producing fèrtilisers, or materials for batteries with higher energy density.
There are many pròmising results, but we don't yet know what the killer applications of quantum computers will be. So we still have a lot to learn at this level of technology.
Quantum technologies will have a direct impact on society as a whole. In health, energy, food and many other areas. But we have to be honest and say that today we don’t know exactly what the impact will be. These are the societal challenges.
In line with the GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar, we are confident that we will see impacts on people, society and the planet in the coming years and decades.
It’s time to prepare ourselves for a human-centred use of quantum computing. Today, there are gaps between the fundamental and technological levels - as well as between the technological and societal levels - that need to be bridged.
We need a 'quantum-ready' society, going beyond the interests of individual players at corporate or national level.
I am therefore grateful that GESDA has initiated and curated a diplomatic dialogue on quantum computing, gathering guidance from the private sector, academic institutions and permanent rèpresentatives to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva.
This dialogue aims to help advance the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. It goes hand in hand with a strong belief that science and diplomacy must work together to ensure that scientific and technological breakthroughs benefit all of humanity, not just a select few.
The field of science-diplomacy, born here in Geneva almost 70 years ago with the creation of CERN, is experiencing a second spring and is likely to shape the international Geneva of this early 21st century.
But how do we move from good intentions to concrete implementation? To do this, the Open Quantum Institute is being launched today. The core mission of this multilateral, cross-sector science diplomacy initiative is to create a market of quantum use cases for the SDGs by 2026.
A special prize will encourage the articulation of such use cases, focusing on Zero Hunger, Good Health and Climate Action.
The Open Quantum Institute will work along three priorities:
1) First, to ensure global and broad access to this critical infrastructure through a pool of private and public quantum computers.
2) Second, to promote education and training in quantum computing.
3) Third, to activate diplomacy to shape multilateral governance rules for the use of quantum computing.
We firmly believe that everyone should have the right to benefit from science. Its potential should be harnessed for the advancement of humanity and cooperation between nations. We must steer its development towards beneficial applications that are not driven solely by economic or military considerations.
Some might say that such ideas are naive, at odds with geopolitical realities. To these voices I would say: “we should not underestimate the human imagination and its ability to make the impossible possible”.
What we are trying to do with GESDA is new. And therefore difficult. The combination of anticipation - which looks far ahead - and action - which must be immediate - is a challenge in itself. And the method by which we want to build this bridge is new and untested.
Personally, however, I have yet to see a better proposal than science-diplomacy for how the international community can prepare for the challenges of new technologies.
We are here at CERN, a successful example of science diplomacy, founded at a time (1954) of great geopolitical tensions - just like today!
It has been operating for decades and has produced an impressive number of open innovations through international collaboration.
There we are !
Let's seize the opportunity offered by quantum technologies and harness their potential to unite - not divide - nations and people.
I hope we can persuade many of you today to support this vision.