PEOPLE | Apr 4, 2017

Big Data rhymes with quantum computing: interview with Catalina Curceanu

How can better use be made of Big Data with quantum computers? The answers of a researcher passionate about qubits

If it is true that Big Data rhymes with speed of execution, it is definitely interesting to understand how the availability of quantum computers could represent a turning point. We spoke with Catalina Curceanu, lead researcher of the Frascati National Laboratories of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics and member of the Foundational Question Institute (FQXi).

Together with my research group, I’m carrying out experiments in quantum physics in the laboratories of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics at Gran Sasso. As part of the institute’s VIP experiment, and with the support of projects funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) of which I am a member and the “Enrico Fermi” Historical Museum of Physics and Study and Research Center, we are verifying the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics and possible limits of validity. It is very exciting research!

This is how Catalina presents herself before answering questions.

How soon will we have quantum computers?

In order to have quantum computers we need to build systems that are able to maintain the superimposition of states as long as possible. Only then can we move on from the bits of current computers to the qubits of quantum computers. However, maintaining the superposition of states unchanged is not easy, because decoherence intervenes following interaction of the quantum system with the surrounding environment. Research and experiments are currently under way in various laboratories throughout the world on very diverse systems using, for example, spin states, superconductors or quantum optics. It is hoped to be able to build quantum computers that can be used not only in the area of ​​research over the next 10-20 years. These computers will be very different from the current ones: for example, it will be necessary to program them in a quantum way which would also lead to profound changes in the work of computer scientists. We expect a real quantum revolution in the near future.

What is the potential role of quantum computers in the processing of Big Data?

Quantum computers have enormous potential because they make it possible to process more information in a more targeted and rapid way. In addition, quantum mechanics allows the exchange of Big Data in security through quantum cryptography protocols. This ensures that all sensitive data will be more secure, in particular thanks to the property known as Quantum entanglement. In practice, those who want to intercept the exchange of information through quantum protocols will be identified immediately.

In your opinion, what is the value of data today?

There are many projects in which Big Data play a central role: in some of these a social value emerges, in others a cultural or scientific value. We are regular users of Big Data: from the information we exchange in the network (email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to scientific data that come from the experiments of the Large Hadron Collider accelerator at CERN in Geneva and large telescopes. Companies also produce a huge amount of information that sometimes gets lost or is not used to the fullest. Information and how it is managed is the gold of the twenty-first century. In the future, having the ability as a company to manage and analyze big data will be very important and will give an advantage to those who know how to do it best. In a global, competitive and dynamic market, managing information will make the difference between those who survive on the market and those who do not.

According to a recent study, companies have a mountain of data available to them but are not able to exploit them fully. Why? What are the limits and how to overcome them?

There is a lack of training of personnel and, sometimes, also the right tools. How many companies still work with paper and pen and paper documentation? Even in those which describe themselves as computerized. There is a need to invest in innovation looking to the future. And the future is computerized. For everyone. Even for those who produce food or shoes, not to mention those who produce technology or sell services. We must dare to invest in technologies and, for large companies, also in research: only then is survival possible in an increasingly dynamic market. In many countries of the world, companies are investing in research, but in “real” research, that which also studies quantum technologies for example. Why are they doing this? Because they have understood that this research, in addition to making us better understand what the fundamental laws of the Universe are, will produce wealth. Wouldn’t it be nice if more was being done also in Italy?


The message of Catalina – “researcher of impossible atoms” – is summed up in her more than 150 scientific papers from which the concept of “unstable knowledge” emerges clearly, putting us constantly on the search for full understanding of the phenomena that surround us. A search through which we keep alive the desire to ask the why of things and to study for discovering new ones. A true melody of knowledge. Like that presented by Catalina during TEDxRoma.