These are technologies in the early stages of thinking and development, but we need to lay the ground work now if we want to benefit from them in the future. Here is what the future might look like in 10-20 years.

Quantum computing

Quantum computers have the potential to solve problems in minutes that would take conventional computers centuries. This power will have a transformational impact on Australian and global businesses, from banks undertaking financial analysis and transport companies planning optimal logistic routes, to improvements in medical drug design.

The advantage of a quantum computer is that information can be stored in a large number of different states at the same time. Classical computers store information as bits that represent either a ‘1’ or a ‘0’, but relying on the effects of quantum physics, the qubits (quantum bits) in a quantum computer could be ‘1’ or ‘0’, or ‘1’ and ‘0’ at the same time.

Quantum is expected to open many new opportunities for the entire Australian workforce. Some practical applications that could affect regional Australia include:

  • Optimisation programs that create far more efficient inventory planning and improved distribution systems including speed fleet routing. The efficiencies gained through better delivery options will be particularly beneficial to businesses working with perishable goods.
  • Machine learning that can deliver the ability to more accurately forecast long term weather patterns as well as analyse weather events as they develop, through the use of high-speed probability simulations.
  • The ability to model proteins which will lead to superior pharmaceuticals (for the protection of humans and animals) and better crop management.

The potential that quantum computing will be available via cloud networks and other forms of broadband infrastructure invites the possibility that clusters of programmers and users in all parts of Australia will be able to access this technology.

The opportunity for regional communities to focus on creating applications that are critically relevant to their geographic interest will inspire new and unforeseen applications that will provide benefits to people everywhere. The combination of a local talent base, improved logistics and more efficient distribution and access to quantum computing algorithms are likely to lead to greater opportunities for regional students and workers to participate in this development.

Telstra and UNSW – working to build a quantum computer

In December 2015 Telstra announced its plan to invest $10 million and in-kind support over the next five years to help the development of silicon quantum computing technology in Australia with the Australian Research Council Centre for Quantum Computation and Communications Technology (CQC2T), headquartered at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

In April 2016, the Centre’s new laboratories were officially opened by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and then Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne. At the event the Prime Minister hailed UNSW’s research in quantum computing as the “best work in the world”.

The laboratories will double the productive capacity of the UNSW headquarters of the CQC2T. They will also be used to advance development work to commercialise UNSW’s ground-breaking quantum computing research and establish Australia as an international leader in the industries of the future. The work has attracted major investment from the Australian Government, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Telstra.

Gene editing

The future of agriculture is facing a number of challenges – from pressures to increase yields in the face of growing populations to stresses caused by climate change, land degradation and lack of water. To meet the high expectations, agriculture needs to adopt technologies of various kinds, including genetically modified crops.

Genetic modification of crops and animals has been in existence virtually since the beginning of agriculture. Farmers have practised selective breeding to produce crops and animals with traits that are desirable, such as resistance to drought, resistance to disease and pests or increased yields. Selective breeding requires a number of generations of the crop or animal to produce the desired traits.

In the future genetically-modified crops can produce much more impressive benefits – the C4 Rice Project, for example, aims to develop a rice variety that uses the so-called C4 form of photosynthesis; as it is more efficient it would yield as much as 50% more than the current varieties.

Gene editing also allows further development of crop varieties that are resistant to more herbicides and have other useful properties such as improved nutritional contents and disease resistance. Ambitious projects also aim at producing crops such as nitrogen-fixing wheat, which would dramatically reduce the need for fertilisers.

For Australia in particular, drought-tolerant varieties of various crops can help maintain yields even in the face of challenging environmental conditions. Developing more heat-tolerant varieties would also be of large benefit for Australia, where heat waves already impact negatively on quality and yields.

Modern genetic technologies allow the identification of specific genes that are responsible for the desired traits of a plant or animal. By comparing the alleles (different forms of the same gene) of these plants or animals with the desired traits with current crop or herd it is possible to identify specific genes that could be modified to produce a new generation with the desired traits.

A recently discovered technique, known as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), makes such genetic modification possible. CRISPR allows gene modification with relatively simple and inexpensive laboratory equipment.

CRISPR has already been tested and shown to produce desirable outcomes. For example, African Swine Fever will kill domestic pigs but warthogs are resistant to the disease. Using CRISPR scientist were able to identify the genes that give warthogs their resistance and transfer their alleles to domestic pigs thereby giving the latter immunity to the disease in a single generation.

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