Winfried Hensinger is Professor of Quantum Technologies with the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex.
Winfried’s research story
As a little boy in Germany, Winfried Hensinger dreamt of being the science officer on the Starship Enterprise. Today he’s exploring frontiers in a very different way, building a quantum supercomputer that could transform our understanding of life itself.
Here at Sussex, Winfried and his team are paving the way for quantum computers – previously the stuff of science fiction – to become a reality. Quantum computers can perform in milliseconds calculations that even the most powerful computers today would take millions of years to complete.
Winfried first got in to quantum physics because he wanted to understand the fundamental nature of the world. ‘It really is how everything works,’ he says. ‘It’s unbelievably magical, crazy, beyond belief. It’s the essence of everything.’
But it wasn’t enough just to study the theory, Winfried was determined to develop quantum technology as he could see its potential to revolutionise our lives.
When we think of the possible applications of quantum computers, Winfried suggests that we need to think of this technology in the same way as when the first computers emerged in the 1950s. No one was even able to begin to guess at their full potential. The same thing is true for quantum computers.
My research would be nowhere if I never questioned the rules. Sussex allows you to change, bend or sometimes even break the rules if necessary.” Winfried Hensinger
Professor of Quantum Technologies
‘It’s not just about the speed of computing they offer. They’ll allow us to do things we haven’t even dreamt are possible, from a different way of making pharmaceuticals or creating new materials to developing capabilities that may revolutionise the financial sector. They have the potential to change our understanding of biological processes and even of life itself.’
For Winfried, his whole life has been about asking questions and never taking no for an answer. And although he’s at pains to make it clear he’s never been a ‘Trekkie’ (or been into wearing the uniforms), he says that’s why Star Trek resonated so much with him. It’s all about pushing boundaries and going where no one has gone before.
In fact, tell Winfried something can’t be done and it only makes him more determined. ‘I first thought about building a quantum computer when I was doing my PhD. Back then it was seen as a mad idea. People said it couldn’t be done. I said “Why not?”.’
From an early age he had asked questions incessantly. Luckily it was a habit his PhD supervisor encouraged and it’s something he tells his own students today. ‘I say, don’t trust me. Don’t trust anything. Use logic and investigate.’
But his research isn’t purely about scientific curiosity. It’s about using the technology for the betterment of the world. ‘For me,’ he says, ‘it’s about discovering something really amazing for humankind and then making it a reality.’
And he feels an ethical duty to make sure that he engages with the world outside academia and to explain what he is doing. ‘We get a lot of funding from government agencies – that’s really taxpayers’ money – and we have a responsibility to show that the money is being spent wisely. We need to give back.’
Reflecting on his choice to come to Sussex to do his research, Winfried is adamant that the likes of Oxford and Cambridge were not for him. ‘They’re too traditional, too rule-bound. My research would be nowhere if I never questioned the rules. Sussex allows you to change, bend or sometimes even break the rules if necessary. You can get things done here. It’s very flexible and, most importantly, it’s a curious place. The spirit of curiosity really lives here.’