As quantum communication, sensing, and computation continue to transition from idea to reality, the second Chicago Quantum Summit at the University of Chicago gathered together more than 120 scientists, engineers, and members of industry from around the world to discuss the latest research and promising paths forward for the field.
The summit, which included a public lecture on Oct. 24, followed by the day-long summit program on Oct. 25, contained discussions on the quantum technologies likely to make the next breakthroughs, the role of government and industry, and the workforce that is needed to create and commercialize quantum technologies.
“The issues that are at stake here are much more than understanding science,” said Robert J. Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, at the opening of the summit. Leadership from across sectors is needed to ensure quantum advances, he said. “The University of Chicago has been deeply committed to investing in this area for quite a number of years.”
The summit was hosted by the Chicago Quantum Exchange, an intellectual hub headquartered at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering with Argonne National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Northwestern University, and industry partners to advance quantum information science. Such partnerships are needed to advance quantum technology, which uses the principles of quantum mechanics to process information and often defies intuition, said David Awschalom, the Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering at UChicago, senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, and director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange.
These partnerships must also expand across borders, and at the summit, Awschalom announced that two international partners had now joined the exchange: the University of New South Wales, and QuTech in the Netherlands. Such partnerships “expand our reach and bring the very best people together to address technical challenges,” he said.
Advancing quantum technology, qubit by qubit
The University of New South Wales made an early strong bet on quantum through its the Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said Michelle Simmons, director of the center. Since 2000, the center has worked to develop an ultra-secure global quantum network and to encode information at the atomic scale.
This year, the center got two atom-based quantum bits, or qubits, in silicon to swap information without loss. Experiments like these inform how to create circuits out of qubits, Simmons said. “We’re using our quantum computer to help build itself,” she said.
Those in industry are also working at the leading edge of quantum technology.
Google announced on Oct.23 that they had achieved quantum supremacy, use of a quantum computer to make a calculation much faster than we know how to do it with even the fastest supercomputers available. While controversial, it establishes a point on the quantum roadmap that people can carefully examine, Awschalom said.
“We should be measuring progress in the field by how we’re making progress toward solving meaningful problems,” said Talia Gershon, director Hybrid Cloud Infrastructure Research at IBM during the Oct. 24 public event.
While quantum technology that can solve difficult problems is still many years away, Gershon anticipates that we’ll start to see advantages of quantum computers in the next few years.
“We ought to celebrate all the milestones we have achieved but remind ourselves to be realistic about what we expect from a commercial point of view,” said Mike Mayberry, chief technology officer at Intel at the Summit. Intel is working to develop algorithms and optimize quantum hardware architecture.
Boeing has begun dedicating many more scientists and expanded research space to quantum technology, said Charles Toups, vice president and general manager of disruptive computing and networks at Boeing. Other members of industry, including Applied Materials and Toshiba Research Europe, which had leaders present at the Summit are similarly making heavy investments and commitments to advance quantum technology.
Understanding the potential of quantum computing
Because quantum computers process information differently than classical computers, they have the ability to solve really complicated problems, like simulating processes from nature or designing new materials.
That’s what makes quantum computing so exciting, said Gershon, adding that we benefit from technological innovations every day without thinking about them.
“I think that the technology is going to progress and is going to change people’s quality of life. And it is going to be behind the scenes of some really important improvements in the way we live,” she said.
Awschalom gave several examples at the Oct. 24 event, including using quantum sensors to understand the proteins inside of us, using quantum machines to simulate photosynthesis and determine new ways to store energy, or even using quantum computers to predict the properties of new materials.
Building a workforce
In order to develop this new technology and to find the right applications for it will require a workforce that can understand quantum mechanics and the problems that can potentially be solved with this technology.
“Quantum skills are in high demand,” said Jay Gambetta, IBM fellow and vice president of IBM Q. “We need more engineers, we need more developers, and we need more PhDs.”
Addressing the need for quantum scientists and engineers requires both a near term solution, and the development of a robust pipeline for the future quantum workforce, said Awschalom. The Chicago Quantum Exchange is tackling this problem from both angles – developing a retraining certificate program for existing classically trained scientists and engineers and providing a broad set of education and training programs for students and postdoctoral researchers, including a new master’s program from the University of Wisconsin Madison.
The public sector is key to developing both quantum technology and its workforce. Scientists and engineers should be able to show progress from their work that was supported with federal funding, said U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, the only PhD physicist in Congress. While Congress can be tolerant of slow scientific progress, “part of me worries that this field is being overpromised,” he said. “No one can prove that there will be near-term applications in this.”
But Joseph Broz, executive director of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, said his organization aims to accelerate the quantum industry by identifying gaps and supporting the research and development needed to close those gaps. International partners, like the ones convened at the summit, are key.
“We think that a robust economy cannot develop, and robust quantum information science cannot develop, in isolation,” Broz said.