Scientists are excited about taking the quantum leap

Recently, Israel allocated $60 million to build its first quantum computer and became the latest country to join the global race for designing emerging technology that comes with the promise to solve problems that previously could not be solved.

Quantum computing is transitioning from theory to development, and even though we still might be decades away from the first quantum computer, the development of the technology is demanding exponentially more workforce. In this article, we explore how quantum computing is fundamentally different from conventional technology, what problems it can solve, and what skills are needed to take the quantum leap.

The Newton equation is not enough

“When I think of quantum, I go back a hundred years. I think about Newton and his equation that everybody loves - force=mass x acceleration (N=kg x m/s2). But that equation ignores a lot of stuff. It's an approximation, a generalization of what really happens in the physical world,” Talitha Washington, director of the Data Science Initiative at the Atlanta University Center Consortium said during the CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) discussion about taking the quantum leap.

Isaac Newton and the theory of gravity (c) Shutterstock

The principles of classical mechanics, like Newton's law, break down if the system travels too fast or if we are talking about very small systems, like atoms.

“This problem occurred back in the 1800s. People were working on electricity, magnetism, and they ran into these ideas. You have an electron - is it a particle, or is it a wave? Light - is it a particle, or is it a wave? And how do we interpret, describe, and understand these systems? If light is a particle what is its mass?” Washington recalled.

There are two main issues with classical mechanics, which occur when systems are moving super-fast or are super small.

“Something else needed to come into play to really describe that physical phenomenon that was going on. And that's why we have quantum mechanics, and a hundred years later, we are figuring out how to take these quantum mechanic theories now that we have the technology to harness that power to move quantum computing exponentially,” she said.

How can we benefit from quantum computing?

Quantum describes the granularity of the universe, Tara Fortier, project leader at NIST’s Time and Frequency Division, said during the discussion. To help wrap your head around the quantum world, she draws an analogy to the image displayed on a computer screen.

“If you are far away, everything looks very continuous, and the image is very smooth, the colors are very smooth. As you zoom in, you start to see that an image is built-up of individual pixels. What makes quantum difficult, I think, for people is that we do not see that granularity in our everyday lives. But if we were able to zoom in, we would see the granularity of matter - atoms, electrons, or the granularity of light and energy, like photons. They have very special properties that are unique to quantum particles,” she explained.

(c) Shutterstock

Classical “particles” in our lives, let’s say coffee mugs, do not exhibit properties like quantum particles do. And these are superposition and entanglement.

“These are just things that you cannot experience in the classical world. But what these two properties create is this ability for quantum systems to kind of communicate with each other. It is almost a little bit like they are psychic. (...) Quantum bits can behave communally, so they interact together in such a way that creates enormous amounts of parallelism. That parallelism is incredibly powerful in terms of parsing information and doing complicated computations,” she explained.

How can we benefit from these unique quantum computations? It could, for example, speed the development of vaccines or other life-saving drugs.

“If we want to make new matter, new molecules, or even things like new vaccines and medicines, it is very difficult for classical computers to do simulations to see if these vaccines or these chemicals will actually work. Instead of going through a very lengthy trial and error synthesis of materials, a quantum computer can actually do a computation instead to try to speed up the process for things like drug creation,” said Fortier.

The opportunities that quantum computing offers make her and other scientists excited. Quantum computing could also be used for sensing of magnetic, electric, gravitational fields and be used for navigation.

What does a quantum technologist do?

Quantum technologies refer to the use of the principles of quantum mechanics to manipulate information, explained Zaira Nazario, Technical Lead of Quantum Theory, Algorithms, and Applications at IBM Quantum.

“In the case of quantum computing, that is basically what it is - manipulating information. There are other things that you do - push the detection limits, for example, measurement limits, that's in the case of sensing technologies. Or you use it to improve communications beyond the limits of conventional classical technologies,” she said.

To do that, you need to be able to control and manipulate quantum mechanical systems and make use of properties such as entanglement and coherence.

“Part of what scientists and engineers working on this field do is try to find how to design and build things to have that control and manipulation, and be able to exploit it for computation, for sensing, or communication,” Nazario explained.

What is truly special about these technologies, she reckons, is that they are not offering an incremental gain.

“They work fundamentally differently and represent completely new paradigms of computations. It is not that they do the same things better or faster. They do things in a fundamentally different way that has no classical analog. And they bring the promise of things that could not be possibly achieved otherwise, to solve classically unsolvable problems,” Nazario explained.

The growing demand of a quantum workforce

Developing quantum technologies can be considered a matter of national security, as they can be used to break codes and essentially break cryptosystems. In the current quantum race, the US, according to Washington, has to “really push the envelope and figure it out before someday else does.” Therefore, the STEM field should be more diversified, and STEM’s demographics should mirror the demographics of the nation.

Nazario suggests thinking creatively and not relying on traditional models of education. She reckons that fundamentally different technology demands a fundamentally different approach to education. Quantum computing tools that already exist should be made more widely available so that more people could learn while working with those quantum technologies.

Fortier suggests exposing kids to the quantum world earlier, not when they are already in their teenage years.

“I think about science very much like a language. It would be much easier to learn a second language starting at the age of 5 or 6 than starting at the age of 14,” she said.

According to Nazario, the demand for professionals in the quantum field is increasing. Today, it is not as big as the demand for programming and developers in conventional computing and AI.

“But it will continue to increase and will be considerable in the future. The danger is that if we do nothing to increase the supply, we will not be able to meet that future demand to sustain the needs of the industry,” Nazario explained.

Nazario forecasts that the demand for quantum engineers will multiply in the next few years as quantum technologies continue to make the transition from research to development.

There’s also a growing demand for physicists (optical, quantum), mathematicians, electrical engineers, computer engineers, and others.

“The number of people exploiting quantum computing for applications, like material scientists or chemists, will increase significantly, I would say, multiple times from what it is now. One of the largest increases might be in software developers, people that are researching and developing software and compilers, and the people that are consuming quantum circles to solve problems in their field,” Nazario said.

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