Everyone has a seat at the table when it comes to advancing quantum information research.
That was the message from a panel discussion on quantum information science at the 2023 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held from March 2-5 in Washington, DC.
The session, titled “The Human Side of Quantum Science: Policy, Access, Benefit to Humanity,” focused on the intersection of quantum technology and human activity and how the scientific community can shape those interactions.
The AAAS Meeting session was organized by representatives of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Quantum Information Science Research Centers, including Q-NEXT, which is led by DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.
“The field [of quantum information science] is progressing so rapidly that there’s really an opportunity to make contributions in a lot of different ways … As a human race, we can’t afford to not take advantage of talents all over the world.” — Charles Tahan, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
Quantum technologies harness special features of matter at the atomic scale and have the potential to transform society. Quantum sensors could boost our ability to diagnose disease by imaging individual cells. Quantum computers are expected to solve problems today’s supercomputers cannot.
One of the challenges facing the burgeoning field is its reputation as inaccessible, both intellectually and in terms of the equipment and resources.
Throughout the discussion, panel moderator Kate Waimey Timmerman, chief executive officer of the Chicago Quantum Exchange, asked the panelists how the scientific community is tackling the problem.
For example, she said, we need a stronger, larger workforce to advance quantum information science in the U.S. What are we doing to draw more people to quantum science?
One of the goals of the National Quantum Initiative, which spurred the establishment of 10 national quantum research centers directed by DOE and the National Science Foundation, was “to create a new generation of talent,” said Charles Tahan, assistant director for quantum information science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and director of the National Quantum Coordination Office.
“How do you educate people so they have the skill sets to be successful? How do you inspire them to keep going? And then how do you give them the experiences throughout their career, school and so on, outside of school, that lets them see themselves as a contributor? Get over the perception that you need to have Einstein-like hair?” Tahan said. “It’s just not true, right? There are many different types of skills and personalities and capabilities that are needed.”
The national strategy for building a quantum workforce includes education partnerships to bring leading industry players, teachers, professional societies and universities together to create curricula for all levels, Tahan said. It also showcases diverse people working in the field.
“This is what a person in this field is like, whether they be government or industry or academia — they could look like you,” he said.
Advancing quantum information science takes all kinds. Margaret Martonosi, the Hugh Trumbull Adams ’35 professor of computer science at Princeton University, ticked off some of the many areas of expertise needed to advance quantum technologies: chemistry, applied math and statistics, electrical engineering, computing and physics, to name a few. And you don’t need a Ph.D. to contribute.
“You have this opportunity to pull from a lot of different undergrad fields and to create what you might think of as a mezzanine level where there’s mixing,” Martonosi said. “Maybe it’s a master’s degree or maybe it’s some other experience, but the ability to mix and complement backgrounds to bring together these different topic areas will be exciting in terms of pulling in both academic and technical backgrounds and improving the diversity and inclusion of the field, by being willing to enable to draw from a broader set of backgrounds.”
Tahan agreed, refuting the notion that an advanced understanding of quantum physics is a requirement for entering the field.
“Quantum is more than quantum physics,” he said. “When you think about the skills needed to build a large quantum computer or sensing network — physics, computer science, engineering, design, so on — these skill sets are valuable no matter what.”
Timmerman asked about ways the scientific community is making quantum computing accessible to more users, noting that several companies are making their quantum capabilities available on the cloud.
“By putting it on the cloud, it makes it a lot easier for almost anyone to access. That’s a big part of it,” said Jerry Chow, IBM fellow and director of quantum infrastructure at IBM, which made the first quantum device available on the cloud in 2016. “Certainly not everybody’s going to have access to a lot of the experimental types of apparatus that it takes to test these things, so having a cloud solution and an integrated compute platform that is accessible is the first step toward truly democratizing and offering these types of services to the world.”
Chow also noted that IBM and other companies are always looking for ways to serve a wide range of users. IBM, for example, hosts global summer schools where students use software development kits such as Qiskit to run and write quantum code. Last year, over 5,000 people from over 100 countries accessed Qiskit.
“That’s really the type of outreach that we’re trying to drive. We want to enable the world with this future of computing resource.” Chow said.
“You could all go and run a tiny quantum program today on other resources. It’s that accessible,” Martonosi told the audience.
Martonosi noted the example of robotics clubs, which have been successful in setting kids on the STEM path. Similar entry points could be made available for those without formal training in quantum information science.
“There are also folks who are coming out from intellectual curiosity at all times in their life — kindergarteners, high schoolers and 50-year-olds who are just curious and want to learn more. And I think that’s all to the better,” she said. “Cloud-connected quantum platforms — it’s not the same as playing soccer on a robot — but it has that same aspect of being able to experiment with something and manipulate it in a more hands-on way that often pulls people in.”
While building quantum capabilities in the U.S. is critical, so is international cooperation, Tahan said.
“One of the pillars of our national strategy is international cooperation. Quantum has always been a global endeavor,” he said. “So to move science forward faster, we need to work together.”
Tahan said that it’s better to get ahead in quantum information research by working with other countries than to lag behind the curve because we’re holding certain innovations so close to the vest. At the same time, we need to balance the benefits of sharing knowledge with the harms that could arise if we don’t protect our intellectual and technological investments.
“But we can’t let that stop us from moving as fast as possible and understanding the world better, with the intention of helping people,” Tahan said. “Ultimately, we’re going to have to find ways to expand opportunity everywhere.”
Because quantum information science is an emerging field that is now getting off the ground, opportunities abound.
“It’s that notion of being able to present at the creation, or the almost creation, of something new,” Martonosi said, who mentioned that some scholars find it risky to conduct research in a field that’s in its formative stages. “I don’t see the risk, because on the one hand, the upside is we could do something amazingly impactful. And on the other hand, even if aspects of what we work on don’t fully pan out, we are always learning things, and we’re turning back and making use of them in the non-quantum, classical side of the computing space. To me there’s very little downside and a huge upside that is very exciting.”
Chow hopes that the upside of conducting research from the ground up can attract more people to quantum information science.
“That aspect of it, of being able to be at this — I don’t think it’s quite the ground floor anymore — but we’re kind of still in those first couple of floors of laying the seeds of what can really blossom from here,” he said.
“The field is progressing so rapidly that there’s really an opportunity to make contributions in a lot of different ways,” Tahan said. “As a human race, we can’t afford to not take advantage of talents all over the world. Because we have a lot of problems to solve together.”
Q-NEXT is a U.S. Department of Energy National Quantum Information Science Research Center led by Argonne National Laboratory. Q-NEXT brings together world-class researchers from national laboratories, universities and U.S. technology companies with the goal of developing the science and technology to control and distribute quantum information. Q-NEXT collaborators and institutions will create two national foundries for quantum materials and devices, develop networks of sensors and secure communications systems, establish simulation and network test beds, and train the next-generation quantum-ready workforce to ensure continued U.S. scientific and economic leadership in this rapidly advancing field. For more information, visit https://q-next.org/.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.