Glance around Jason Orcutt’s office at IBM Quantum, and you’ll see circuit boards, hiking trail maps, qubit probes and his kids’ artwork. Part office, part lab, part gallery: It’s a cross section of a life of rigorous research and vigorous recreation.
The scene also captures the kind of activity balancing that characterizes his work as a quantum information researcher, switching between hands-on investigation and high-level research strategy. He uses these wide-ranging skills in his role as a co-design engineer for Q-NEXT, the National Quantum Information Science Research Center led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.
A principal research scientist at IBM Quantum, Orcutt provides an industry perspective on one of the pillars of Q-NEXT research: developing simulations to better design quantum information systems.
“IBM brings a future-looking perspective on the problems we need to solve to develop a really useful quantum computer. And Q-NEXT really aligns with our vision on creating new types of quantum interconnects to scale quantum computers into the future.” — Jason Orcutt, IBM
Q-NEXT collaborators use quantum computers and classical supercomputers to simulate the behaviors of materials used for quantum applications, which are expected to be revolutionary. In the decades ahead, scientists will deploy quantum sensors that can detect an earthquake from space and run powerful quantum computers that can rapidly suss out solutions to intractable problems.
“We’re using simulations to better design materials and adapting those simulations to an interconnected quantum system,” Orcutt said. “IBM brings a future-looking perspective on the problems we need to solve to develop a really useful quantum computer. And Q-NEXT really aligns with our vision on creating new types of quantum interconnects to scale quantum computers into the future.”
“Quantum interconnect” is a fancy way of referring to the components that link quantum devices. It could be the instruments connecting a sensor to a computer, or it could be a line on a printed circuit board. Without interconnects, quantum devices can’t talk to each other, and quantum information can’t be shared.
At IBM Quantum, Orcutt coordinates the development of long-range quantum interconnects, which link devices separated by meters to kilometers, such as the nodes in a future quantum data center.
“How do we extend quantum information or connect quantum systems over physical distance?” he said. “Right now, our IBM quantum systems are really restricted to a single chip. I and the people I work with, as well as the academic researchers such as those at Q-NEXT, are looking to develop connections between qubits that will extend beyond more than one chip.”
Sending quantum information over longer distances is an obstacle course of physics challenges. For starters, quantum information is fragile. Qubits — the fundamental units of quantum information — fall apart at the smallest disturbance. Distance complicates matters. How do you provide qubits with safe, noise-free passage over a kilometer or more? The proposition is like asking a soap bubble not to pop as it travels down a galley of knives.
“You can’t use the same tools to pattern a centimeter size chip as you would a meter-scale cable,” Orcutt said.
Qubits must also be continually converted and reconverted to the right frequencies to be read by the devices they encounter on their journey. The most fundamental frequency conversion requirements arise from the different levels of thermal noise at different frequencies. For example: IBM Quantum focuses on a type of qubit that lives in the microwave frequency range. In this range, the quantum information must be cooled to a few hundredths of a degree from absolute zero to be protected from thermal noise. To be transported in room temperature materials — a requirement for long distance communication — the quantum information must be converted to the optical-wave range, a whopping 10,000 times the frequency of microwaves.
The way that materials respond to the two frequency ranges is massively different. How do you engineer materials to successfully conduct information that starts as a murmur and ends in a trill?
Such challenges are part of the growing pains of the field of quantum information science, which is working to tap the potential of information that, until recently, was kept cozily inside tiny instruments such as microchips.
“We’re taking quantum information into places it traditionally doesn’t live,” Orcutt said. Instead of moving through chips built in clean rooms, qubits are having to find their way through “the messy world of macroscopic objects,” he said, such as meter-long coaxial cables or fiber optic cables that connect nodes that are miles apart.
The scientific community is working to build quantum systems that will eventually connect the globe. Simulating them from soup to nuts is key to ensuring that the interconnected systems of the future will be successful. Orcutt draws on his experience at IBM to inform Q-NEXT’s quantum simulations work.
“We have to reengineer our systems, and to do that, we have to simulate them,” he said. “But how do we reengineer our systems around quantum interconnects instead of a monolithic computing device? Systems where there are different levels of connectivity? We have to rethink not just how we build the systems, but also how we adapt our algorithms to best use them.”
Orcutt began his journey into quantum information science at Columbia University, planning initially to be a patent lawyer, combining interests in debate and technology.
“What I quickly realized was that there are many other ways to pursue science and have a fulfilling career that was closer to creating new technical ideas,” he said.
He pivoted to a bachelor’s in electrical engineering, with no intention of attending graduate school. But, again, he changed his mind after a couple of happy lab experiences working on electronics and photonics. For his Ph.D. research at MIT, Orcutt built the first optical interconnects in the commercial manufacturing processes used for microprocessor and memory chips.
“This was a wonderful project because it wasn’t just about the devices — it was connected to the systems, which is something that has always been a key draw for me throughout my life,” he said.
In 2013, Orcutt joined IBM. It was a major shift for someone who started his career as “the one soldering the circuit, the one simulating the physics or coding the program,” he said. And while he continues to work directly with the technology, 10 years later, he’s also the one asking how quantum computers should be wired, what components are required to connect the qubits and what direction IBM should take to tackle these strategic and technology questions.
Orcutt’s experience both at the bench and at the center of operations made him a valuable contributor to Q-NEXT’s 2022 quantum technology report “A Roadmap for Quantum Interconnects,” which outlines the discoveries needed to build practical quantum information technologies in one or two decades.
“It was a useful exercise to define the important challenges and potential solutions that are emerging within the community and define it so it could be addressed by the center on a 10-year scale,” he said.
Producing the roadmap is just one example of IBM’s collaborative effort with Q-NEXT.
“The next phase of quantum information science will involve creating new materials and refined products that have superior quantum information performance. And to address that, we need a whole bunch of forces coming together, which is another reason why the shared infrastructure at centers like Q-NEXT are critical,” Orcutt said. “Trying to tackle these really hard problems is one of the main reasons we like to work with other industrial players, national labs and a broad consortium of academic groups. To us — to me and to IBM in general — that is a paramount reason to get involved in Q-NEXT: to be able to tackle the really hard problems together with the best people in the field.”
Building the quantum workforce through education and outreach is another goal for IBM Quantum. IBM creates connections to the students, postdocs and other early-career scientists conducting research at centers like Q-NEXT, widening opportunities to grow its own quantum workforce.
For those thinking of entering the field, Orcutt notes the excitement of quantum research.
“When I have a new task or project, I initially have absolutely no idea how we’re going to solve it. The wonderful thing is, we’ve been able to make significant progress against our goals,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful journey of figuring out ways to contribute to the quantum effort and trying to solve problems along the way.”
This work was supported by the DOE Office of Science National Quantum Information Science Research Centers as part of the Q-NEXT center.
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.