Leaders take look ahead at quantum technology

Chicago Quantum Summit brought together industry leaders, government officials, university presidents and national lab directors to discuss what’s next

The fifth annual Chicago Quantum Summit brought together more than 220 members of the quantum information science and technology community from across the nation and around the world. Industry leaders, government officials, university presidents and national laboratory directors gathered to discuss quantum education, cutting-edge quantum research, and what comes next for the rapidly growing field.

The Summit also featured the Quantum Creators Prize Symposium, where early-career researchers working in exciting new directions of quantum science shared their work, which spanned the breadth of the field, from gravitational wave sensing to novel quantum materials.

Sean L. Jones, assistant director for the Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the National Science Foundation, said of the Quantum Creators Prize Winners: “If these talented young researchers are any indication, then the future of quantum is very bright.”

A public event at the Chicago Cultural Center discussed the Chicago region’s efforts in this future with Marco Pistoia of JPMorgan Chase, Mirella Koleva of Quantopticon and others.

“I believe that the future of quantum computing is going to run squarely through the universities and laboratories you see partnered here, and it's going to run squarely through the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago,” Robert Jones, chancellor of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said at the November event.

Industry leaders take different approaches in emerging field

At the Summit, quantum leaders from Intel, Amazon Web Services, and SandboxAQ all shared how they have approached the rapid progress in the field of quantum computing.

Intel’s approach to quantum computing is very much based in the history of classical computing, said Anne Matsuura, Intel’s director of quantum and molecular technologies. For example, Intel has chosen to invest in silicon quantum dot qubits because they functionally resemble the classical transistors that Intel has spent decades perfecting and manufacturing. This approach is bolstered by Intel’s well-established foothold in the classical computing industry, but it is also motivated by a desire to widen quantum computing’s appeal.

“If we really want new technology to take hold, we have to widen that user base,” Matsuura said at the Summit. “And in order to do that, we have to make it more user friendly. We have to make it more accessible to non-quantum experts.”

To determine their approach to quantum computing, Amazon Web Services looks first at what their customers need. According to Simone Severini, director of quantum technologies at AWS, what their customers need most in quantum computing is insight. Many don’t know what the status of quantum computing technology is, or even if or how it could help their company. AWS has launched programs to help their customers better understand the applications of quantum computing most relevant to their businesses.

But quantum computing isn’t yet practical for most applications, like simulating molecules and cracking encryptions. To prepare for the day it will be, SandboxAQ works on accelerated classical hardware that is not quantum, developing faster simulation and optimization software that extract as much computing power as possible from existing advanced hardware before it becomes possible with quantum computers. They’ve also created quantum-resistant cryptography protocols to protect data from “harvest now, decrypt later” attacks, where hackers steal data with the intent to decrypt it when quantum computers develop that ability.

“Even though there is potential in using quantum computers to do molecular simulation and help with drug discovery, it's still at the very early stage,” said Nadia Carlsten, vice president of product at SandboxAQ. “So what we're trying to do is bridge that gap with classical hardware that's very fast, so we don’t need to rely on that quantum hardware to become available.”

Government agencies facilitate collaborations and education

The Summit featured speakers from three main sources of federal funding for quantum research: the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. They highlighted their respective agencies’ emphasis on collaboration between countries, institutions, and individuals, as well as a strong focus on workforce development.

Barbara Helland, associate director of the Office of Science's Advanced Scientific Computing Research at the DOE, shared that the leaders of the five DOE National Quantum Information Science and Research Centers were asked to meet as a group “quite often” to establish a roadmap and develop milestones for what they want to accomplish in the field. The DOE and the NSF have also formed a joint oversight group to coordinate their quantum research and workforce development efforts.

“I believe that we should think about what is missing,” said Jean-Luc Cambier, program director at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “What are the gaps, how do we do it better? Because on the ground level, everybody wants to collaborate, everyone wants to push things, but there are roadblocks, and our office is there to smooth out these roadblocks.”

All three agencies have multiple quantum workforce development programs, such as the NSF’s National Q-12 Education Partnership and QuSTEAM Initiative, and the DOD’s Quantum Computing Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

Regional leaders come together in Chicagoland

Illinois is home to multiple large scientific institutions that have significantly contributed to advancing the field of quantum technology. The leaders of four of these institutions—University of Chicago, U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign—gathered at the Summit to discuss the benefits of collaboration, workforce development, and the importance of quantum within their respective institutions.

“To my mind, quantum is one of the most important things we're involved in as an institution,” said Paul Alivisatos, president of UChicago, where the Summit was hosted. “Because it brings together what I consider to be kind of the essential elements of what a great university should be trying to do: thinking about how we can help shape and define new fields of knowledge, create transformative education for the students, and connect what happens here at the university with what's happening in society.”

Much of the discussion revolved around how to grow the quantum workforce. Robert Jones used 4-H, a youth development organization with chapters nationwide, as an example of an established network that can be leveraged to reach families and young people who might not have heard of opportunities in quantum. Supratik Guha, senior scientist/senior advisor to physical sciences and engineering at Argonne and professor of molecular engineering at UChicago, emphasized the need for workforce initiatives to target STEM workers across fields, including material scientists, computer scientists, and mechanical engineers.

The conversation also highlighted the importance of the connections between the institutions, and how those relationships have enabled more educational programming and research collaborations.

“To strengthen the region, we strengthen our regional partnerships,” said Lia Merminga, director of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, “and work together on quantum computers, networks, sensors, and above all, on the new generation of quantum scientists and engineers, and I'm very much looking forward to doing that.”

Watch the recorded Summit sessions

A version of this story was originally posted on the Chicago Quantum Exchange website