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Quantum Computing for the Next Generation of Computer Scientists and Researchers

A Q&A with Travis Humble

Travis Humble is a distinguished scientist and director of the Quantum Computing Institute at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The institute is a lab-wide organization that brings together all of ORNL's capabilities to address the development of quantum computers. Humble is also an academic, holding a joint faculty appointment at the University of Tennessee, where he is an assistant professor with the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education. In the following Q&A, Humble gives CT his unique perspectives on the advancement of quantum computing and its entry into higher education curricula and research.

quantum computer

"It's an exciting area that's largely understaffed. There are far more opportunities than there are people currently qualified to approach quantum computing."
—Travis Humble

Mary Grush: Working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a scientist and at the University of Tennessee as an academic, you are in a remarkable position to watch both the development of the field of quantum computing and its growing importance in higher education curricula and research. First, let me ask about your role at the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education. The Bredesen Center draws on resources from both ORNL and UT. Does the center help move quantum computing into the realm of higher education?

Travis Humble: Yes. The point of the Bredesen Center is to do interdisciplinary research, to educate graduate students, and to address the interfaces and frontiers of science that don't fall within the conventional departments.

For me, those objectives are strongly related to my role at the laboratory, where I am a scientist working in quantum information. And the joint work ORNL and UT do in quantum computing is training the next generation of the workforce that's going to be able to take advantage of the tools and research that we're developing at the laboratory.

Grush: Are ORNL and UT connected to bring students to the national lab to experience quantum computing?

Humble: They are so tightly connected that it works very well for us to have graduate students onsite performing research in these topics, while at the same time advancing their education through the university.

Grush: How does ORNL's Quantum Computing Institute, where you are director, promote quantum computing?

Humble: As part of my work with the Quantum Computing Institute, I manage research portfolios and direct resources towards our most critical needs at the moment. But I also use that responsibility as a gateway to get people involved with quantum computing: It's an exciting area that's largely understaffed. There are far more opportunities than there are people currently qualified to approach quantum computing.

The institute is a kind of storefront through which people from many different areas of science and engineering can become involved in quantum computing. It is there to help them get involved.

Grush: Let's get a bit of perspective on quantum computing — why is it important?

Humble: Quantum computing is a new approach to the ways we could build computers and solve problems. This approach uses quantum mechanics that support the most fundamental theories of physics. We've had a lot of success in understanding quantum mechanics — it's the technology that lasers, transistors, and a lot of things that we rely on today were built on.

But it turns out there's a lot of untapped potential there: We could take further advantage of some of the features of quantum physics, by building new types of technologies.

Essentially by manipulating individual atoms and electrons, we can perform computations more quickly, and more efficiently than we've ever been able to do with conventional technology.

And so, quantum computing has an enormous potential, which includes that we could build more efficient computers that would be not only faster but also more accurate while using less energy.

Grush: What other impacts can quantum technologies have?

Humble: We would be able to open up new fields of science.

There is an excellent example here: We use our high-performance computing systems to understand how high-energy particles interact with each other. We try to learn about some of the fundamental processes of the universe.

Those processes, however, are incredibly challenging to calculate. This takes a lot of memory, time, and energy. By building quantum computers, we expect that we'll be able to lower these technology barriers and begin exploring, through computation, new realms of science that we've never actually been able to tap into before.

By building quantum computers, we expect that we’ll be able to lower these technology barriers and begin exploring, through computation, new realms of science that we’ve never actually been able to tap into before.

Grush: What very high-level goals do universities and the national laboratory have in common when it comes to quantum computing?

Humble: For ORNL, quantum computing is one critical part of our mission in scientific discovery: to build new tools, and to push the frontier of what we can observe and what we can understand.

For many universities, quantum computing is becoming part of their mission — along with the goal to enable and educate the next generation of scientists and engineers about how they can build on quantum tools and use them to understand what comes next.

Grush: Is the field of quantum computing advancing right now?

Humble: The quantum computing field right now has so much promise, and there is really a lot of excitement around it, because it can have such a great impact on the way we solve scientific problems.

Grush: Here's a basic question: Is quantum computing by nature going to have similar access challenges to what we've seen before with high-performance computing in general? If the next generation of computer scientists is going to be trained in quantum computing, will there be options for a wide range of computing applications that benefit from quantum speed, accuracy, and energy efficiency? Will there be easier access to the quantum computing resources those applications will need?

Humble: That's an excellent question, because the opportunities provided by quantum computing certainly influence and impact computer scientists, including students, who are exploring the next generation of computing technology hardware, software, and systems.

At ORNL, one milestone for the future is to build a large, high-performance quantum computer. That is certainly a goal we have for the future. But there are many other areas that quantum computing will impact.

Grush: What are some of those areas, and what would the computing resources at a university need to be, in order to train rising computer scientists or other interdisciplinary researchers in the application of quantum computing to their areas?

Humble: An example might be someone who's working in chemistry — maybe they are using computers to understand chemical reactions or how types of pharmaceuticals or catalysts can be used to enable energy conversion… The quantum computer has become a new tool to understand those types of systems.

So even people who are not primarily in computer science — they might be working on chemistry, physics, engineering, or even finance projects — may also be impacted by all this.

Grush: Will students at colleges and universities need huge high-performance computing systems on campus in order to get their hands on quantum computing resources that may span a range of applications?

Humble: Not necessarily. Even today, quantum computers are very rare resources. There are literally only a few dozen of them in the world. But access to quantum computers is rapidly increasing through remote web interfaces that enable people from all over the world to access these rare resources.

Access to quantum computers is rapidly increasing through remote web interfaces that enable people from all over the world to access these rare resources.

Even if individual universities can't make an investment to build their own quantum computer, or potentially buy one at some point in the future, they can still enable the development of the workforce, using these types of remote access.

Grush: What proportion of existing quantum computing resources are sitting at universities, literally on campus?

Humble: I would point out that the development of quantum computers as physics experiments has been going on for some 25 years. Because of that, there are some small scale, prototype quantum computers scattered across the country in different departments. Most of them, however, are not intended to be used by other people. They are strictly for scientific research, each related to the owner of that system. For that reason, even though these systems exist, most of them are not accessible to a broad audience. We have found that it's actually commercial vendors that are able to provide broad-audience access to quantum computers. IBM, Google, Rigetti, D-Wave… there's a whole host of companies making up a new quantum ecosystem. We are now seeing how the intersection between industry and our universities enables the next generation of quantum design and discovery.

We are now seeing how the intersection between industry and our universities enables the next generation of quantum design and discovery.

Grush: How is all this getting organized? And to what extent is, or is not, quantum computing working its way into the computer science curriculum at colleges and universities? How are computer science departments picking up on these opportunities to get remote access to quantum computing resources and give their students an opportunity to experience some of this, maybe "hands-on"?

Humble: In 2018, the National Quantum Initiative was started, the purpose of which is for all of government to coordinate on the development and advancement of quantum information science. That of course includes the Department of Energy establishing centers for research around quantum computing and quantum technology. It also includes the NSF, which has a priority to establish education across the universities in the U.S. This work started what is called the Quantum Leap Initiative, which is to ramp up resources at universities very quickly, to enable research and workforce development in quantum content.

In fact, very recently, the NSF announced three centers focused on quantum technologies as part of the Quantum Leap Initiative. Funding is around $75million, shared across the three centers. So it's a very substantial investment. And as I understand, this is really the first wave, so we anticipate that there will be additional investment for the universities to enable these types of resources and initiatives to impact their curricula.

Grush: How are the campuses that are getting involved in quantum computing locating these and other resources? And are some of the resources geared for computer science departments?

Humble: Thinking about computer science specifically, there's been a lot of focus on what the curriculum requirements are; what the objectives of teaching students about quantum computer science are. There have been several workshops on this. One that I had the opportunity to participate in was led by the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) and examined many of the ways computer scientists could enable quantum computing.

Some of this seems to be exactly what you would expect — building software and tools, languages, compilers… including all of the key elements of computer science, but tailoring them to the new technology.

It's a big task though, because so much of quantum technology development has been tied into physics for the past 25 years. Transitioning to a paradigm that is in many ways more tailored to computer science and changing from that past paradigm is one of the challenges at the moment. But there's a lot of creativity and excitement around this.

Grush: What are some of the resources or organizations that higher education institutions might want to explore first? I know there's a lot of information out there — could you select some good ones to start with?

Humble: Here are links to some resources related to what I was just describing [see box below]. There's one that I would especially like to call out: the IEEE has started a quantum initiative that is really a global effort to tie together many of the different interests and stakeholders who are going to push quantum engineering forward. This gets into computer engineering, materials engineering, and all the different aspects of quantum computing.

I'm one of the co-chairs for the IEEE Quantum Initiative. And there is an education sub-initiative effort, for which there are already people offering workshops in curriculum development, geared more toward educators and professors of computer science. These efforts help to identify resources that enable people in departments to take that next step and to decide where to go next.

Grush: Is there a common approach or thinking regarding introducing undergraduates in particular to quantum computing concepts? Maybe at least giving them the background to prepare to pursue it in their future graduate work?

Humble: This question is really important, because a lot of our advanced research activity involving graduate students has shown us that often, the reason graduate students even know about quantum computing is because they had exposure to it as undergraduates. Those exposures came in different ways: some through physics departments, and some through computer science departments.

I have actually seen students reach out as early as high school to ask how they can get involved in quantum computing. And we have had a few high school students do internships at the laboratory.

But the key issue is that quantum computing is such an interdisciplinary thing, that it's not immediately obvious to an undergraduate how to prepare to get involved in that field. Most universities don't have a clear path for that yet… though some are developing pathways.

What I think has worked as somewhat of a substitute for that clear path is remote access to quantum resources. Some of those resources are public, so you can choose to get limited access to quantum computing systems. At this point in time, highly motivated undergraduate students basically teach themselves how to program a quantum computer. There are tutorials and examples online — enough for them to at least get started.

Some universities, and vendors as well, develop hackathons around the idea of quantum computing. It's not so much that participants are trying to make the system do something it's not meant to do, but more that through "hands-on" experience, they learn about how things actually work.

Hackathons in this area have been very popular. People like the uniqueness of programming a quantum computer, and they learn a lot of quantum computer science along the way.

Grush: How do universities tap programs that give them, including their students, access — maybe remote access — to quantum computing?

Humble: The Quantum Computing User Program, funded by the Department of Energy, is a great example of enabling universities such as the University of Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and others, to get access to quantum computing resources. The basic principle is that everyone wants to see the best science possible on those systems. The teams that get access are doing cutting edge research and frequently publish their findings in high-impact journals. That, in turn, increases the visibility of and awareness about quantum computing while pushing the field forward.

Of particular interest, though, is that most of the time, the people using those systems are not the professors at universities, but rather, their students. Through collaborations such as the Quantum Computing User Program, students are able to get access to quantum computers — to learn, to develop, and eventually to find future work and professional positions in quantum computing.

Grush: With academic guideposts really not in place yet in the field of quantum computing, what would you advise? Do computer science students need to tap any specific interdisciplinary fields — to pair computer science courses with courses in another field — if their career interest is, ultimately, to develop applications for quantum computing?

Humble: I think this question is important, because I would not want students in computer science to believe that they will only be able to work with quantum computers in another field, such as physics. A physics class is almost always going to be tailored to people who need to understand physics for the purpose of doing physics. If you are going to be working on building and developing quantum computers and controlling that technology, then classes in physics and materials science might be relevant, excellent choices, but if your end goal is to develop applications for quantum computing it's not necessary to focus so strongly on physics. So, for computer science students who have the end goal of developing applications for quantum computing, they really need a more generalist view of quantum logic.

Computer science departments are working to identify curriculum pathways for those students who wish to pursue quantum computing. There are a few courses in engineering departments now, where you can begin to recognize where an overlap between computer science and another discipline actually is productive for the CS student. For example, information theory classes offered in engineering departments do cover concepts that are relevant to both computer science and engineering. And in mathematics, linear algebra is incredibly important to the understanding of quantum programming.

And fluency in programming skills is of course important. Quantum computers today are using languages such as Python and C. So getting expertise in those languages is a good start for students hoping to pursue quantum computing.

Computer science departments are working to identify curriculum pathways for those students who wish to pursue quantum computing.

Grush: What has your own experience been, working with your students in quantum computing?

Humble: Several of my students have been with me for four years in their graduate studies, and some for two years prior, doing undergraduate research. Over the course of those six years, the field of quantum computing has changed dramatically. Six years ago, basically nobody had access to a quantum computer. And no one knew what would be some of the key application areas that they should invest in and look for. There was no startup industry around quantum computing.

Whereas today, there is an enormous startup industry, a lot of focus and attention around developing quantum computing applications, and of course, people now have access to quantum computers to test those ideas.

And what has happened, is that several of my students have actually begun their own startup companies in quantum technologies, while they are pursuing their PhDs in the same area. I had one student who won multiple awards to help seed and get her company going. What's really remarkable is that not only has the technology advanced to the point where people are pursuing an advanced degree, but while doing that, they are starting the companies that are going to be the next generation of this technology.

And the university, while it is enabling the education of the workforce, it is simultaneously enabling a whole new economy around quantum technologies.

For me, there are really exciting prospects about the whole quantum computing field right now. And the university, while it is enabling the education of the workforce, it is simultaneously enabling a whole new economy around quantum technologies. It's an encouraging and challenging time.

[Editor's note: Along with his roles at ORNL and UT (described above), Travis Humble is also co-editor-in-chief of the ACM journal, Transactions on Quantum Computing.]

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