New Canadian quantum network the latest development in a rapidly-expanding industry
Quantum sciences is an emerging field that requires a diversity of thought, skills, and levels of expertise.
PHOTO: IBM quantum computer by IBM Research. Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
While this represents a Canadian premiere of sorts, similar networks already exist in other countries like the U.S., the U.K., and China. But Canada consistently ranks among the global leaders in quantum, having invested more than $1 billion in research and development over the past decade.
The network, then, could signal the start of a new phase.
“We believe that deploying a quantum network in Canada with a collaborative set of Canadian partners will jumpstart both innovation and economic development in the emerging field of quantum technology,” Christian Weedbrook, Xanadu founder and CEO, says in a statement, adding the initiative will support entrepreneurs as they devise new applications.
For years, several countries — including Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea, Japan, and the aforementioned nations — have been making moves to remain competitive in what University of Waterloo professor and Canada research chair in quantum computing Raymond Laflamme calls the global “quantum race.”
“Imagine if we could detect rogue cells on the verge of turning cancerous or better understand how proteins misfold and lead to diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s,” he writes in a 2018 op-ed.
“These and other major research challenges might not be insurmountable in a world with quantum technologies.”
As interest in quantum skills rises, opportunities — both in terms of jobs and areas of study — are “vast,” John Donohue, senior manager of scientific outreach at the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing, tells We Rep STEM.
“Partially, this is because is no singular ‘quantum computing degree,'” he says.
“Quantum computing and quantum information necessitates bringing together people with varied backgrounds, including physicists, chemists, engineers, computer scientists, and mathematicians. There are, of course, traditional academic and research roles, but even within those, there are many paths. Some might be more attracted to working at a university, studying fundamental problems alongside teaching students. Others could find opportunities in industry, working to build tools and software, or doing applied research for quantum computing devices.”
Dr. Donohue also foresees future opportunities for policymakers and advisors, given the heavy investments governments have made.
While the advances Dr. Laflamme envisions may be years away, jobs for quantum scientists are already in high demand and, as of now, the field remains relatively small. According to a July 2020 piece by IBM, the potential size of the quantum computing field has been “anecdotally” estimated to contain around 10,000 programmers.
In its current state, “quantum computing is a bit like the wild west,” Dr. Donohue says.
“There a few problems we know future quantum computers will be useful for, like simulating atomic and molecular systems or finding the prime factors of very large numbers. But there are still many open questions in the field, such as whether or not quantum computers can be used to speed up machine learning tasks. There’s a lot of interest today in designing algorithms for near-term quantum devices, called NISQ devices, that are heavily-tied to optimization and quantum simulation.
A rapidly-expanding quantum industry will require workers with various skills and levels of expertise, creating the potential for a future skills gap if academic institutions fail to plan ahead. A recent study published in Physical Review Physics Education Research argues this could be prevented by providing introductory quantum education to students across a range of disciplines.
After speaking to hiring managers at more than 20 quantum technology companies in the U.S., the authors found the organizations involved are continuing to recruit talent with traditional STEM degrees, but preferred candidates that had at least a “fundamental grasp” of quantum technology.
“For a lot of those roles, there’s this idea of being ‘quantum aware’ that’s highly desirable,” Ben Zwickl, a member of RIT’s Future Photon Initiative and Center for Advancing STEM Teaching, Learning and Evaluation and an author of the study says in a statement.
“The companies told us that many positions don’t need to have deep expertise, but students could really benefit from a one or two-semester introductory sequence that teaches the foundational concepts, some of the hardware implementations, how the algorithms work, what a qubit is, and things like that. Then a graduate can bring in all the strength of a traditional STEM degree but can speak the language that the company is talking about.”
There will also be a need for tech support workers.
“[Quantum is] a growing industry that will produce new sensors, imaging, communication, computing technologies, and more,” Zwickl says.
“A lot of the technologies are in a research and development phase, but as they start to move toward commercialization and mass production, you will have end-users who are trying to figure out how to apply the technology. They will need technical people on their end that are fluent enough with the ideas that they can make use of it.”
Quantum computers — machines that leverage the properties of quantum physics to store data and perform complex calculations — are powerful because they operate differently than classical computers. Where classical computers store information in “bits” characterized as a 0 or 1, a basic unit of memory in a quantum computer is called a “quantum bit” or “qubit.” Unlike classical computer bits, which can only be a 0 or a 1, qubits can exist as a superposition of both.
This allows for exceptional computational power and exponential speed because a quibit can follow multiple “routes” at one time, whereas a bit can only follow one.
Ensuring as many talented minds as possible have access to the support, resources, and tools necessary to complete a degree in quantum sciences will enable the success of a growing industry. Some organizations — like IBM — are securing future prosperity by partnering with more than a dozen Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to prepare students for careers in quantum computing.
In Canada, the University of British Columbia’s Diversifying Talent in Quantum Computing project aims to introduce K-12 Indigenous youth to the opportunities in quantum through summer camps, public forums, and workshops. Heading east to Toronto, the new CQN will serve as a testbed for startups, allowing new ideas to come to fruition.
“Quantum computing has certainly entered a new phase. Ten years ago, it was an idea with a lot of potential and a great opportunity for academics and graduate students, but not very accessible outside of the ivory tower,” Dr. Donohue says.
“While there’s still a lot of work to be done before we have useful quantum computing devices, it’s much easier than ever before for people to learn about quantum computers and interact with real technology.
The research being done in universities and industry is still ground-breaking and cutting-edge, but there are also widely accessible communities, tools, and programming languages for anyone to start learning and helping to develop quantum computing.”
While the history of quantum computing dates back to the 1980s it is still in its infancy despite recent, considerable growth, Dr. Donohue says.
“If we compare to classical computers, we’re still well before the development of the transistor. But in the long-term, there are many potential applications, including in developing new kinds of materials like superconductors, understanding biological processes like protein folding, and designing new kinds of pharmaceuticals.”
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