A Week of Breaking News in Quantum Computing

October 28, 2019

This past week members of the Initiative at Northwestern for Quantum Information Research and Engineering (INQUIRE) made presentations to the Faculty and Administration on frontiers in Quantum Information Science (QIS) at the Lawrence Dumas Domain Dinner on October 21. Professors Michael Wasielewski, James Sauls, Prem Kumar, Danna Freedman and Mark Hersam highlighted the challenges in QIS and Northwestern’s expertise in Quantum Computing, Quantum Communication, Quantum Sensing and Quantum Materials. Presentations by the INQUIRE team are available at this URL: http://eolus.phys.northwestern.edu/QIS.html .

This week has also been full of news on Quantum Computing. A landmark paper was published in Nature on October 23 [ link] reporting ``Quantum Supremacy’’ by a quantum computer with 53 superconducting Transmon Qubits, performing computations in about two and a half minutes that are projected to take 10,000 years on the powerful Summit Supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Quantum computers gain advantage by performing computations using the intrinsic parallel computational nature of entangled Qubits.

The Sycamore chip is composed of 54 qubits, each made of superconducting loops. Nature, Credit: Erik Lucero

As is perhaps fitting for results obtained in the quantum limit, Google’s report of Quantum Supremacy is not without uncertainty. IBM-Q weighed in even prior to the Google’s Nature article in an IBM blog post, based on a pre-publication version of the Nature article. That was immediately followed by a report published in the New York Times, Science Times article ``Quantum Computing Is Coming, Bit by Qubit’’. IBM is fully committed to R&D on Quantum Computing, but injected caution into the Google claim of Quantum Supremacy. IBM argues that a different classical algorithm, if run on the Oak Ridge Summit machine, would perform the same calculation in 2 and a half days, not 10K years. There is much to be done in testing and verifying the Google AI report, but even if IBM’s algorithm is correctly benchmarked, the Google result, if verified, is a landmark achievement, i.e. 1000-fold increase in computational speed over the best Supercomputer in the US by a quantum computer with only 53 Qubits!

The National Science Foundation issued a short press release in response to the Google article on "Quantum Supremacy" published in Nature [Link]. The key message from NSF was this: "As quantum research continues bridging theory to practice across a range of experimental platforms, it is equally important that NSF, other agencies, and industry invest in the workforce developing quantum technologies and the countless applications that will benefit all of society. Together, we will ensure continuing U.S. leadership in quantum computing." This was also a central message highlighted in the presentations from the INQUIRE team at the Quantum Domain Dinner.

Dario Gil, director of IBM Research, standing in front of the IBM Q System One quantum computer. It is sealed in a cube of black glass to keep in the cold and seal out the universe of noise and interference. Science Times, Credit: Misha Friedman for The New York Times

More announcements followed throughout the week.

On Tuesday, President Trump announced the resurrection of PCAST, with appointments of two experts in QIS: (1) Birgitta Whaley, professor of chemistry at the UC Berkeley, noted for her contributions to “theoretical understanding of quantum nanoscale phenomena, especially in superfluid helium droplets, and to control of decoherence in quantum information processing.” She currently is co-director of the Berkeley Quantum Information and Computation Center, which she established in 2004. (2) Dario Gil is director of IBM Research. Prior to assuming that position, he led IBM’s AI and quantum computing research groups. He is featured in a New York Times article this week on corporate research efforts in quantum computing.

The CEO of Rigetti computing published an article in the Washington Post on Friday, October 25 acknowledging the Google AI report as a ``landmark scientific achievement that signals the beginning of a new era in the computing industry’’, as well as outlining a ``Road Map'' for the future development of Quantum Computing with the immediate need for (1) more and better algorithms designed ‘’to harness the unique problem-solving properties of quantum computers’’, (2) convenient cloud access to today’s quantum computers for developing new algorithms, and (3) finally, ``because quantum computing will eventually have staggering capabilities, the United States must ensure that it maintains another kind of quantum supremacy, i.e. over rival nations’’. The National Quantum Initiative , signed into law late last year, provides more than $1.2 billion to advance the research and development of quantum technologies via NIST, NSF and the DOE, signals the importance of this technology to national security and economic growth. It is worth noting that while the US is at the beginning of a new age in computing and information processing based on the power of quantum processors, our starting point in terms of the technology base and infrastructure - from turn-key cryogenic platforms to nano-fabrication – is first class.

The American Physical Society news journal "Physics" published an article on October 21 just prior to Google’s announcement in Nature, titled ‘’ Waiting for the Quantum Simulation Revolution’’. Quantum Computers may have their biggest and most immediate impact on the "simulation of quantum systems with a quantum computer" - the application Richard Feynman envisioned. In the case of quantum simulations, the algorithm is generated by the Hamiltonian of the physical system, and there is no shortage of complex systems whose Hamiltonian is known but whose properties are beyond the power of the most powerful supercomputers. Quantum computers could revolutionize our understanding of of strongly interacting electronic and magnetic materials with applications spanning fundamental discovery of new materials, drug discovery, to chemical reactions and catalysis.

It has been an exciting week for QIS, with a watershed moment in the quest to realize the potential of computing machines built to take advantage of the rules of quantum mechanics. There is every reason to expect new discoveries and announcements in the near future. The National Quantum Initiative will set an agenda for QIS research nationally. For Northwestern this is an opportunity to build on existing research programs and expand education and training in QIS with the goals of new discovery and the education of the next generation of leaders and workforce in QIS.

Finally, the potential for societal impact of this technology is enormous. But, if there is any lesson to heed from past technology revolutions it is this: the range of impacts of a transformative technology is hard to predict … and even harder to manage. Looking ahead the key question, beyond the un-solved problems at the frontiers of science that will be opened up by Quantum Computing, may well be ``how does the US, our allies and rivals manage the use of a fully developed quantum computing technology?’’

Jim Sauls
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Center for Applied Physics and Superconducting Technologies