IEEE Quantum Podcast Series: Episode 1
A Conversation with Travis Humble
Co-Chair, IEEE Quantum Initiative; Director, Quantum Computing Institute, Oak Ridge National Labs
Listen to Episode 1 (MP3, 33 MB)
Part of the IEEE Quantum Podcast Series
Brian Walker: Welcome to the IEEE Quantum Podcast Series, an IEEE Future Directions Digital Studio Production. This podcast series informs on the landscape of the quantum ecosystem and highlights projects and activities on quantum technology. This episode features Travis Humble, Director of the Quantum Computing Institute discussing quantum technology, the current landscape, the IEEE Quantum initiative, benchmarking activities, and how quantum computing might intersect with high-performance computing.
Travis, thank you for taking some time to speak with us today. To start, can you tell us how you became involved with the IEEE Quantum initiative? And how do you see it helping to advance quantum technologies?
Travis Humble: I became involved with IEEE many years ago when quantum technology was just becoming an interesting research topic. But in the past two years I’ve actually become involved in the IEEE Quantum initiative which is run through the IEEE Future Directions Committee. The initiative is intended to establish a concerted effort within IEEE to build up resources in the community around quantum engineering. My role, as a cochair for the initiative, is to help chart that path, help build community and foster communication and resources for others to explore what it means to be quantum engineer, and how can IEEE help this growing interest in quantum information.
The way that I see IEEE helping is in multiple ways. The first is by having a focal point for the discussion around quantum technologies we’re able to bring together people from different backgrounds and different understandings of what it means to be an engineer and focus on how we can work together to build quantum technologies. In specific ways the IEEE has started developing an education initiative which brings together not just educators, but also people interested in learning about quantum information and quantum technologies. We have working groups focused on the development of benchmarks and metrics to help engineers evaluate and track progress in the development of quantum technologies. We have interactions with industry, largely through the Quantum Economic Development Consortium which enables us to not only communicate information to the stakeholders of quantum technology, but also get back feedback on the readiness of industry to adopt these new ideas.
Finally, we are organizing a large signature event called IEEE Quantum Leap which is focused on bringing together technical experts, as well as external stakeholders, for a whole week in the fall of 2020 to talk about the latest advances in quantum technology, the latest methods for benchmarks and metrics, especially quantum computing which, of course, has captured a lot of people’s imagination. And start a new trend in building a quantum community within the IEEE.
Brian Walker: Given that there’s some confusion around quantum computing, Travis, how would you describe today’s general landscape?
Travis Humble: Quantum computing is definitely a topic that has captured the imagination. Whether you’re thinking about Feynman’s original vision that quantum computers can support simulations of nature, or one of the more recent advances that quantum computers may be able to provide a type of security against hackers that attack encryption. All of these topics capture the imagination on what quantum computers can and cannot do.
What I see most exciting at the moment is that the quantum computing landscape is ripe with opportunities. Some of these are technical opportunities. There are certainly a lot of good ideas being developed and people are pursuing the best ones that they can find. There’s just so many of them that the supply right now is enormous for new quantum computing ideas. But there are also opportunities to build community, to develop relationships around quantum computing. The integration of software and hardware, it seems such a natural piece of how we use computers today. But for a field that was born in fundamental physics and has over the last 20 to 30 years matured to the stage of attracting the interest of engineers and industry, those types of integration of capabilities and expertise are one of the key challenges at the moment. The landscape right now is ripe with opportunity, but it’s also littered with challenges that can be overcome by working together. This is where I see IEEE itself taking a stand in the quantum computing landscape. It’s a way for people to rally around the idea of working together and pursuing these challenges especially related to integration, benchmarks, education that really we can’t do by ourselves. And so the landscape at the moment is, of course, a challenge but there’s so much to be gained from quantum computing that I see a lot of people becoming involved.
Brian Walker: What are some of the current challenges facing quantum? And what are some foreseeable opportunities?
Travis Humble: There’s quite a few challenges facing the quantum computing community at the moment. Perhaps one of the most pressing is the development of a workforce that not only understands quantum technologies but can build on that understanding for new innovations and large-scale impacts. The workforce initiative within the IEEE in the past has had an enormous influence on certifying individuals, educating them, providing standards and platforms for learning. Within the IEEE Quantum initiative we’re trying to replicate similar efforts by bringing people together to focus on workforce development. Some of that starts early at the undergraduate and graduate education levels determining what are the right curricula, and experiences that students need to become educated and skilled in quantum technologies. But for those people already in the workplace, how do you take on this new learning experience? How do you re-skill yourself for a quantum economy? And that’s also something that the Quantum initiative is focused on - pulling together resources so that people who are technically strong, especially in engineering, have a place to go to learn more about quantum technology and understand how it intersects with their own current experiences. That is one of the things that the IEEE Quantum initiative has done is to pull in the different councils and societies of IEEE that represent the different parts of quantum technology. Of course, the Computer Society, the Photonics Society, the Superconductivity Council, they all have natural places in which quantum technology intersects their own scope. It is really the sum of those pieces that represent something new, and the IEEE Quantum initiative is a way to counter that challenge.
Probably the biggest near-term opportunity I see is IEEE Quantum Week. This is a weeklong event organized by the Quantum initiative that brings together subject matter experts in a variety of different quantum technologies all the way from the physics and the hardware up into the software and the logic as well as the applications. One of the workshops that we’re highlighting at Quantum Week is actually focused on the intersection of quantum computing and renewable energy where there appears to be a possibility that quantum computing technologies can help us better understand the design and development of renewable energy resources. I think that speaks to the types of opportunities that are available in the near term for people who even are not quantum experts can contribute to the question of how can quantum technologies impact the broader issues that society faces?
In addition to IEEE Quantum Week there are, of course, independent workshops and, as I noted earlier, an education initiative that we’re developing to try to pull together the resources around curriculum development and workforce development. And that we have points of contact within the initiative who are helping organize that. As for myself, I lead a benchmarks and metrics working group which is largely composed of subject matter experts in quantum technologies. We meet quarterly online to have discussions about what are the right ways to track progress of quantum technologies? Is it measuring the error rates of individual components? Is it looking for performance advantages of quantum computing systems? These types of issues are exactly where we think that the near-term opportunities are. And, of course, we welcome people to join the effort through the quantum initiative.
Brian Walker: What is the importance of benchmarking? How is it taking place in the quantum space? And what are its impacts in helping to advance the technology?
Travis Humble: Certainly one of the hardest questions that we’re facing at the moment. Quantum information technology is still relatively young as a field of study. There is a diversity of different technologies under consideration, all the way from superconducting electronics to trapped ions to photons, even to quantum material that exhibit exotic particles, quasi-particles. That, of course, that diversity for a technology base, of course, complicates our understanding of what’s the right way to measure performance.
Traditional measures of performance focused on time and energy and size and these type of metrics are still good. But when we look at the component levels, the individual gates and qubits that make up quantum technologies, there’s not yet a clear consensus on the right way of measuring those-- the performance of those pieces in order to inform and forecast long-term performance of systems. And this is exactly what the quantum initiative is trying to help facilitate that conversation, encourage subject magic experts to participate, encourage the end-user stakeholders to participate because their insights into what is the most critical part of quantum computing for their applications and their uses is also an important part of that conversation. And through the working group that we’ve established, we actually bring these people together to spur that discussion. It’s always a lively discussion. There is so many different ways to approach this issue. Of course, we can look at things like error rates, but then we can also look at things like absolute advantages in time and performance, accuracy. There’s so much to discuss. And what we are doing at the moment is trying to put together a working document of best practices that highlight what are the ways that are available today to monitor advances in quantum technology? The consensus over time will eventually pick from those best practices what may be standards or benchmarks for the long-term. But in the near term just bringing together the best ideas and the best people to talk about them is how we’re addressing this.
Brian Walker: We hear a lot about high performance computing, how do you see quantum computing playing within high performance computing ecosystem?
Travis Humble: I actually think there is a very strong intersection between the types of performance advantages we expect quantum computers to provide, and the types of performance use cases that high performance computing systems have. I’ll just bit a little more specific. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where I work, we actually build some of the United States’ largest can supercomputing facilities specifically to focus on scientific computing. And the model that we’ve adopted in those designs is largely based on an accelerator model where we’re using graphical processing units, and other computational accelerators to offload specifically hard challenging tasks that can be best handled by a special-purpose processor like a GPU. Well, in the future, I can certainly imagine a high performance computing system that uses quantum processing units or QPUs as accelerators for challenging scientific calculations, and frankly, probably many other calculations as well. At the moment, however, quantum computing is not yet ready to be integrated tightly with our high-performance computing ecosystem. It is still more of a proof of principle and feasibility assessment phase. We are currently testing and evaluating these technologies to just understand how they are best used, what are the scientific applications that a quantum computer could best be used to solve? It’s certainly not everything but there’s already indications that problems in chemistry, materials science, high-energy physics, each of these has a natural affinity to a quantum mechanical computation. That gives us hope that the long-term vision for high performance computing does include quantum computers as a part of an accelerated architecture.
Brian Walker: For individuals who want to learn more about quantum computing, what resources are available?
Travis Humble: Great question. Right now we are seeing an enormous growth in the number of people who are interested in learning about quantum technologies. Some of this is interest in hands-on experience with quantum computers. Others are interested in learning more about the methods that you use to build quantum devices. Then, of course, there’s always those who want to learn so they can teach others. The website quantum.ieee.org has a collection of resources specifically for education as well as many other topics that the quantum initiative has put together. And so I certainly encourage people to use that as a starting point. I will say that within the national ecosystem and certainly within the United States and globally as well, there are opportunities for online classes, hands on programming, quantum hackathons, and other events like this where in our largely virtual environment today individuals can sign up and within a few hours have gotten the very basics about what quantum technology is.
Now, the long-term development of those skills is something where I think universities and other programs focused around education are actually essential. Because while you get started in quantum very easily in order to make a long-term contribution, and even to make a career out of this area it is necessary to stay up-to-date with the latest in the technology. It’s a fast-moving field. Some of the largest companies are putting a lot of effort into workforce development. I mentioned hackathons earlier. IBM and Microsoft are just two examples of the companies that are now seeing that the development of a quantum workforce is an important part of their long-term strategic advancements. And you can find these online. You can go through the website I mentioned earlier, quantum.ieee.org. Look under the education tab just as a place to get started on what’s the type of resources available for learning more about quantum information.
Brian Walker: Thank you for listening to our interview with Travis Humble. Learn more about the IEEE Quantum initiative by visiting our web portal at quantum.ieee.org.