IEEE Quantum Podcast Series: Episode 2
A Conversation with Hausi Müller
Co-Chair, IEEE Quantum Initiative; Professor of Computer Science at University of Victoria, Canada
Listen to Episode 2 (MP3, 43 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 technologies. This episode features Hausi Müller, Professor of Computer Science of the University of Victoria, Canada, who provides insights on quantum challenges and opportunities, technology leaders and developmental milestones, the hybrid computing landscape, the importance of education and more.
Brian Walker: Hausi, thank you for taking some time to contribute to the IEEE Quantum Podcast Series. To begin, can you provide a general landscape overview of quantum computing as you see it today?
Hausi Müller: Well, quantum computing is really an emerging field and that kind of revolutionized our ability to solve problems and enabled breakthroughs in many different areas including optimization, machine learning, chemistry, drug design, you name it. It's really a general purpose tool if you like. Research and academia and industry are making great strides towards quantum advantage where you can really demonstrate advantage over classical computers. It has matured a lot in recent years.
One of the key challenges for everybody is understanding quantum computing problem solving. That is really hard because it's really different. Quantum algorithms cannot be programmed in the same way as classical algorithms. But quantum computing is not new, so even though we only had real quantum computers for a decade or so, quantum computing has been around for at least 30 years and physicists, they would say 100 years. Just like classical computing, quantum computing applies really everywhere, all disciplines, and will have broad impact.
There are sort of two main strands of applications where quantum computers can eventually outperform classical computers significantly. We are not quite there yet but it will come. Quantum computers may speed up solutions to problems that we implement on classical and algorithms that we implement on classical machines like simulation or cryptography, pattern matching, machine learning. That's one side. The other side is quantum computers really help in simulating nature, simulating particles, simulating molecules and simulating materials. And there a lot of people believe that this is the killer application for quantum computing. This all started when Richard Feynman in 1982 challenged the physics community with his very famous quote, "Nature isn't classical and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you'd better make it quantum mechanical. And by golly, it's a wonderful problem because it doesn't look so easy." And that's really what attracted me to quantum computing. It's really exciting. It's different. I've done classical computing for 50 years and this is a completely new thing.
Now we are really at an inflection point. Researchers and professionals have access to 50-plus qubit universal quantum computers. Quantum as a service. That means everybody can get access to a quantum computer and actually program it. And this is now called the Noisy Intermediate Scale Quantum or NISQ technology area. This term was coined by John Basquill, a very famous content scientist at Caltech. And he argues convincingly that NISQ computers can now really be used for starting the serious applications but also for training everybody to learn how to program quantum computers and how to use quantum computers. So NISQ applications are really important for gaining experiences with quantum algorithms and training the future workforce. I would like to make a pitch for this great book that was published in 2019, "Quantum Computing Progress and Prospects." It's a consensus study by the U.S. Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. And they state that research or development into practical commercial applications of NISQ computers is an issue of immediate urgency. I fully agree with that and the results of this work will have profound impact on the quantum field. So everybody needs to get started with that and this book, even it's a little bit conservative, it provides a great overview of the entire field.
Brian Walker: So how is IEEE Quantum engaging the quantum community at large?
Hausi Müller: Well, a couple of years ago IEEE Future Directions Quantum Initiative first started, you know, in its second year. And I'm one of the co-chairs. We have four co-chairs and a manager from IEEE, a staff person. So over the past years, the Quantum Initiative has engaged many different stakeholders in industry and in academia in the international communities of quantum science and engineering and we are very happy with the response. It's quite exciting for us. IEEE really is in a unique position to reach stakeholders in this highly interdisciplinary realm because it's broad, multidisciplinary engineering focus. So they try as well. Quantum computing spans many different IEEE organizational units or societies and that's quite challenging. And the Quantum Initiative is working hard in including everybody and it's going well. So against this backdrop, the Quantum Initiative is making unique and important contributions to support quantum research and development. While we as such don't do research and development, we try to support it everywhere and try to make sure that communities talk to each other. That is one of the key ideas. And also IEEE is deeply involved in standards and standards in industry engagement is really critical for the future of quantum.
The Quantum Initiative has started several working groups right from the beginning of the initiative and also is engaging with industry in this consortia such as the Quantum Economic Development Consortium. The most ambitious endeavor so far is the inaugural IEEE International Conference on Quantum Computing and Engineering or Quantum Week for short. This will happen in October, so we are quite far along in the planning of this conference. We have recruited nine outstanding really world class pioneers and leaders as keynote speakers. Michelle Simmons from Australia, she is the 2018 Australian of the Year, a scientist. World class scientist, amazing. Jerry Chow who is a lead scientist at IBM Research. Anne Matsuura from Intel Labs, a lead scientist at Intel. Alán Aspuru-Guzik is Canada 150 Research Chair, University of Toronto. Krysta Svore is the head of Microsoft Quantum Research. Patty Lee is Key Researcher at Honeywell Quantum Solutions. And Kae Nemoto is at the National Institutes for Informatics in Japan. And Jake Taylor is at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. And Alexander Condello is a D-Wave Systems in Vancouver.
The week-long tutorials program is a great opportunity to engage in quantum computing. It has 50 tutorials, 70 hours of materials squarely aimed at workforce development. So if you are new to quantum this is the perfect way of entering the quantum community or to groom quantum champions, if you like, in academia and industry and government. Throughout the week they have 20 workshops that provide unique opportunities to share and discuss quantum ideas, research agendas, roadmaps, applications and so on. IEEE Quantum Week is co-sponsored by Computer Society, Communication Society, Council on Superconductivity, Future Directions Quantum Initiative, the Photonics Society, the Technology and Engineering Management Society and the Electronic Packages Society. So that gives you an idea how broad the spectrum of quantum is. And it's really challenging to get all these societies under one umbrella if you like.
Brian Walker: Hausi, what's the impact of COVID-19 on the activities of the Quantum Initiative?
Hausi Müller: COVID-19 of course has caused unprecedented disruptions. But the digital technologies have really captured our imagination in all walks of life and that is the same for IEEE Quantum Week and all other IEEE conferences for that matter. In just a couple of months the conference sector really transformed itself from in person events to online virtual events and that is quite an achievement. So we expect that IEEE Quantum Week will be virtual and online. And there is a huge opportunity here for IEEE to transform itself to a certain extent. The transformation really benefits equity, diversity, inclusivity and these benefits are readily apparent besides scalability, accessibility and sustainability. So online events enable people to attend while providing opportunities to those that are typically left out due to travel restrictions, visa problems, disabilities, illnesses or limited resources. That way IEEE has great opportunity to create inclusive, diverse, scalable and sustainable environment. By reaching a larger and more diverse audience, we can sustain IEEE Quantum Week and other Quantum Initiative activities hopefully for many years to come.
Brian Walker: And what are some of the challenges and opportunities facing quantum computing?
Hausi Müller: The opportunity, most businesses probably would leap at the chance to go back in time, if you like, to capitalize on yesterday's game changing technologies such as the internet or the World Wide Web or simply in the late fifties, early sixties, when digital computers came into use if you like. If you recognize a really game changing event like that, that is a huge business opportunity. We are now at the commercialization tipping point of quantum computing and given the investments around the world basically every country has recognized that this is a game changing event and everybody is getting involved. So quantum computing has the potential to reinvent certain aspects of business, science, engineering, education and government. Quantum has been around for many years but the fact that we now have quantum computers and software that run on them, that is really the game changing event. Even though the details are hard to predict, the next 5 to 10 years present huge opportunities for scientists and engineers but also for startup companies. There are already about 130 startup companies out there so many people have moved into this game and it's very exciting. And figuring out how to engage in quantum computing, that's basically everybody's business whether you're a scientist, an engineer, a company, IT, a person, a CIO in a company, you have to figure out how quantum computing affects you somehow. Demonstrating quantum advantage, that is the goal everybody is trying to achieve. And educating and training the workforce, those are big challenges and how to actually recruit quantum champions who can then convince the company to go in a certain direction to take advantage of this new technology, that's one of the most difficult challenges right now. And the goal is simply to become quantum ready and to achieve quantum advantage over the next 3 to 5 years.
Brian Walker: There's been some buzz around hybrid computing. Can you explain the space and its potential benefits?
Hausi Müller: Hybrid computing, that will actually be the norm in the future. Hybrid computing is where you integrate classical and quantum computing. Quantum computing will not stand by itself really. You will always have classical computers interact with quantum computers to a certain extent. But let me explain that a little bit. So we have all these companies, so IBM, D-Wave, Microsoft, Google, Fujitsu, Rigetti, Xanadu and lots of startup companies, they have engineered quantum computers and developed quantum development kits. But as we talked about earlier, we are in the NISQ area, so the quantum computers are small, 50 to 150 qubits over the next year or two and so you can only work on certain problems with these quantum computers. So you have to break down the problem into subproblems and the breaking down of the problem is done on the classical side and then when you have a nice chunk that you can run on a QPU or quantum processing unit, you shift that over to the quantum computer. The results come back and then you shift over the next chunk and at the end you assemble the solution basically on the classical side. So for many applications, chemistry in particular, simulating molecules in particular, that's exactly how it's done. But companies like One Qubit or Xanadu, IBM and the others, they're working very hard on hybrid solutions like that, hybrid algorithms. The combination of these efforts has created really significant opportunities and opens up the field for everybody. For supercomputing sectors, they recognized that you have to integrate quantum computing resources in their space so that on the one hand you can do a lot with supercomputing, particularly when you have a lot of data, but then for really tight CPU intensive pieces of an application, you can farm that out to the quantum computer or quantum processing unit, CPU.
Brian Walker: Hausi, how important is education when it comes to quantum computing?
Hausi Müller: Yeah, so quantum computing as we mentioned earlier, it's really different. You can't just take a classical algorithm if you like that was written for a classical computer and just readily move that to a quantum computer. The thinking is really different. The problem solving is different. So we have to train the workforce. So with the increasing computational power of quantum computers and the proliferation of quantum development kits, the demands for a skilled workforce in quantum computing increases significantly right now. The field of quantum computing has matured and can now be explored by students from high schoolers to undergraduate students to graduate students, but also the existing workforce out there right now. And that is possible because quantum computers are readily available and programmable over the internet, in the cloud and for everybody. And that's a great opportunity. Quantum education, it's just ramping up; in the quantum information science spaces we had university courses for 20 years, but actual quantum programming is just ramping up and on lots and lots of different levels and that's very exciting.
Brian Walker: What resources are available for individuals wanting to learn more about quantum technologies?
Hausi Müller: Well, the key message here is that you can sign on to a quantum platform, if you like, or a quantum hub today and write a quantum program and execute this program on a quantum computer tonight. It's that quick. So the easiest way to do it is through industrial hubs by IBM Quantum, Microsoft Quantum, Google Quantum, D-Wave Fleet, Rigetti, QDK or Xanadu, Strawberry Fields. That is probably the easiest way to sign up. And they all provide quantum services right now and free and over the internet. There are great tutorials online. One favorite is Programming Quantum Computers with Abe Asfaw from IBM Quantum. He has many. He has a whole channel of tutorials and a book that goes with it. So it's easy to learn using those tutorials and very entertaining. The IEEE Quantum Week has scheduled 16 tutorials as mentioned earlier, 72 hours worth of programming from advanced tutorials as well as workshops. One workshop we have is for high schoolers, actually, at Quantum Week and the title is "From Qubits to Quantum Teleportation." That should generate some interest. It's simply a hands on experience for high schoolers as well as teachers of high school teachers or anybody who wants to teach at that level organized by Honeywell Quantum Solutions and University of Victoria. So everybody is working on curricula to extend the curricula at universities, to add courses, to add programs. But industry is actually leading quantum education, which is really great.
Brian Walker: Hausi, thank you for your insights today. Is there anything else you would like to add to the conversation?
Hausi Müller: If I can make a call to action it's simply engage in quantum computing now, not two years, three years from now. Do it right now. Because right now is the great opportunity to engage in quantum computing and to sort of grow with the opportunity to get in. And the big goal for companies is to become quantum ready within a year or two. Many are already quantum ready but still many more companies need to get involved in this game and to achieve quantum advantage when we have bigger quantum computers, say five years from now. And that takes serious planning to do that, but let's do that right now. And maybe finally ask yourself how are you going to engage in quantum computing and your local quantum ecosystems-- almost anywhere there's a local ecosystem of quantum enthusiasts-- and how are you going to do that for your personal career and for your company? Finally, I would like to pitch Quantum Week. I am General Chair of IEEE Quantum Week. And we have an amazing array of content in Quantum Week and check it out at quantum.ieee.org or qce20.quantum.ieee.org. We have a huge program and hopefully you all can attend Quantum Week in October. Thank you and stay safe.
Brian Walker: Thank you for listening to our interview with Hausi Müller. Learn more about the IEEE Quantum Initiative by visiting our web portal at quantum.ieee.org.