IEEE Quantum Podcast Series: Episode 3
A Conversation with Candace Culhane
Co-Chair, IEEE Quantum Initiative; Los Alamos National Laboratory
Listen to Episode 3 (MP3, 29 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 Echo System and highlights projects and activities on Quantum technologies. In this episode we are joined by Candace Culhane, Program Project Director in Los Alamos National Laboratories, Director for Simulation and Computation. Candace discusses quantum technology, its current landscape and the goals of the IEEE Quantum Initiative. She also shares information on quantum resources and explores how the advancement of quantum technologies compares to those of the past.
Brian Walker: Candace, thank you for joining us today. How did you become involved in the IEEE Quantum Initiative?
Candace Culhane: I'm a project program director at Los Alamos National Lab and in this role I represent the Lab at conferences and meetings on a regular basis. I'd go there to collaborate with others, learn and stay current on cutting edge technologies and events in our community. Thanks to the support from Los Alamos, I've done a lot of volunteer work for the SC (Supercomputing) Conference series, which is sponsored by ACM and the IEEE. I've been a frequent attendee at the IEEE's International Conference of Rebooting Computing. My colleague, Erik DeBenedictis, has been heavily involved in the rebooting computing effort and he was one of the first two co-leads for the IEEE Quantum Initiative. Erik invited me to attend an IEEE committee meeting where I was able to meet with the members of the Future Directions Committee. And then I was invited to become a co-lead along with Erik, Travis Humble and Hausi Muller. It's been so good. What a great opportunity! I love working with my fellow colleagues.
Brian Walker: So that sounds as though you're part of a really expert team. How do you foresee the initiative helping to advance quantum technologies?
Candace Culhane: So the IEEE Quantum Initiative is sponsored by the IEEE Future Directions Committee and we launched in 2019. The Quantum Initiative serves as the leading community for all projects and activities on quantum technologies. We're supported by the leadership and representation across the IEEE societies, councils and the standards organizations. Our Quantum Initiative is developing new technical communities, international events, relevant publications and educational support, all in coordination with well-organized peer organizations. I want to give you a few examples. For publications we have this brand new journal called the IEEE Transactions on Quantum Engineering. For international events, we've started up a new week-long conference called the IEEE International Conference on Quantum Computing and Engineering. And our educational activities are furthered through meetings we sponsor and also through sessions we're going to have at the conference.
Brian Walker: So there's a good deal of activity underway. At a high level, though, how would you describe quantum computing?
Candace Culhane: Quantum theory is the theoretical basis of modern physics and it explains the nature interaction and that's what it is. And quantization of energy and its influence on how energy and matter interact is part of the fundamental framework for understanding and describing nature, everything we see around us. From there, it gets a lot more interesting and some people would even say more complicated. But for purposes of this discussion, I'm going to describe three kinds of what we call quantum information science.
The first one is quantum sensing and this technology area is the most mature. The field of quantum sensing deals with design and engineering of quantum sources and quantum measurements that are able to beat the performance of a classical strategy in a number of technology applications. This can be done by using photonic or solid state systems. Now I want to give you a good example of an early quantum sensor and you've all heard of these. They're called avalanche photodiodes. This is a highly sensitive device that exploits the photoelectric effect to convert light into electricity. You can buy these all over from a wide number of companies that make them. You've probably already used a quantum sensor, you just didn't know that's what it was.
The second is quantum communications and this is where quantum communication takes advantage of the laws of quantum physics to protect data. Now these laws allow particles, typically photons of light for transmitting data on optical cables, to take on a state we call super position, which means that they can represent multiple combinations of 1 and 0 at the same time. And these particles are known as quantum bits or qubits. So if a hacker tried to observe these qubits in transit, they're super fragile quantum state collapses either a 1 or a 0. This means the hacker can't tamper with your qubits without leaving behind a tell-tale sign of his activity. Some companies have taken advantage of this property to create networks for transmitting highly sensitive data that's based on a process called quantum key distribution or QKD.
The third one is quantum computing and this is the area that is especially exciting right now. Quantum computing is the use of a quantum mechanical phenomenon such as superposition and entanglement to perform computation. Computers that perform these quantum computations are known as quantum computers. Now some of these quantum computers are currently referred to as NISQs for noisy intermediate scale quantum, and these are systems of qubits, maybe 100 or so, and they're used to explore the technology and run some initial programs.
Brian Walker: Okay, so speaking more specifically to quantum computing, can you provide a general landscape overview of where things stand today?
Candace Culhane: In the general landscape of things there's tremendous excitement as researchers around the world are racing to discover and develop all these technologies. And countries are very competitive about this. In the United States, they passed the National Quantum Initiative Act in December 2018 and signed it into law. This gave the United States a plan for advancing quantum technology, particularly quantum computing. Other nations are also actively pursuing this including the Europeans with their Quantum Flagship and China with its five-year Quantum Plans. At the same time that governments are funding the technology, venture capitalists have been pouring money into startup companies and big name companies are investing in the technology as well. Big companies like Google, Honeywell, IBM and Microsoft are all investing and many companies have created Cloud access to Quantum computers. You can even sign up with Amazon to try out some code on a quantum computer. So these devices are real and they're here now to try out, but these are very early days.
Brian Walker: So how do you see quantum technologies evolving as compared to previous nascent technologies?
Candace Culhane: I want you to think back to the early days of digital computers. The British inventor Charles Babbage, who lived from 1791 and died in 1871 almost 150 years ago, is credited with conceiving of the first automatic digital computer. But the first large general purpose digital computers didn't arrive until machines like the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer, affectionately known as ENIAC, were built. ENIAC was completed in 1946 and it remained in use till 1955 and it was big. It used technologies like vacuum tubes and it was used to integrate ballistic equations and to calculate the trajectories of naval shells. Here we are in 2020 with incredible computing power in our cellphones and on our wrists with things like the Apple Watch, not a single vacuum tube in sight. No, that's because today's computers make use of the integrated circuit. So when you think of a quantum computer you're going to see a wide variety of devices with arguments about all of them of whether they're any good, do they work, are they the best. And because the researchers are all trying to embody quantum computation, people are building quantum computers from light or from trapped ions and superconducting devices. Those are just a few of the technologies that people are working on. And they will sit there and they will argue with you about how theirs is the best approach and theirs will win. So, you know, we're just in the midst of this voyage of discovery and it's tremendously exciting.
Brian Walker: Where are some of the key quantum technologies being advanced today and what industries have the potential to benefit most?
Candace Culhane: I'm just going to talk about a couple of key technologies today. This is by no means an exhaustive list. One of the coolest areas for quantum computing is superconducting-based quantum computers. These are viewed as somewhat exotic since the qubits are kept at temperatures that are close to absolute zero. They look like mad scientist machines. Super conducting is a fairly well-developed scientific area and the process to fabricate these devices is understood. Now that's not to tell you that there isn't a lot to learn, because there is, but progress in the increasing number of qubits and how good they are is happening every day. Companies like Google, IBM and Rigetti are very active in this area. Another exciting technology is that of trapped ions. In this method an ionized form of an atom is suspended in a vacuum and manipulated through the application of laser beams. People have been researching and creating these kinds of devices for several years and companies like Honeywell and IonQ are working very hard on these systems.
Now I've just been talking about hardware and hardware is very important but there are also exciting advances being made in the programming models for quantum computers. And it is through these programming models and Cloud-based access to systems that people actually get to program a quantum computer. Now I want to emphasize that a Quantum computer is not a general purpose compute engine, or at least it isn't yet. Quantum computers no matter how they are implemented can excel at subsets of computing problems. One important area is search and another is optimization problems. So any company that has a search or an optimization problem is probably going to benefit from a capable quantum computer. And that is why you will see banks and transportation companies investing in quantum and learning how to use it for solving the problems that they have. Just think of portfolio analysis or traffic routing. Companies that rely on those things are really going to benefit from this technology when it matures.
There's another area that's very important and that is quantum chemistry. Today most quantum chemistry work is done by running many, many programs on large computing resources. A common example is that of nitrogen fixation for making fertilizer. Richard Feynman, the famous post-war physicist, noted that nature isn't classical. He said that, "If you want to make a simulation of nature, you better make it quantum mechanical and by golly, it's a wonderful problem because it doesn't look so easy."
Brian Walker: It certainly doesn't sound easy. But for people who want to learn more about quantum technologies, what resources are available?
Candace Culhane: I'm glad you asked this question because there are an amazing amount of resources available on the internet. You can do searches. You can find videos to watch and these will explain many of these quantum concepts. And of course, the Quantum Initiative is a great website to go to and you click on it and use that as your point of departure to explore.
I want to spend just a couple of minutes talking about online classes that you might look into and these are just a few. There are many, many more. MIT researchers in the Coding School are offering a first-of-its-kind virtual quantum computing camp this summer to high school and first year university students. Meanwhile, Fermilab scientists are publishing a quantum computing course for high school students. Also, Harrisburg University has announced Quantumpalooza 2020 and the Quantum Computing Academy, which is a part of the Harrisburg University Summer Camp Program.
So that's just a couple of examples of things that you can discover on the web and learn about and start getting educated. So the field of quantum is really opening up. There are so many things that young people can study and also they can follow their inclination. They can go look at engineering or into the math or the physics or computer programming because the field of quantum is vast and it's going to need help from everybody in every one of those fields to succeed.
Brian Walker: So do you have any closing thoughts you'd like to share?
Candace Culhane: Quantum may seem mysterious but that's often due to little exposure to the concepts and the technologies. If quantum seems baffling and mysterious, go out and get to know more about it. As previously mentioned, there are many different resources on the internet to help you start your journey of discovery and it's never too late to start learning, no matter what age you are. Another great source of learning is to attend a meeting or a conference. There's a great opportunity coming up in October with the debut of a brand new IEEE conference. This is the conference on Quantum Computing and Engineering which we like to call Quantum Week so just type "Quantum Week" in your browser search. And if you go to that website you're going to see the list of exciting keynote speakers we've lined up for the conference as well as the set of sponsors who are supporting us. We're grateful to everybody who's contributing to the success of this new conference. You can also browse the list of tutorials and workshops that have been posted.
Brian Walker: Thank you for listening to our interview with Candace Culhane. Discover more about the IEEE Quantum Initiative by visiting our web portal at quantum.ieee.org.