IEEE Quantum Podcast Series: Episode 15


Prineha Narang podcast15A Conversation with Dr. Prineha Narang

Howard Reiss Development Chair in Physical Science at UCLA


 Listen to Episode 15 (MP3, 29MB)



Part of the IEEE Quantum Podcast Series


Episode Transcript:


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. In this episode, Professor Prineha Narang, UCLA's Howard Reiss Development Chair, provides insights on quantum developments while also providing advice to students and young professionals who might be interested in the quantum technology space. Professor Narang, thank you for taking time to join us today. Can you share a little bit about your background and affiliations?

Dr. Narang: I'm on the faculty at UCLA. I recently actually joined the UCLA faculty after having been at Harvard for a few years. I joined here as the Howard Reiss Chair in the College of Letters and Sciences. I am a physical scientist, and a lot of my work is actually cross-disciplinary. So, you know, we think about how you could merge ideas from physics and chemistry and applied math, essentially all relevant to this field of quantum science and engineering. Prior to both UCLA and Harvard I got my degrees at Caltech. I got my Ph.D. there in applied physics, working on topics in photonics, nanophotonics and quantum plasmonics.

After that, spent a little bit of time at MIT.

Brian Walker: So, at a high level, where do you see Quantum today and how do you envision that advancement say five, ten years in the future?

Dr. Narang: Sure. All right. So, this is one of my favorite questions. You know, can you look into the crystal ball and tell us what the future holds? The first thing I want to point out, you know, when we think about the future, is that in terms of quantum technologies, it's quantum computing, it's quantum networking and quantum sensing, essentially the three components that make up the fields. And previously, you would have just separated out one or two of them outside their intersection, but what we are starting to see is that all three of them actually are deeply connected, particularly when we think about the enabling power of quantum networks and getting to more scalable as well as more heterogeneous quantum computing architectures. So, what I mean by that is, you know, when you think about classical computing, we try and make a processor bigger and bigger. Well, that's that has some limitations, but if you could connect them together, if you could actually not just connect them together in a context of a single device, but also in the form of what you see in a datacenter or what you see in supercomputing architectures. That's something that we use a lot in our group, you can get much more compute power. And in the case of quantum computing, this is so important because all the problems that people have been promising, talking about unlocking, unleashing the power of quantum computing, those are in the very large number of qubit range or, you know, pick your favorite metric. But essentially all of that promise lies in being able to get to these very scaled quantum architectures. And I think networking has a major role to play there. So, I see that in the next 5 to 10 years, that intersection really growing. But I also see simultaneously the networking and the sensing intersection growing a fair bit as well. So, this whole field of Quantum technologies with these three sensing computing networking components is really, really poised to deliver on some of the promises that have been made.

Brian Walker: We hear a lot about scalability as it relates to Quantum. Where do you see the biggest challenges to achieving quantum at scale?

Dr. Narang: When we are thinking about computing at scale and really scale where you can run algorithms that are telling us something you couldn't do on a classical device and telling us something that is totally new while we're fighting thermodynamics, right? At that point, we're talking about a device where you want to think about cooling that gets to be a hard problem. You start to think about how to connect devices. You get to a point where you're talking about how to maintain the fidelity over such a large device becomes a challenge. I think the many challenges that ultimately come down to two words - systems engineering. And I think that that's something that the field needs to really address in a concerted manner in order to get to a scaled computer or to scale quantum architectures of whatever sort we're interested in. And I think that's where, you know, bringing in folks from various parts of the engineering ecosystem, not just people who are trained in quantum engineering, not just Quantum scientists, you know, people who come from a systems engineering background, electrical engineering background from the classical side. Folks from software engineering who are from a classical software engineering or classical networking background is so important.

Brian Walker: Can you tell us a little bit about the specific areas of quantum that you're focused upon and the related technology development?

Dr. Narang: Yes. I'll give two, I guess I can't pick one. I have to give you two examples. The first thing that we've been working on in our group quite extensively is how do we think about open quantum systems and how do we think about algorithms for open quantum systems that run ironically, not just in classical devices, but also on quantum devices where you could perhaps take advantage of the existing noisy devices to get some of these algorithms to go. So, we started this in the context of an NSF funded program where we said, okay, you know, how do we take some of the open systems, algorithms that run, you know, on your favorite large supercomputer and map those onto a small quantum device? And in some ways, there were challenges because you say, well, you're looking at something that is for an open system. You're mapping it onto a very, very small quantum device. You don't really have the ability to pick exactly at what part of this whole wave function you're trying to put on a device. We realized actually, and this is work that together with David Mazziotti.

at the University of Chicago, that there are classes of algorithms where you can map dynamics onto small quantum devices. And this could be, you know, when I say open systems, I mean systems where we we're looking at the behavior of our physical system being beyond the Markovian limit. So, there's some interaction with the environment, there's some backflow of information from the environment back into the system. And when you're looking at such systems to be able to map it onto a quantum device while retaining some of the mathematical properties that we spend a lot of time making sure exist on a classical system actually was quite exciting. So, that was one example of something that we've been working on and we've been thinking about, you know, how open systems and NIST devices could, could intersect and finally hit a few successes on that front. Now, what I like about this project, and perhaps this is of interest to folks working on the quantum hardware side. You know, when I start talking about algorithms, some of my hardware colleagues are like, oh, but how is this going to make hardware better? Well, here's the thing. When you think about open systems, right, a noisy system, a noisy hardware is also an open system. So, you could do learning on such devices and actually use some of our ideas in open systems to learn the noise characteristics of actual device and use that again to find the right parameter space. Or perhaps you're slightly more robust to decoherence. So that was example one. The second one, which I have been talking a lot about and I think it's finally made its way to the mainstream, is how do we think about quantum repeaters and how do we think about solid state quantum repeaters that were first predicting? I like predicting either a theorist, a computational scientist, how do we predict these and guide some of the efforts in finding quantum repeater architectures that are actually robust, that can go into networks in future, that are scaled? Okay. So, one step at a time. Well, when I'm talking about a quantum repeater, right? I'm not talking about repeater technology in the classical sense. We know from the no cloning theorem that's not something that we can do, but it's something where you can perform the swap operation. It's essentially allowing you to extend the range of what a network can do. So, in thinking about these repeater architectures, right, you'd say, well, what am I really looking for? Essentially trying to make a small quantum device where certain operations happen with very, very high fidelity. And probably some way, at least when I think about matter-based quantum repeaters going from photon something matter-based and back out. So, we've been thinking about how we can bring our experience and my group's experience in very interesting types of materials, various types of new materials and bring that to bear on this problem of what would make the best kind of repeater architecture.

Brian Walker: So, Professor Narang, you've talked about the importance of inclusivity as it relates to the quantum space. Can you expand upon that?

Dr. Narang: A very important question, very timely question you bring up, you know, how can we make the fields more inclusive? And what advice would I have for particularly young women entering the fields of quantum science and engineering? Off the bat I want to say this is a field that is making a concerted effort towards being inclusive, to bringing in people from all backgrounds. And that's one of the advantages of being a new field. Right? We have the opportunity, while we have the benefit of hindsight, looking at fields that that, you know, took a lot of time and still are a long way from being as inclusive as we want to be. So, taking some of that experience, learning some of that, I think the fields of quantum science and engineering is pride from day zero to be as inclusive and as welcoming as possible.

Brian Walker: And anything specific to young female students or young professionals.

Dr. Narang: Right. So for young women who are entering the fields, particularly at the student or the post-doctoral level, my biggest piece of advice would be find a mentor doesn't have to be a faculty mentor, but somebody who is in the field, somebody who has some experience in this field of quantum science and engineering, or maybe even a slightly adjacent field that would be able to, you know, make some of their introduction and lower the barrier to entering the field. Now, I know finding a mentor is advice that's out there. It's easier said than done. So, if you're thinking about entering the field and you're at home today thinking, well, how do I get started? What's the first thing I can say that would make me a valuable contributor to the field? I'd say get some, some hands-on experience. And the hands-on experience component here need not be and probably for most people immediately cannot be in someone's lab. But you could go online. There are various companies that have made their algorithms and their devices available to you could be on GitHub, contribute to those repositories, you could run your own experiments and some of these devices and get some of the initial experience right. So, these modules frequently go with, you know, some set of recorded a more formal talks on the formalism behind them. And then you really get to go in there, write some code, see what's doing, see how you could then take that code and build on it for either a new application, add some new functionality. And when you do that. And with that experience, you can go approach either a startup with that skin, you know, quantum software or quantum hardware doesn’t matter. Tell them, hey, here's a project I've already contributed to, here are skills I have, and here's something I'm interested in working on either as an intern or, you know, just somebody wants to get a job there. So that's one of the pathways I see. And this is actually quite unique to the fields of quantum science and engineering is because so much of it is being made available online and at open source that you really can do a lot just from your own laptop. Beyond that, my next piece of advice would be to try and reach out to folks in the field. There are a lot of people who are hiring, big companies, startups, academic groups and see if you can get experience doing some technology development, some research in the field. You know, one of the things I notice about applicants that I received is, you know, your record, when you can point to projects you've completed matters a lot. It need not just be a paper or published work. You can point to a body of code, something you've written, something you've contributed to the community. And that can really make a big difference in getting your name to the top of someone's list and in that hiring process. To more senior but still young researchers in the field who are thinking, well, how do I get noticed? I think one of the things you could do is attend the various quantum conferences that have been happening, some that are actually put on by IEEE. You know, there are a lot of opportunities giving talks there. Getting your work presented in the form of a poster. I think those would all allow you to meet others in the fields and for them to know that you are working on this topic.

Brian Walker: How do you see the IEEE Quantum Initiative helping to advance quantum technology?

Dr. Narang: So, you know, IEEE’s a distinguished organization they’ve been around for a while. I think it has the key role in connecting folks who are coming from an engineering background, folks who certainly are trained and not just trained, I mean not just in the past five years, but, you know, folks who've been professional engineers, people who've contributed to large engineering organizations in various areas of electrical engineering, various areas of device engineering. Now, keep in mind, when we think about quantum devices, it's not just a quantum part as a quantum device that's important. All the controls and various things associated with making quantum hardware go, that require you know, so the background people have for microwave engineering, some of the background people have from large scale device simulation systems engineering, something we've already touched IEEE has key role in connecting all of those engineering disciplines with people who are thinking about, you know quantum science, quantum engineering from a physics or chemistry or more of a fundamental science perspective. I think that there's a real risk here. I'll say this to somebody who has been thinking about quantum networking a fair bit recently, that there's a real risk here of reinventing certain things. So, when we as Quantum Network folks start to connect with classical networking engineers, people who really, you know, been around in the field for some time, it became apparent that rediscovering quantum SDN, Software Defined Networks, would not be the best way to go, thinking about the various levels of this network. It's something that we could really interact with classical network engineers, learn from their experience, as well as positive and negative and mistakes in SDN, and think about the control plane architectures and apply that, of course. It’s not going to apply 1-to-1 but find ways of applying that knowledge to quantum networks. And I think that as an organization, IEEE is really, you know, instrumental in connecting people across those disciplines that may not typically talk with each other.

Brian Walker: Professor Narang, thank you again for contributing to the IEEE Quantum Podcast series. In closing, do you have any final thoughts you'd like to share with our listening audience?

Dr. Narang: Yes, there is one aspect of this that I want to talk about, which we've talked about how people can enter the fields and feel supported. Something I want to talk about is from a curriculum standpoint and also for academics who are in the field thinking about how do I incorporate some of this into the classroom? How do I think about, you know, making quantum science and engineering available to students? So actually, sponsored by again, NSF and OSTP (Office of Science and Technology Policy) we wrote a paper that is published at IEEE last year where we talked about how to build, and this was a community consensus. Hence, I used the word we, you know how to build an undergraduate curriculum that incorporates quantum science and engineering. And I think this is incredibly important. It's something we put forward there is that, you know, you don't need a full four-year program that is entirely focused on it. But if you're thinking about, how do I pick up a couple of courses, put that into the larger framework or how do I think about, you know, maybe even a concentration? And in some cases, if you're super committed to think about a master's, I think there are opportunities to make that happen and there is a need for that. Almost every person I talk to in the quantum ecosystem that I see at conferences says, “Hey, by the way, we're hiring, do you know anyone?” So, this is definitely an area we're being trained in. In the fields, very broadly speaking, is going to be important. And it's something that I, I hope you will read the paper that I just mentioned and also, you know, something that I'm particularly passionate about pursuing here now at UCLA, we have a master's program that we've launched that is focused on quantum science and engineering. And it's really to fill that gap, especially there hasn't been as much exposure to the engineering aspect, the hands-on engineering, and the undergraduate four-year degree that people have done. So, for example, when people think about quantum hardware and they say, well, I want to be a trained quantum engineer, you know, there's a lot of electronics, some electronics that is very classical. The controls are very, very classical. And you want to have hands on experience with some of that. So again, to students and also to academics who are listening, watching, I encourage you to take a look at our, and various other efforts out there to bring quantum science and engineering into the classroom as early as possible and as meaningfully as possible. The paper I mentioned is available on the IEEE Quantum Initiative website, and I encourage you to take a look at it.

Brian Walker: Thank you for listening to our interview with Professor Prineha Narang. To learn more about the IEEE Quantum Initiative, please visit our web portal at