IEEE Quantum Podcast Series: Episode 16
Researcher at Bleximo and affiliate researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab
Listen to Episode 16 (MP3, 26MB)
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. In this episode the well-known quantum researcher and influencer Anastasia Marchenkova shares her unique insights into the quantum computing space. She also discusses the promise quantum computing holds for benefiting humanity, and provides sound advice to young women, professionals, or students who might be interested in pursuing quantum computing as a career track.
Anastasia, thank you so much for contributing to the IEEE Quantum Podcast Series. To get started can you provide a little information on your background?
Anastasia Marchenkova: I'm Anastasia Marchenkova. I'm a quantum computing researcher at Bleximo right now and affiliate researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab as well. I've been studying quantum and quantum-adjacent technologies for the last 13 years, something like that. So, I've gone from quantum telecommunications over to trapped ions for a bit, then over to superconducting qubits. So, I've had the full journey end-to-end in the hardware space. And then I got involved on the algorithm side, on the software side as well. So, yeah, it's been a long journey.
Brian Walker: So, Anastasia, what initially drew you to the quantum space?
Anastasia Marchenkova: You know, this is an answer that I think disappoints people a lot honestly. I was an undergrad. I actually declared as a computer science major, because in high school I did robotics, and I was really excited about coding. And, yeah, so, I actually started as a computer science major. And then I realized I really wanted to use computing as a tool and not as its main field of study. So, then I transferred over to the biology department, did a semester in the biology department, and actually did some research in chemical engineering, working on transdermal drug delivery. So, after that, I took physics one, as it was required for everyone at my university. I went to Georgia Tech for my undergrad. And I took physics, and I was, like, “Oh, I'm good at this.” So, my dad's a physicist as well. So, it's kind of always physics-adjacent in that space. He's in condensed matter physics, was working on graphene. But I started taking the physics classes and I was really excited, because one of the issues I had with biology was I didn't want to memorize those huge textbooks. And I thought, “Physics is cool. You just go to class, and you get that one equation, and you study that one equation for an entire semester pretty much.” Then, after that, I started looking for research, because I realized research was the best way to really get a sense of what I wanted to do. So, the first lab I emailed was the biophysics lab. They were doing animal movement and stuff like that. And they said, “Well, sorry, we only take third-year researchers. We want you to have taken certain classes before you come to our lab.” And then the second lab I emailed was a quantum optics and quantum telecommunications lab. And I said, “Well, I can solder. That's my skillset.” And they were like, “Great, come in. We'll take you in.” And, so, I got to start research really early on in my late freshman year, early sophomore year, in college. And that's kind of how I started. So, it was a little bit of a random chance of which lab would take me, but, after that, I just got very, very deep into the field. And it was very interesting. And, honestly, at that point, nobody really cared about quantum computing. I mean, there was some kind of research money coming in, but it wasn't like such an industry like it is now. There weren't really quantum startups, or some startups doing quantum-- long-distance quantum telecommunication and quantum cryptography, but nothing in the quantum computing space. So, I didn't think it would evolve that way. I just thought, you know, “This is cool. I really like the way that physics taught you how to think.” And I thought I'd become a professor. And that love took me in, and I had a great advisor and a great time there.
Brian Walker: So, that was then, and this is now. And you've become quite well-known within the quantum space. Given that, can you share some thoughts on the key issues you see facing quantum?
Anastasia Marchenkova: Yeah, definitely. So, it's been crazy. I mean, I think there's quite a bit of hype going on right now, obviously, in the field. Everyone talks about it. I saw an article just recently from a well-respected media publication saying, you know, “IBM is going to have thousands of quantum computers for sale in two years,” and “quantum is coming.” They misquoted actually the IBM press release that said they'll have a quantum computer with thousands of qubits at that time. So, that's been very interesting to see that even with these well-respected tech publications, we're still getting these hype issues. You know, there's still a lot of issues in hardware. And, for me, you know I see that as a scaling problem, especially in the architectures that we have now. How do we actually get to a scale where we can do real quantum calculations? Now, there's been a lot of research also on the software and algorithms side. So, one of the things I think about when I'm talking about near-term applications is, like, circuit depth of quantum computing. So, different algorithms have different circuit depths, which means how many operations they have to do in a row. And the deeper you are, the longer the coherence time you have to have, the more error correction you need to have, which means that those applications will be longer term. Versus on the shallower circuits, you know, maybe we can get that going early on. So, there's been a lot of work in stuff like QAOA (Quantum Approximate Optimization Algorithm) optimization problems that I think is really exciting for the near term. But those big things like Shor’s algorithm I get asked a lot, like, “Are my bitcoins safe? Do I have to move them away from exchanges? Is it all going to collapse?” You know, Shor’s algorithm is a very deep circuit and takes a long time. So, we're nowhere close to getting to that stage. So, we're seeing a lot of good progress though in the last couple years. I think it's also very cool that all these companies and research labs are actually putting their quantum computers up in the cloud, which is something that I didn't think I would see back when I started. You know, the only way you could get access to a qubit even was by being at a research university or being at one of these companies that have a quantum program for a long time, like IBM or Northrop Grumman. And now, anyone can log in to these cloud systems and actually run programs on quantum computers, which I think is really cool. And first of all, it's good for trust. And, again, with that hype, you know, having third-party people actually being able to test your chips is super important. But, you know, there's still a lot of things we have to solve before quantum computing really becomes an everyday thing that people are going to use.
Brian Walker: So, Anastasia, you published a quantum teleportation tutorial. At a high level, can you expound upon quantum teleportation for our listeners?
Anastasia Marchenkova: Yeah, yeah, definitely. So, it's one of my favorite things to talk about, because it really is going to introduce a lot of key quantum computing concepts. So, it's a good place to start at. So, yeah, so, it's key behind quantum key distribution, long distance quantum communication, and also in quantum computing. So, what it allows you to do is teleport the quantum state to another qubit. But what that actually means is move the quantum state to another qubit. And I always talk about this XKCD that we have, where it's like every time the reporters come to talk about quantum teleportation, they're disappointed because it sounds so boring. And then he goes away with his regular quantum or regular teleporter and says, “Well, whatever, I'm going to Hawaii.” But it's actually really cool, because what we need-- the concept there is what we need to do is we need to do something special to copy quantum information. So, quantum states are destroyed when you read them out. So, we can't do what we do for classical systems. So, when we want to copy information, we just say, “Okay, well, this is a bit string, 1010. I read it. I know the state and I can just copy it over to another place.” With quantum we can't do that. There's something called the no cloning theorem that says we can't copy this unknown quantum state exactly. So, we have to do something a little differently. And we move the quantum state to another qubit. So, that destroys the state of the qubit that we teleported, so we're not violating the no cloning theorem here. And this has been done and this is really important in long distance communication. Obviously, we want to move the information, but it's also really important in quantum computing-- there's something called swap gates where we have to move the states. And to do efficient quantum computing you want to do as little operations as possible. So, to do that, you have to apply the swap, you have to quantum teleport the state to make sure the qubits-- say you're doing an operation on qubit one and eight, and they're not next to each other; you have to move the state from qubit zero closer to qubit eight by using quantum teleportation. So, it's key. It also introduces the two gates that are critical in quantum computing, the Hadamard gate and the CNOT gate. So, the Hadamard creates a superposition and the CNOT entangles the qubits. So, you get both of those to really see the power of quantum.
Brian Walker: So, there's been a lot of talk about the promise of quantum computing, but, from your perspective, where do you see quantum computing bringing benefit to humanity?
Anastasia Marchenkova: Yeah, I mean, so, we have all kind of the-- I don't want to say the boring, because I think they're actually pretty exciting applications, but the ones everyone talks about pharmaceuticals, helping people discover new drugs that can help people to make us healthier over time, being able to even simulate quantum states to truly understand the structures that we have in the universe. And that's really cool. Over the long term, though, I'm very excited about the time that we get large enough quantum computers and there's enough knowledge in the world for people outside of the quantum space to actually use quantum computers, because I think there's going to be a lot of very cool applications that I as non-expert in chemistry or finance or anything else, I can't know about those problems and how a quantum computer can actually help out with that. So, in the near term, we're looking at these chemical applications and that's really cool, because you can actually see in the future how that might lead to advances in energy technology. So, for example, building better batteries, better materials. Fertilizer production is two percent of the world's energy right now. What if we can use a quantum computer to make that a little bit more efficient. So, a lot of these near-term applications that we have right now can lead to these huge impacts on humanity, which I think is really exciting. You know, we look at the same thing with logistics. We look at the same thing for machine learning. If we can use that, that's going to be applied to so many industries. I can't even fathom what impacts are there going to be on those industries.
Brian Walker: So, as a woman in a predominantly male field, what advice would you offer for young women, or even young men for that matter, young professionals, who might be interested in pursuing quantum computing as a career track?
Anastasia Marchenkova: Definitely. So, I think the first thing is do research if you can. If you're at university, do research. Do as much as you can. Explore the different topics. And try and get as deep into that as possible. I think that's the best way to get into the quantum space. Another thing is I didn't learn this until my, like, third or fourth year in my physics degree is people will say fancy words to you and they don't actually know what they mean. And you're not stupid. They're just trying to confuse you to make you feel dumb. So, you know, I think women have this thing sometimes where-- and I do this all the time. So, with my YouTube channel, with my blog posts, I redo my videos a thousand times, because I'm like, “I can't have a single word wrong. I have to--" I spent so much time on all the videos that-- because I have to truly understand every bit of what I'm saying to the lowest depths to say something out loud. Some people would the regurgitate what they've heard and say it with a lot of confidence. So, never feel stupid when you're in an environment like that. Unfortunately, I think one of the issues I really had was with when I went to grad school was-- I think in academia there's a little bit of a toxic culture where you're not allowed to say that you don't know something. And I think that has been a great superpower. And I was lucky to be going into startups where that was considered a good thing. But I had not gotten jobs before when I said-- I was given a question and I remember-- from, like, a tutoring service when I was in college, you know? And the question was, like, “A student asks you a question that you don't know the answer. What do you do?” And my answer was, “Hey, I don't know the answer, but let me research and the next session we'll get back to it. And I'll figure it out.” And that was the wrong answer. For some reason, they told me I should have made something up. I don't like that attitude, and I'm really glad that industry and quantum is actually moving away from that. So, never be scared of that. And find a community. I think that's the best thing. I think the best thing with the Internet age has been that you can-- even if you are the only woman in your physics class, you can find a community of women. There are online societies, like IEEE, and we're out there. You just have to find us online. And I think that's been one of the most rewarding things of also creating my platform: Women, you know, write to me. And men write to me, too, saying, “I've never considered this as a career path. And your videos kind of inspired me to take a look.”
Brian Walker: So, speaking of IEEE, and you're well aware of the IEEE Quantum Initiative, how do you see that initiative helping to advance the technology space?
Anastasia Marchenkova: Yeah. I mean, so, IEEE standards are definitely super important. We've talked about-- I mentioned a little bit about the NIST cryptography competition, and I talk about that, and there's standards being formed. But, beyond that, we're going to need-- right now, there's companies building their own infrastructure. They're building their own hardware pieces. They're building their own software stacks. And, over time, you know, right now, it's the Wild West, but, over time, we're going to need those standards to really figure out how to interconnect systems. So, I truly believe that there's not going to be a winner-takes-all in the quantum space. You know, quantum telecommunication hardware is going to be different from quantum computing, but I see a world where they're going to need to connect and talk together. And that's when we're going to need to have standards come up. Also, you know we go to IEEE Quantum Week. And it's really one of the most technically robust conferences in the quantum space. And I really enjoy that. And what I really like is that everyone in quantum is there to exchange new ideas and there's not as much of that-- I don't want to say business talk as a bad thing, but there's a little bit more openness, I guess, in the results and the struggles, like, you wouldn't necessarily say in a business meeting. And I really believe that quantum can move forward faster if we keep sharing knowledge and moving forward. So, yeah, those IEEE Quantum Weeks have been fantastic.
Brian Walker: So, Anastasia, we touched upon it earlier: You've become well-known within the quantum space. Dare I say you become an influencer related to quantum computing. Can you just kind of share with us how that came about?
Anastasia Marchenkova: Yeah, definitely. So, I'm going to plug my own website and channels here. I started writing my blog back in graduate school, because I kept getting the same questions over and over on the security side. And that has expanded beyond into my YouTube channel, into TikTok even, into a lot of other platforms where I talk about quantum and give people a peek into the day-to-day life. So, you can find me anywhere AMarchenkova.com is my website. I have the links to all my platforms there. Or I'm at AMarchenkova on any other platform as well. And, you know, I really do believe you know IEEE and all these other people working on education is super important. So, you know, I love this podcast idea to actually talk about the education space. And I feel like in the next ten years we're going to have this reckoning of how do we have non-quantum folks talk about quantum and use quantum computers. And education pieces, you know, independent people like me, hopefully, have a place in it. But hopefully, we move forward in a world-- this is a bit of a side rant, but I think one of the issues with quantum is we have a lot of terminology that does not necessarily say what it means. When we talk about algorithms, we use people's names. It's not intuitive. And I think over time if we come together and do these educational initiatives, we're going to figure out where the gaps are in the quantum knowledge and, hopefully, fix that by the time quantum computers come around to be large enough that they're used by, hopefully, a lot of the world's population.
Brian Walker: Thank you for listening to our interview with Anastasia Marchenkova. To learn more about the IEEE Quantum Initiative, please visit our web portal at Quantum.IEEE.org.