IEEE Quantum Podcast Series: Special Episode


Travis ScholtenSpecial Episode: A Conversation with Travis Scholten
Quantum Computing Applications Researcher, IBM Quantum

Listen to this Special Episode (MP3, 44 MB)


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 technology.  This episode features Travis Scholten, a quantum computing applications researcher at IBM Quantum.  Travis joins us to discuss IEEE Quantum Week, quantum educational needs and resources to enable a viable quantum workforce, while also explaining how anyone from students to developers can begin exploring and programming on real quantum hardware.

Brian Walker: Travis, thank you for spending some time to contribute to the IEEE Quantum Podcast Series.  To start, how did you become involved in the IEEE Quantum Week, and how do you see it helping to advance quantum education in the development of a quantum workforce?

Travis Scholten: Well, the story of how I got involved in Quantum Week is very amusing, and I think it goes to show the level of trust and respect that exists within the IBM Quantum organization.  So about a year ago I was put on an email thread with Jay Gambetta, who's one of our VPs for IBM Quantum and also an IBM Fellow, who suggested that I should help out with Quantum Week, and this was roughly about a year into my time at IBM Quantum.  And as I thought about it I said, "Well, this could be a cool opportunity to try something new, never really done events coordination and stuff like that, and also it's an opportunity to meet people both externally and internally.”  Over the course of the past year it's been an incredibly awesome experience to work with so many people at IBM Quantum, from our technical teams to our marketing teams to our business teams, to really put together a great program for Quantum Week and then also to work with people externally to join our workshops and panels.  And it's also been really fun because as a Platinum Sponsor of this event, we're really showing that what Quantum Week is doing as far as advancing quantum education and helping that quantum workforce get developed is really important and really useful. I think that one of the main advantages of Quantum Week is this idea of providing essentially an insider's view of what the quantum computing industry is all about.  When you're standing outside the industry looking in it's hard to get a sense of what's going on, and Quantum Week will provide a very helpful perspective through the tutorials, the workshops, and the panels about really where the industry is, where it's going, and what skills are necessary to pivot into that industry.

Brian Walker: Okay.  But while quantum computing might be a hot topic in tech today, what is really available, and what can quantum computers actually do?

Travis Scholten: Sure.  I think it's a good idea to tackle that question in both of its parts, and to tackle them in slightly reverse order.  So when we think about what quantum computers can do, we know that long term if we get to universal fault tolerant quantum computing that will be really useful, especially for the simulation of physical or chemical systems, but we're not there yet in the fault tolerance era.  We're in this kind of, you know, near-term quantum computing era.  And so it's most important right now as far as doing stuff with quantum computers is essentially research use cases in developing essentially a quantum intuition.  By building quantum computers and making them accessible through the Cloud we're letting people really play around with this technology and to understand how to put this technology to work for advantage in practical use cases and applications.

One aspect of that which is very important to remember is that access to hardware and actually being able to run circuits on real quantum computers is very, very vital for developing that intuition.  And how I think about this is if you have two people, maybe one of them has access to hardware and one of them doesn't.  The one who has access to hardware is just going to be able to so much better understand the development of the technology as we march forward towards universal fault tolerant quantum computing, and also understand why the path towards developing those kinds of computers is one of essentially continuous improvement.  Furthermore, they'll be able to actually leverage these near-term quantum computers as they evolve so their skills will be developing essentially in lockstep with the underlying hardware and its technology, and they'll be able to probably divine knew ideas about how to develop algorithms or applications or error mitigation techniques on top of that hardware. 

Now I also mentioned the idea of use cases. I work as a quantum computing applications researcher here at IBM Quantum.  I'm on a team of people that interfaces with IBM Quantum's customers and clients, so collaborating with enterprise companies and startups to really explore how we can use near-term quantum computers. There are a few projects that I think really highlight what people are doing today with access to real quantum hardware.  For example, in collaboration with Daimler we investigated chemical reaction pathways for lithium sulfur batteries, which is very important for developing next generation battery technology.  In collaboration with JPMorgan Chase we examined how to use quantum computers to do option pricing, essentially being able to more accurately evaluate the fair price of an option.  We've also been collaborating with Barclays to look at transaction settlement, you know, how is it that we can make sure that all of the payments and transactions in the financial industry are settled very efficiently?  And then a project that I was part of was in collaboration with U.K. based startup Cambridge Quantum Computing, looking at circuit compilation, so how do we take a quantum circuit and compile it to the hardware?  And in all of these projects, access to real quantum hardware really helped us understand what could really be done, what were some of the limitations, and how would the hardware have to improve in order to be able to do more, and that's kind of what I mean when I talk about skills developing in lockstep with the technology. 

As we develop more advanced quantum systems, the people who are doing the research on real hardware, they'll kind of be able to up their game as far as the applications they're developing is concerned. One of the really interesting things is if we look at the research output on IBM Quantum systems it's pretty tremendous.  From my records there are almost 200 papers that are written by IBM Quantum partners and clients, and then almost 250 papers are written from organizations and entities outside that IBM Q Network.  Now, the way that we make hardware available is through the Cloud.  Throughout most of human history, at least quantum human history, if you want to do research on quantum computing you would have to build your own, and that's really hard, and that requires a lot of talent and knowhow. By making them available through the Cloud we're able to leverage just the Cloud itself, and also all of the DevOps practices surrounding cloud compute technologies for continuously improving and upgrading our systems, providing high-quality access, etcetera.  If we look just over the past few years, ever since 2016 when IBM Quantum put the first quantum computer on the Cloud and built the IBM Q Experience which is our way of making quantum computing available over the IBM Cloud, we witnessed tremendous adoption of these systems, more than 250,000 users running billions and billions of circuits.  I mean it's just incredible how much appetite and interest there is in this technology.  This is also again why I think Quantum Week is so important. We have this huge set of people who are outside the quantum computing industry, and they want to get in. We have to help them get in, and we have to help them get in through education and making access to real quantum systems available.

Brian Walker: So Travis, given your expertise in the field, how would you advise someone about starting to use a quantum computer, and where should they start?

Travis Scholten: Sure.  I think there's three kind of conceptual things that you have to work out, and then there's lots of resources that let you do that.  I think the first is to overcome some issues that people have about their kind of mental picture of what quantum computing is.  Sometimes you see in popular science articles and whatnot the idea that quantum computers are just souped-up classical computers on steroids, which is completely false.  Quantum computers leverage an entirely different mode of computation.  They have their own notion of what information is and how you encode it and store it inside quantum systems, and also what programming a quantum computer looks like.  By adopting that different model of computation, then you get access to all of these cool and kind of fun quantum resources such as superposition, interference, and entanglement, all of which are resources that aren't available on classical computers. 

So first is to realize that quantum computing is just a fundamentally different beast than classical computing.  That being said, the second is to recognize that quantum computers do not supplant classical computing.  Classical computing and quantum computing work together, and this remains true even once we get to a universal fault tolerant machine because we will have the quantum computer doing its quantum stuff, but we will also have a classical computer running so-called quantum error correction in order to let that computation run.  So quantum and classical computes will exist side by side, and it's an important thing to keep in mind. 

The third is to actually understand the quantum circuit model which is a particular way of representing a piece of a quantum program. The users of the IBM Quantum Experience on the IBM Cloud are running billions of circuits a day, as I said. Earlier this year we had this IBM Quantum Challenge, and according to my notes over 5 billion quantum circuits were run.  So clearly understanding that circuit model is super important if you're going to be developing a new quantum algorithm, a quantum application, a quantum use case, etcetera. 

Now you might say, "Okay, well so you've got these three conceptual things that you need to work on, how do I learn more?"  And I'd say there's lots of resources, three that come to my mind most immediately.  First is to play around with the IBM Quantum Experience on the IBM Cloud.  We've got a graphical circuit composer, we have a programming language, we've got simulators, we've got hardware, all accessible in one place over the Cloud.  Another thing to do is to learn Qiskit, which is an open source quantum computing software development kit that is backed by IBM Quantum.  It's the most popular open source quantum computing SDK out there today. 

If you're more interested in some kind of professional development there's at least two university-level courses that are being offered.  One is from MIT xPRO, it's called Quantum Computing Fundamentals.  Another is from University of Chicago called Quantum Science and Engineering.  Or if you're saying, "Hey, you know, I have some time here on my free time, and I just want to watch some YouTube videos," you should go check out the content from the Qiskit global summer school 2020.  We just wrapped that last month, and it features lectures that cover the gamut about what quantum computing is, how you program quantum computers, what does IBM Quantum's hardware look like, how do you build superconducting qubits, etcetera. 

If you are going to show up at Quantum Week you should go check out the tutorials.  There's a very long list of tutorials, including a few introductions to quantum computing, including one from our very own Abe Asfaw who some of you might know from our coding with Qiskit YouTube series.  There are tutorials on applications.  Chemistry is popular as well as optimization in quantum machine learning.  I have a personal bias in that I really like quantum machine learning, so I want to give a shoutout to tutorials on that, in part because it's a very popular topic these days. If you take the words "quantum computing" and then "machine learning" and smash them together, it's like two of the most popular buzzwords smashed together, it creates kind of a super-popular buzzword, and it's very important to dispel the hype and the myths surrounding what quantum machine learning is. 

In addition, there's a tutorial on games for quantum computing.  Everyone loves playing games, and so this tutorial will teach quantum computing concepts in a very fun, accessible, and easy to follow way.  And then there's one tutorial which is very near and dear to my heart because it relates to some research that I did during my physics PhD which is assessing the quality of qubits and quantum systems.  When you look in the literature or you go sign up for the IBM Quantum Experience, and you look at some of our available backends, there are all these numbers that are associated with quantum computers, like T1 and T2 times of Qubits, the Cnot Fidelity of a two qubit gate, etcetera.  Or maybe you're reading in some of the more popular science literature about quantum volumes of a system, and if you're sitting there wondering, "Well, what the heck do all those numbers mean?," you should go check out this tutorial because it will explain what those numbers are, how they are measured, and then it lets you actually code up those protocols themselves and then be able to send them off to real hardware to do some measurements of your own.

Brian Walker: So in previous podcasts we've spoken with IEEE Quantum Initiative co-chairs about current challenges facing the quantum computing community.  What are your views on the particular challenges to educating and preparing today's students to join the quantum community?

Travis Scholten: I think there are three main challenges here.  They are technological, commercial, and what one might call sort of purely educational.  A main technological challenge is getting enough systems built to ensure students around the world have access.  Back there in my PhD days I would go to this very nice quantum computing conference, and one day I met a young man by the name of Thomas Wong, who is currently a professor at Creighton University in Nebraska. He has been using Qiskit to teach a course, and a thing that should keep us up at night is how do we ensure that those kinds of university professors have access to world-class quantum systems so they can teach their own students.  We saw this in the course of our Qiskit Global Summer School, tremendous interest, almost 4,000 people signed up.  And so how do we build more systems and keep them up longer, and improve their capabilities, so that way students have systems to learn on. 

From the commercial side of things, I think an important question to keep in mind is how do we educate not only scientists but end users of quantum compute technology?  Let's consider two students who are doing their degrees in non-quantum disciplines.  Maybe they're getting an MBA or something like that.  If one of them knows what quantum computing is and what it's good for, and the other doesn't, who do you think will be better suited to help their organization take advantage of this technology?  Well, clearly it's the one who has that knowledge, and that's good for an organization because they want to leverage next generation compute technologies in the course of their workflows.  It's also good for us because it makes it easier to work with those kinds of organizations since they're already quantum ready. 

From a purely educational standpoint, there's the question of how do you teach quantum computing across a diverse range of disciplines and age groups?  The example I just gave of, well, how do you teach quantum computing to an MBA student, that's an open question.  And also, how do you teach quantum computing to people who are younger?  Recently the NSF had announced their Q to work initiative which is going to develop quantum computing educational computing educational content for grades K-12. That shows us how important it is to develop the next generation of technically proficient, highly competent scientists, engineers, developers, and end users of quantum technologies. 

Now, how we've been addressing this challenge at IBM Quantum is in a couple of ways.  One is to have an open source Qiskit textbook.  I think the Qiskit textbook is a great example of what happens when you combine open source software development and access to real quantum systems because you can follow along with the textbook and learn quantum computing concepts. You can write your own code in Qiskit to develop hands-on proficiency with those concepts, and then you can actually run things on real hardware. I think that generates a very virtuous cycle for learning about quantum computing.  In addition, we have a Qiskit for Educators program which helps university professors incorporate parts of the Qiskit textbook into their own curriculum.  And then as I said earlier on, for Quantum Week we've prepared a variety of tutorials and workshops.  It's seven tutorials and two workshops to really, again, help spread that knowledge to the set of people who are outside the industry so they can understand how they can contribute.

Brian Walker: So from a personal perspective, Travis, what are you most looking forward to at Quantum Week?

Travis Scholten: At a high level, what I'm most excited about are the keynotes, the panels, and the workshops.  For the keynotes and the panels, just being able to hear from world-leading experts and get insight into their perspective on how they think about the industry is super useful.  And with the workshops, being able to connect with like-minded peers, and develop new knowledge about the industry is very, very useful. 

I'm going to give a couple of shameless plugs for stuff that I am personally involved in.  One is a panel on engineering challenges in building a quantum computer.  This is a collaborative effort that we did with Honeywell to bring together Honeywell, IBM Quantum, Microsoft, and Google, to talk about the hardware, software, and organizational engineering challenges in building out an enterprise-scale quantum computing business.  I'm organizing a workshop on quantum software for applications, algorithms, and workflows.  The software community is a very vital one for the quantum computing industry, and so bringing that community together to drive the development of open source quantum computing software is just super, super essential.  And I want to give a shoutout to the team at the Unitary Fund that I'll talk about maybe a little bit later if we have some time, for their contributions, being moderators for panels and also giving a keynote.  And then lastly we have a keynote from Dr. Jerry Chow of IBM Quantum entitled, "Quantum Circuits: Rocket Fuel for the Future of Quantum Hardware."  I think with a title like that it clearly will be a very engaging and interesting talk to go listen to. 

There are a couple of other things going on at Quantum Week which I'm looking forward to at least listening to.  One is a panel on towards a practical IR for Quantum, so trying to understand how you should represent a quantum program. Also, one on building a fault tolerant quantum computer from the ground up.  This idea of systems engineering is one which is much appreciated by both IBM Quantum and IEEE, and so trying to understand from a very hardware-based perspective and quantum-firmware-based perspective how to build a fault tolerant quantum computer is really cool. 

Lastly, I'm looking forward to meeting people.  I'm not going to lie, I was really enjoying the possibility of going to Denver and meeting people in real life for interactions, but virtual is nice too. I will say that if people did want to connect or whatnot a good way to get ahold of me would be to DM me on Twitter @Travis_Sch.  Overall what's really impressive to me about Quantum Week is the fact that there's so much content and so much engagement from a wide variety of people.  There's over 270 hours of content! A standard 7-day week is 168 hours, so even if you tried to stay up 24/7 to keep up with it, it would take you over a week which is really impressive in my mind.

Brian Walker: So how are you tracking the progress of IBM's quantum education efforts, the growth of the quantum community, and the development of the quantum workforce?

Travis Scholten: I would say that the most major metric to pay attention to right now is engagement, whatever that looks like, be that participation in quantum computing events, you know. We have a Qiskit seminar series that's on YouTube on Fridays, people watching videos from world-class researchers and experts talking about their cutting-edge state-of-the art work. Participation in hackathons, you know, quantum computing hackathons are taking place all over the globe. There are local communities, sort of centers of competency maybe is a way of describing it, around quantum technology, and that's really cool to see too.  Enrollments in classes. I've mentioned the Qiskit Global Summer School we had 4,000 students, 70 percent of those were undergrads. Enrollment in undergraduate classes in general, and also research production. I mentioned the 250-some papers produced by people outside of the IBM Q Network.

One other way that I look at it is applications for grants from an organization called the Unitary Fund which is a nonprofit working to create a quantum technology ecosystem that benefits the most people.  I happen to sit on the advisory board of Unitary Fund, in the interest of full disclosure, and part of what we do is review applications for grants, and IBM Quantum has partnered with the Unitary Fund to help support its grant offering effort.  And again, having people engage with this technology right now and learn and explore and play around is so vital in part because this pathway is so long. So getting ready now and being able to grow and develop your skills as the industry grows is super important.

Brian Walker: That's a great point.  So what resources are available for individuals wanting to learn more about quantum technologies?

Travis Scholten: I think it would be worthwhile to try to help or to try and look out at your local community.  Maybe there's some kind of Reddit subgroup or whatnot that you're really interested in, could participate in.  Trying to find courses and study groups is really helpful. 

I will give a shoutout to a couple of projects that the Unitary Fund has founded.  One is a website called which is trying to aggregate resources, so it's kind of a resource of resources. The other is a project called Q Cousins which is trying to help foster the quantum computing community mostly in Eastern Europe.  If you're specifically interested in Qiskit I would encourage you to go check out that open source Qiskit textbook.  It's written in collaboration between IBM Quantum and New York University, and it's been contributed to by members of the Qiskit community very generally.  If you're an educator who is listening to this, and you say, "Hey, I want to add some Qiskit code to my university curricula, but I'm not quite exactly sure how to get started with that," I would check out our Qiskit for educators program which would help their students then learn using the self-same kinds of tools that are used by scientists and engineers.  And then lastly, if you do attend Quantum Week and you say, "Hey, I'd like to write some code to do X, or help develop a community around Y," I would very much encourage you to consider doing a small prototyping project and then trying to apply for some funding from the Unitary Fund to help kind of grow that.

Brian Walker: Okay.  So we've touched upon a lot of key issues today.  Do you have any final thoughts you'd like to add?

Travis Scholten: The main thing is to recognize that the quantum computing industry is still in its very early days, and we're going to need an incredibly broad range of talent in order to make this industry go. I have a physics PhD.  Maybe that was necessary right now, but that's not always going to be necessary.  If you can find ways of leveraging the skills that you have or the skills that you are developing or the skills you want to develop in order to pivot into the quantum computing industry, I would say don't be afraid.  Go try it.  Go see what happens.  Learn some quantum computing and try and figure out where you can plug in, because this really is going to take a kind of whole of the economy effort. Getting developers and engineers and physicists and mathematicians, but then also the marketing team, the design teams, the business development teams, etcetera.  So I would say for most people, many people in fact, you can plug into this industry.  Just find your niche, and it'll be a great ride.

Brian Walker: Thank you for listening to our interview with Travis Scholten.  Learn more about the IEEE Quantum Initiative by visiting our web portal at