UVic plays a prominent role in the quantum revolution

Professor Müller stands outside in front of arbutus trees.
Hausi Müller is a software engineer and Professor in UVic’s Department of Computer Science.

2020 October – Hausi Müller vividly recalls the excitement he felt being part of the computing scene in the early 1970s, when the digital world was starting to explode and the changes it promised seemed like science fiction.

Fast forward 50 years and recent advances in quantum computing have got Müller just as excited as he was back then.

“This is an amazing time, it’s like being in a giant candy store,” says Müller, a UVic professor of computer science. “Quantum computing is a completely new type of computing – a whole new paradigm – and it’s given me that same feeling all over again.”

Since mid-2019, Müller has worked tirelessly to create and orchestrate the most extensive, high-profile international conference believed ever to have been held on quantum computing.

A colourful promotion for Quantum Week, showing a globe with zeros and ones.

Quantum activities at UVic

In addition to Hausi Müller’s creation of Quantum Week 2020, UVic researchers and students are involved in several other quantum computing initiatives. Here are a few:

  • Several UVic researchers have been awarded grants that focus on quantum computing and often involve collaboration with industry partners. One faculty member is Rogério de Sousa (Physics), who is working with D-Wave Systems, a Burnaby-based company that built the first quantum computer available commercially.
  • Nikitas Dimopoulos (Computer Engineering) has partnered with Vancouver-based 1Qbit, a leader in quantum software development that works with large corporations around the world.
  • In Spring 2020, de Sousa taught a second-year course on quantum information – one of the first undergrad courses on this topic. Student submitted their work to run on cloud-based quantum computers provided by IBM and D-Wave.
  • In January 2021, Müller and Ulrike Stege (Computer Science) will offer a graduate course in quantum algorithms, which will be open to students from UVic, as well as those from UBC, SFU and other universities.
  • Four UVic faculty members, along with several from UBC and SFU, are part of a unique new program aimed at equipping students with skills in developing quantum computing hardware and software. Funded by an NSERC CREATE grant, the program provides training to graduate students.
  • Two Canada Research Chairs in quantum computing have been approved by UVic, one in engineering and one in science.
  • Under the umbrella of HiTechU – a unique program led by UVic staff member Andrew MacLean and supported by the Faculty of Engineering – grad students and faculty members offer modules for high-school-aged youth in quantum computation.
  • Earlier this month, Rogério de Sousa published a paper on decoherence in superconducting qubits in the high-profile physics journal, Physical Review Letters.

The first IEEE International Conference on Quantum Computing and Engineering – or Quantum Week 2020 – begins Oct. 12 with 800 industry leaders, researchers, educators and enthusiasts from around the globe. Support from the IEEE – the world’s largest professional organization for the advancement of technology – and from 30 industry sponsors have helped make the conference possible.

About 24 participants from UVic’s faculties of Engineering and Science are attending the online event, with several having played organizational roles. UVic has a strong interdisciplinary quantum team consisting of computer scientists, electrical engineers, chemists and physicists, with recent high-profile publications and several collaborations with leading B.C. and international companies.

But why should we care? Why is quantum computing important?

Müller says these are just the sorts of questions people were asking 50 years ago about regular or “classical” computing, which today is woven into almost every aspect of our lives, including communication, entertainment, finance, transportation and health, to name a few.

“There are a lot of problems we cannot sufficiently solve with today’s classical computers, even our super computers,” says Müller. “Quantum computers can potentially make an enormous leap in our power, speed and efficiency so we can address these problems.”

What is quantum computing?

The leap Müller describes can be boiled down to the difference between a bit and qubit. Today’s classical computers have memory that is made up of bits, with each bit holding the precise value of either one or zero. Quantum computing uses the quantum bit or qubit, which can still exist in a state of one or zero, but also has the potential to hold an infinite number of other positions, enabling it to represent a great deal more information. Quantum computers can make much faster and more powerful calculations, essentially by being able to explore many possible answers to a question simultaneously. Quantum computers are well-suited to simulating molecules governed by the rules of quantum mechanics, something that is difficult or impossible to achieve with classical computers.

Although quantum computing is expected to affect many areas of our lives, from cybersecurity to drug design, several challenges need to be addressed before it can have a large-scale impact.For instance, the qubit is very volatile and can revert quickly to zero or one, and quantum computers must operate in strictly controlled physical environments.

Recognizing the quantum potential

Although quantum computing is still at an early stage, with many hurdles to overcome,government leaders recognize its potential. Canada has been investing in quantum computing for decades and is developing a national strategy. A federal study predicts the country’s quantum technology industry will grow to $8.2 billion by 2030 and employ 16,000 people.

B.C. has two world-leading quantum computing companies, D-Wave Systems and 1Qbit, which have both obtained significant venture capital funding. Waterloo-Toronto is another hotbed for quantum computing start-up companies in Canada.

Meanwhile, the B.C. government announced in 2019 that it will provide $17 million over five years to establish the new Quantum Algorithms Institute to bolster the province’s growing reputation as a quantum leader. The institute, which will focus on training students and building quantum computing software and algorithms focused on real-world problems, will be located at Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus and involve the province’s network of post-secondary institutes – including UVic – as well as industry partners.

The role of universities

Leading the creation of Quantum Week 2020 is another way to help put B.C. on the map. And, while conferences about quantum computing certainly are nothing new, Müller’s event stands out in bringing together top leaders from both industry and academia.

“There has been a real gap between industry and academia in the quantum computing space, so that’s what I’ve concentrated on,” says Müller. The timing, he says, is perfect because recent industry advancements in building viable quantum computers mean that researchers are now able to test their theories.

In recent years, companies such as Microsoft, Google, IBM and Honeywell have made major announcements in quantum computing, while a few hundred start-up companies have emerged worldwide. Today, any researcher or developer can sign up for a cloud-based account from Amazon, IBM or others towrite quantum algorithms that run on quantum computers.

Along with technical gains in hardware and software, the future of quantum computing will require a trained workforce, Müller points out.

“This is something universities have to do,” says Müller. “It’s very important that we start teaching quantum computing at the university and high school levels now so that in the coming years we have a significant workforce.”

In fact, UVic has already begun this work, recently offering two new courses for graduate and undergraduate students and participating in a multi-university program to introduce high school and undergrads to quantum computing.

As Quantum Week 2020 gets underway, Müller is thrilled to have attracted some of the biggest names in quantum computing as keynote speakers. And, while the traditional ballroom will be replaced by online breakout rooms, and though receptions, workshops and technical papers will all take place online, the virtual setting hasn’t dampened anyone’s enthusiasm.

“There has been an amazing response from the quantum community,” says Müller. “To have 800 people registered for an inaugural conference that is not free and to have 30 companies providing sponsorship is unheard of – it’s very exciting and very rewarding.”

2020Oct09 AT