Industry and academia connect for quantum computing

Science, Engineering

- Anne Tolson


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. The changes it promised seemed like science fiction then.

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.

The first IEEE International Conference on Quantum Computing and Engineering took place in October with 850 industry leaders, researchers, educators and enthusiasts from around the globe.

Two dozen participants from UVic’s Faculties of Engineering and Science attended the online event, with several playing 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 supercomputers. Quantum computers can potentially make an enormous leap in our power, speed and efficiency so we can address these problems.
Hausi Müller, UVic professor of computer science

What is quantum computing?

Qubit: a basic unit of quantum information. Credit: Adobe Stock/Jackie Niam

The leap Müller describes can be boiled down to the difference between a bit and qubit. Conventional computers work in bits of 1’s and 0’s. Quantum computers use qubits, which can be 1 or 0 or any combination. They also connect to each other through a uniquely quantum process known as entanglement.  The difficulty is that they are fragile and difficult to keep intact. Quantum computers make faster and more powerful calculations by exploring many possible answers to a question simultaneously.

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.

BC has two world-leading quantum computing companies, D-Wave Systems and 1Qbit, which have both obtained significant venture capital funding. BC’s government announced in 2019 that it will provide $17 million over five years to establish the new Quantum Algorithms Institute at SFU 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 include post-secondary institutes like UVic and industry partners.

The role of universities

Quantum Week 2020 helped that connection, 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.
Hausi Müller, UVic professor of computer science

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, big 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 D-Wave, IBM or others to write 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.”

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

Quantum activities at UVic

In addition to Müller’s work bringing together the Quantum Week conference, UVic researchers and students are involved in many other quantum computing initiatives, including:

  • Several UVic researchers have been awarded grants that focus on quantum computing and often involve collaboration with industry partners. Rogério de Sousa (physics), is working with D-Wave Systems, a Burnaby company that built the first commercially available quantum computer.
  • 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. Students 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 for UVic students, 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.


In this story

Keywords: computing, research, industry partnerships, administrative, ECS expansion

People: Hausi Müller

Publication: The Ring

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