Foreword Professor Sa’ad Sam Medhat
The quantum transition: Preparing for a quantum-ready workforce
How big is the quantum workforce today? Do enough academic institutions offer quantum related undergraduate programmes? Are the jobs there to meet students’ expectations in the field of quantum computing? All these questions and many more were discussed during my recent visit to MIT’s Future Compute gathering last December.
uantum computing is seen as the next wave of innovation in computer technology that promises to offer faster and more powerful computers able to respond to the exponentially exploding challenges presented by the expansion of technologies such as artificial intelligence, Internet of Things platforms and consumer-facing devices, and the growing need to manage complex algorithms and data rapidly and efficiently.
Quantum computing is seen as the next wave of innovation in computer technology that promises to offer more powerful and faster computers able to respond to the exponentially exploding challenges presented by the expansion of technologies such as artificial intelligence, Internet of Things platforms and consumer-facing devices, and the growing need to manage complex algorithms and data rapidly and efficiently.
On 3 March, Honeywell, a company known for control systems for planes, homes and businesses, announced it had built a quantum computer. Honeywell used trapped ions – charged particles held in place by exact electromagnetic fields – to produce the qubits, whereas Google and IBM use superconducting qubits, which are based on supercooled electrical circuits. No one can deny this race is getting hotter than ever!
Current advances in nanotechnology have helped to bring quantum computing closer to mainstream applications. Quantum computing is an entirely new way of thinking about computation. It is a hardware-based technology that uses qubits (quantum bit) as its basic building block representing a unit of information.
Unlike conventional computing that uses the binary representations of 0 or 1 as the state value, quantum computing’s qubits exhibit three state values a 0, 1, and 0 or 1 simultaneously, thereby enabling very complex computational operations to be carried out in these three state values more quickly than would otherwise be possible. An example that underlines the unbelievable speed of quantum is if the very same super complex computation was to be done on a conventional computer, it would take millions of years to calculate.
According to Professor Will Oliver, the principal investigator in the Engineering Quantum Systems Group at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, there are fewer than 1000 people who are primarily operating in quantum computing companies worldwide, and many more are needed to drive expansion in quantum computing applications. But is that expansion actually happening soon? Can real business demand from quantum applications substantiate this aspired growth in quantum engineers and scientists?
"The scarcity of talent in the quantum field remains the biggest challenge for growing this technology space."
In addition to recent announcements by the likes of Google claiming landmark quantum supremacy, according to a report in the journal Nature, other indicators that predict a scale-up in the rate of business in quantum computing are the number of quantum computing start-ups and university spinouts created over the past five years, and the level of funding they are attracting from venture capitalists such as DCVC and Prelude, in addition to government grants.
James Hardiman, partner at DCVC said: “Small companies like D-Wave Systems, a Canadian founded quantum computing company, are already delivering practical quantum computing commercial applications globally. However, the scarcity of talent in the quantum field remains to be the biggest challenge for growing this technology space.”
Companies play the waiting game
I have observed the many technology intensive companies that my organisation, the IKE Institute, interacts with and it would seem they are playing the 'let’s wait and see what happens' game when it comes to quantum computing. Perhaps, they are waiting for the ‘slope of enlightenment’ in the Gartner Hype Cycle to demonstrate and crystalise commercial opportunities.
Whilst the likes of IBM, Google, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard and Alibaba continue to generate more defined quantum computing capabilities, others from the more established firms in the semiconductor industry are also enhancing their manufacturing capabilities and evolving their processes, materials and sensors they use to increase scalability and computational power, whilst reducing energy requirements and production costs. Such dynamics between these camps will define how fast progress can be made.
"There will be an undoubted expansion of quantum computing applications within this decade, which will drive an increased demand for quantum engineers, scientists and technologists."
Intel senior vice-president Jim Keller said: “Humans psychologically think that, technologically, the end is near for a constant value of the now”. This is an interesting observation that characterises the assumption that companies are unable to see the next round of innovations, and as such, only see the end is near.
The collective feeling at the MIT meeting was there will be an undoubted expansion of quantum computing applications within this decade, which in turn will drive an increased demand for quantum engineers, scientists and technologists.
One of the questions that still needs to be figured out to ensure the talent pool is out there for the industry to pick from is: What makes someone quantum ready?
Creating a quantum ready workforce
Currently, the proposition of what the quantum discipline should look like is still being formed. At the postgraduate and research degrees level, studying quantum will continue to draw upon the principles of established disciplines such as electronic engineering, computer science, physics and mathematics. However, a number of institutions have started to integrate the concepts of quantum mechanics and applications into their postgraduate courses, and to a lesser extent, into their undergraduate curriculums.
But at an organisational level, should universities consider building capabilities in quantum, perhaps even starting quantum departments? The response to this question remains undetermined.
Blake Johnson, the lead of IBM’s quantum systems team, offered an insight into the sort of skillsets a company like IBM would look for when recruiting people to a quantum computing function. “Quantum is a sufficiently complex problem that no one narrow discipline can tackle the whole problem,” he said.
"Removing the esoteric feel associated with the perceived mystery of quantum mechanics is absolutely essential in attracting more people into the quantum field."
Today, people with classical material science, electronic circuit design, power, signal processing and software development backgrounds are being recruited into the quantum field and subsequently transitioned through specialist upskilling.
Companies at the cutting edge of the quantum technology field have started to offer textbooks and have opened access to their quantum computing platforms, made their quantum programming languages and methodologies available to researchers and developers, and even highlighted some of the problems that they have already encountered or are currently experiencing.
“Removing the esoteric feel associated with the perceived mystery of quantum mechanics - for example, superposition entanglement - and developing an intuition on the basis of how quantum qubits behave is absolutely essential in attracting more people into the quantum field,” Johnson added.
Professor Oliver also highlighted the fact that this field uses a lot of jargon, and with the aid of more professional development programmes, online courses and textbooks, the language will become more familiar.
There was a general consensus that quantum computing, like many other engineering and technology fields, still struggles to attract a wider diversity participation. However, when it comes to quantum, the unintentional diversity bias appears to be less hard-coded.
Harnessing the disruptive potential of quantum computing
My conclusion from the meeting is that of great optimism. Whether or not we will have a useful general-purpose quantum computer within this decade, new quantum-related talent clusters have started to emerge and are becoming more pronounced to attract some of the best scientists, engineers and mathematicians from around the world.
And, equally importantly, the wave-intensity behind rewiring the disciplines required by quantum, where the rule of discipline aggregation applies, is creating a new generation of people with new composite skillsets that will disrupt the educational space, and consequently, reshape the industrial landscape as we know it today and thus, undoubtedly, yield valuable progress.
"This exponential evolution of technology will require an equally matched evolution in the social and ethical responsibilities and policies."
One thing that the MIT meeting has solidified in my mind is the magnitude of technological disruption that is coming down the pipe, ranging from deep learning to neuromorphic and quantum computing. We can expect the rate of momentum in these technologies to speed up dramatically over the next few decades. As a result of these technologies being introduced into more mainstream applications, we’ll see mega disruptions across all sectors of business and industry, as companies jockey and vie for new market dominance to gain value realisation from their innovations.
This exponential evolution of technology will require an equally matched evolution in the social and ethical responsibilities and policies. Governments and public bodies will need to change the way in which they operate, to take advantage of quantum and associated AI technologies, but the rewards of faster service turnarounds for citizens, be those services in health, housing, transport or policing, will guarantee the uptake of these technologies.
In the future, instead of quantum being that esoteric science only for the elite, it may well become the technological foundation on which society is run on and can benefit from, both economically and socially, and which has the potential to underpin - at a world level - mankind’s ability to develop, grow and succeed.
Image: Cryo-CMOS Technology. Courtesy of The University of Sydney, Louise M. Cooper