From federally backed research to startups, the University of Maryland College Park is looking to build a center for quantum computing, and beyond. Here’s what it will take to develop.
Published 12/23/20 on Technical.ly Baltimore
Advances in technology that shape the future come in different forms. Some help us realize possibilities of systems that already exist. Others allow us to reframe what’s possible.
Take computing, for instance. Advances in transistors over time have produced more powerful processors that can fit into ever smaller and more affordable packages. This has made it possible to do computing tasks more efficiently and conveniently, but in the end these improvements apply the same principles of classical computing that were used when there were room-sized mainframes.
But as the science behind quantum mechanics has advanced to the point where it could be applied to technology, it is bringing computing of a different kind. It goes down to the level of bits: Instead of the 1s and 0s being used to solve problems that power the computer on which you’re using to read this story, quantum computing use qubits. They’re tiny (like, subatomic) particles which due to quantum phenomena can be hold a zero, a one or a portion of both at the same time. This allows for many calculations to be performed simultaneously.
That suggests a more powerful computer. But for those who are seeking to harness this technology and see promise in it, the point is not just that it can do more than a classical computer.
“It opens up things which are fundamentally different,” said Dr. Ronald Walsworth, the director of University of Maryland College Park’s Quantum Technology Center. “It’s not just that we do more of the same old stuff more efficiently. Now we can do things we couldn’t have done at all before.”
Computing is one several areas where that prospect of new approaches is bringing interest in preparing for quantum technology in areas like pharmaceuticals and drug discovery, national security, finance and manufacturing. It’s an area of technology where UMD is looking to build on longtime scientific strength, and spur entrepreneurship.
It starts with proximity to the federal government. As the biggest research university that’s closest to the U.S. government’s base in D.C., the university has longtime collaborations with nearby federal labs such as the Gaithersburg-headquartered National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). That’s where concentrated work on quantum physics brought advances in cool matter at very low temperatures. Bill Phillips, a faculty member at the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) created by UMD, NIST and the National Security Agency’s Laboratory for Physical Sciences, won a Nobel prize in 1997 for cooling and trapping atoms with laser light.
Now, with over 200 researchers contributing to basic science and a startup presence, UMD sees a moment to plant a flag around this technology. Last year, it launched the Quantum Technology Center with an aim to attract faculty that specialize in the area, as well as help to galvanize commercialization. And it is continuing to team with federal partners, such as the Army Research Lab. Walsworth, who has prior involvement in startups out of his own lab, sees particular strengths for the university now not just in computing, but also sensing and imaging, as well as quantum communications, which provide distributed networks and could have additional security.
With plans for a new building and funding, it’s a center from which the university can help spur new companies that are building products in these areas. UMD will also be looking to provide resources around early validation, access to equipment and navigating regulations.
“Quantum can be for us what silicon was for San Jose,” said Julie Lenzer, the university’s chief innovation officer. “It’s that big of a platform technology.”
Already, some of the most attention for quantum technology out of College Park these days is coming from a startup. IonQ, which was founded in 2015 by a team that includes JQI faculty member Chris Monroe, is building hardware and software that leverages a particular type of the technology called trapped ion quantum computing. The company turned heads in October when it unveiled a hardware system that it says surpassed capabilities of IBM and Google.
“There has been tremendous innovation and advancement in the field of quantum computing in recent years. Quantum is no longer relegated to academia and we are already seeing real-world applications only possible through quantum, such as advances in machine learning,” said IonQ CEO Peter Chapman.
The company has raised $84 million from investors. In October, it opened a new, 23,000-square-foot data center in College Park, marking expansion with space for up to 175 employees.
Showing UMD’s involvement goes beyond a tech transfer deal, the university invested $5.5 million in the center, and it is located in a campus-adjacent area designed to bring companies, entrepreneurs and university community members together called the Discovery District. Having already added to the team — including former execs from IBM and Google — IonQ is looking to continue to bring talent in to the area as it scales.
Even as new companies form and interest grows, it’s still in the early days for quantum technology. To stick with the example we’ve used in this piece, computing is still under development. Maintaining a stable environment required for the qubits remains a challenge, as does improving error rate. Bringing big technological changes is hard, and there’s a chance it might never develop to the point where it has societal impact.
But if you’re already picturing what a future with quantum computers could look like, don’t think about replacing this laptop. We’ll likely still continue to have the kinds of computers we have now. Rather, quantum computers will be more likely to be tapped by large organizations who need their power for complex tasks.
There’s a matter of scale, as well. Walsworth points out that before quantum computers could solve the kinds of complex problems we humans pose that they are ideally suited for, they’d likely need to reach 1,000 qubits. Last year, Google made headlines with just over 50. IBM says it’s working on 1,000 by 2023.
For now, quantum computers are also large. Walsworth said they’re likely to be networked together, then accessed via the cloud. In that sense, it’s a reminder of the early days with classical computers, before integrated circuits allowed room-sized machines to take up a little spot on a desk. One future challenge might be figuring out a microchip-equivalent.
But first they’ll need the equivalent of an ENIAC moment. One point that might help us determine when quantum they’ve arrived is when they’ll be the best option to solve problems. IonQ applies a term for this called “broad quantum advantage,” which Chapman defines as “when an engineer naturally decides that a quantum computer is better suited for their task over a classical computer.” The company’s target date for this? 2025.