Software for the quantum age

Monday, March 4, 2019

Interior shot of inside the Institute for Quantum Computing

Imagine if we could remove pollution from the atmosphere, not worry about the security of our private information, or design drugs targeted for more effective treatment against disease. Poised to revolutionize society, quantum technologies may help us overcome these real-world problems and other research challenges — and PhD candidate Kristine Boone is helping to pave the way.

When computers were first introduced as large, bulky machines capable of performing a few simple tasks like numerical calculations, it was hard to imagine their evolution into the kind of smartphones we carry around in our pockets today.

Kristine Boone headshot“This is where we’re at with quantum computers,” says Kristine Boone, a PhD student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo. “The traditional computer has completely changed our society and culture, but it wasn’t overnight.”

After almost two decades of research, the first quantum computers are emerging from research labs around the world. Their unprecedented processing power is anticipated to impact areas such as healthcare, transportation, communication and digital privacy.

Inspired by these possibilities, Boone has set her sights on correcting the Achilles’ heel of quantum computing — errors.

Achilles’ heel of quantum computing

Quantum computers can help us solve problems, such as modelling complex chemical processes, which are intractable for existing computers. A traditional computer uses long strings of bits, encoding information as 0s and 1s. But quantum computers take a different approach. They use quantum bits—qubits—that, thanks to quantum mechanics, can be both a 0 and a 1 at the same time.

Known as superposition, this ability to be in two states at once offers powerful computing potential and gives quantum computers an edge in performing some types of calculations more quickly. But here’s the catch: qubits are fragile. Any imperfection in the system can cause errors that affect the outcome of a quantum computation.

Recognizing the immediate need for software capable of measuring, mitigating and correcting quantum errors, Boone’s supervisor, Institute for Quantum Computing faculty member Joseph Emerson, along with research assistant professor Joel Wallman, co-founded Quantum Benchmark. Their mission: to enable quantum computers to solve real-world problems.

Boone joined the company as a researcher last year. She specializes in randomized benchmarking, a series of protocols designed to ensure that quantum operations are in fact actually quantum.

Applying her research to real-world cases at Quantum Benchmark, Boone designs algorithms to test the quality of quantum operations. She works with experimentalists to diagnose errors and develop customized software solutions for quantum computing hardware, bridging her theoretical perspective with the experimental implementation of a quantum computing system in a lab. In addition to measuring the amount of errors, Quantum Benchmark’s software also mitigates and corrects the errors to optimize the performance of the quantum computing hardware.

“If quantum computing is the gold rush, we are making the picks and shovels,” says Emerson, a professor in applied mathematics. “The power and potential of quantum technology is there, the tools to harness it are evolving.”

The Waterloo ecosystem — designed to be different

Quantum Benchmark is one of more than 13 startups that have spun out of quantum research at the Institute for Quantum Computing, a number that continues to grow. Waterloo has a unique concentration of quantum researchers, from theorists to experimentalists, embedded in an entrepreneurial ecosystem. It’s a game-changing mix that is moving research from the whiteboard to the lab to the marketplace.

For Boone, the unique opportunity to turn her theoretical research into a practical application has launched her career in an unexpected direction. Being part of a quantum startup, or even becoming a physicist, was not on her radar. Growing up, Boone believed she was bad at math. Without showing her work, she arrived too quickly at answers and as a result, her test marks were low. Excelling in a math competition at age 16 proved otherwise. It was then she discovered a love for the intuitiveness of mathematics and with it a passion for physics.

It wasn’t always easy for Boone to stay motivated, though. While an undergraduate student at a university in Western Canada, she was challenged by a professor who thought she was in the wrong class, simply because she was a woman.

“I’m not surprised that there are very few women in physics,” she says. “I think it has a lot to do with culture. In high school, girls are less likely to be pushed into physics and math. If they were encouraged from a young age, there would be more diversity in the field today.”

Diversity brings different perspectives and in science, that can be crucial for gathering insight and making discoveries. When Boone arrived at Waterloo for her graduate studies, she found support and camaraderie within IQC that continues to propel her research. As one of the few physicists in her research group, Boone acknowledges the key role collaboration plays in the interdisciplinary study of quantum information and science technology research.

“If I run into a problem, there’s always someone else — like an engineer or a mathematician — nearby to talk to,” she says. “The Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum Nano-Centre building was designed for people to collaborate, so you’re always meeting other researchers, sharing ideas and ultimately, advancing science.”

Coldest place in the universe

quantum is colder than outer space

Tomorrow’s advantage

While there are many technological hurdles still to overcome, a quantum computer with a genuine performance advantage compared to today’s computers would mark a major turning point in the quantum revolution. The quantum age will have a profound impact across sectors and Boone can only imagine the potential this will bring.

“A universal quantum computer would allow us to drive science so much faster,” said Boone. “It will take the guess work out of simulation and let us start solving some of those really big, impactful problems.”

Once something straight out of the pages of science fiction, the development of a universal quantum computer is not far away, says Boone.

“I really believe it’s a matter of when — not if,” she says, “and that’s pretty incredible.”

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