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Dr. Raymond Laflamme

Master of the quantum d​ance

Raymond Laflamme choreographs the world’s most complicated dance: a pirouette of atoms. Using radio-wave pulses, he flips the nuclei of hydrogen and carbon-13 atoms inside a nuclear magnetic resonance machine, causing the nuclei to reverse their positive and negative poles.

Photo of Dr. Raymond Laflamme with students in a lab

The fascination of this dance lies in its ability to represent the values of zero/one (off/on), like the switches in conventional computers. But there’s a difference. A binary circuit is open or closed; a bit, the smallest data unit, has a value of zero or one. But an atom’s positive pole can be up, down, or both; a quantum bit (qubit) can have both values at once.

Laflamme, director of the Institute for Quantum Computing, is a Waterloo physics professor and holds the Canada Research Chair in Quantum Information. As a scientist, he is celebrated worldwide. In the 1990s, he and his colleagues formulated error-correction algorithms that showed quantum computing could actually work. In 2005, working with students and colleagues at Waterloo and MIT, he controlled a 12-qubit quantum information processor, currently the world’s largest.

His goal: to build large, robust quantum devices.

But we still need to better control what we have,” Laflamme says. “The first step is to understand quantum properties; the second, to learn to control them; the third is to use them for something interesting.”

Why the buzz about quantum computing? The mind-boggling ability to be in several states at once (called superposition) generates exponentially amplified computing power. A 50-qubit quantum computer would out-perform today’s supercomputers.

Quantum technologies could bring unbreakable data security, new materials, and more effective drugs, among other innovations. Ultimately, Laflamme says, “and the reason I started to do quantum computing,” it could provide enough computational power to open a window on the birth of the universe.