Dartmouth Event Leaps Into Quantum Computing

  • At a programming and pizza event at Dartmouth College, Scott Gordon, left, with his son Kyle Gordon, of Woodstock, Vt., talk about coding during a crowd-learning initiative led by the Dartmouth Library and Research Computing department on Jan. 22, 2019 in Hanover, N.H. Graduate students Billy Braasch, right, and Kanav Setia, center, listen to IBM software engineer Richard Chen sitting between them during the session. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • At a programming and pizza event, Donny Greenberg, left and Jennifer Glick, who are both quantum computing applications researchers at IBM, answer questions for the crowd-learning initiative on Jan. 22, 2019 in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • At a programming and pizza event at Dartmouth Jing Qi Mayer, left, works with her nephew Ziqi Cheng during a crowd-learning initiative led by the Dartmouth Library and Research Computing department on Jan. 22, 2019 in Hanover, N.H. Cheng was visiting his aunt. He is a sophomore in college in China. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dartmouth Assistant Professor of Physics James Whitfield glances at his phone before announcing the names of the IBM researchers who would be helping with the programming and pizza event at Dartmouth College on Jan. 22, 2019 in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 1/25/2019 10:42:05 PM

Hanover — There were fewer open seats than remaining slices at Programming N’ Pizza night, as more than 40 people huddled around laptops that projected computer code onto the walls of Dartmouth College’s Baker-Berry Library, offering a view of the next big thing in big computing.

Representatives from IBM were on hand to guide students through the tech company’s Qiskit quantum computer portal. For some, the session on Tuesday evening was their first exposure to quantum computing, a technology with the potential to process massive amounts of data, while others already were working at the graduate level.

Physics professor Lorenza Viola taught her first course on quantum computing at Dartmouth back in 2005, and until recently, her instruction was limited to theory. But with tools such as IBM’s Qiskit becoming freely accessible online, anyone with an internet connection can play around with a quantum computer. Viola said that’s really helped build interest in the field.

“For educational purposes, we have a real playground for quantum computing,” she said.

Dartmouth held a series of lectures and programming sessions on Tuesday focused on the topic. The event was designed to bring together interested parties, raise awareness and show that the college is a serious player in the still-developing field.

“We have to help create the quantum workforce for tomorrow,” Viola said.

Viola’s research focuses on the “noise,” or errors, that limit today’s quantum computers. While quantum computers show great promise in modeling complex systems, such as molecular behavior or financial markets, they’re not yet ready to handle those tasks.

With companies such as IBM, Google and Microsoft making “substantial investments” in building small-scale quantum devices, Viola is hopeful that day will come.

When it does, she said, the technology “can start giving us something that standard computers can’t.”

Heads and Tails

To understand quantum computing, it can help to flip a coin.

If you’re flipping a standard coin, that coin is going to land on either heads or tails. It’s sort of like a classical computer “bit,” the basic unit of computer information, though bits are typically represented by 1s and 0s instead of heads or tails.

Flip a handful of coins, and out of many possible outcomes, you’ll get one combination of heads or tails (or bits in the 1 or 0 position).

Now flip a quantum coin. Because quantum theory helps explain the strange physics of the subatomic world, this imaginary quantum coin isn’t going to act as we might expect. Instead of coming up heads or tails, a quantum coin can have properties of both states in what’s called a superposition.

Flip a handful of quantum coins, and you don’t just have one combination of heads or tails. You’ve got all possible results. One quantum bit, or qubit, has two outcomes, two qubits have four outcomes, four qubits have 16 outcomes, and so on, the outcomes growing exponentially, which is a big part of the power of quantum computing.

Promise and Caution

Kanav Setia is a graduate student studying how to model complex molecules, which present way too many variables for even the biggest classical computers to handle. He completed an internship with IBM’s quantum team last summer, and this spring he’ll be going back for more.

In discussing the promise of quantum computing, Setia noted how the ammonia used in fertilizer requires a tremendous amount of energy to produce — about 2 percent of the world’s energy output, according to an article in Science magazine. However, some bacteria can use an enzyme to make ammonia with a much lower energy cost.

“The problem is, we don’t understand how that molecule works,” Setia said.

Someday, quantum computing might be able to help synthesize that enzyme, but Setia cautioned that that isn’t happening yet. He shakes his head at the articles and Google searches he’s seen that suggest quantum computing is cracking secure encryption or revolutionizing health care.

“We’re working toward it. It holds lots of promise,” he said before suggesting a reality check.

Phones are marvelous devices, but the groundwork for their development was laid back in 1960s with transistors and miniaturization, Setia pointed out. It took a long time to put a hand-held computer into your pocket.

Setia isn’t sure what tasks quantum computers will really be able to do, or when they’ll be able to do them.

“The bottom line is we’re very excited about it,” he said.

At Dartmouth, Setia studies under physics professor James Daniel Whitfield who, along with Viola, co-organized Dartmouth’s quantum computing day. Whitfield said Dartmouth has a lot of momentum in the quantum field, with graduate students tackling research projects and alumni out at IBM, Google, and startup companies working in quantum computing.

“It’s still early times, but this is a great place to get trained,” Whitfield said.

“When the names come up (in quantum computing), we’re on the list, too,” he added.

Last year, Whitfield participated in a White House summit that reported on the need for the United States to maintain a “quantum-smart workforce.” While Whitfield chafes a bit at the buzzword, he agrees that companies are looking for people with quantum training.

“All in all, there are a lot of jobs and not enough (people) to fill them,” he said.

Back at pizza night, physics grad student Billy Braasch was watching while an IBM representative walked the group through how to code a simulation of quantum circuits. According to IBM, 105,000 users have run more than 7 million experiments on their public quantum computers.

When Braasch started grad school, he said, he thought of quantum computing as more theoretical.

“But, wow, this is really happening right now,” he said.

At another work station, Kyle Gordon, a senior at Woodstock High School, begins to explain what brought him out that night: “I was drawn here by ...”

“... Pizza!” interjected his father, Scott Gordon.

Rolling his eyes at his dad’s joke, Kyle Gordon went on to explain that he’d looked into quantum computing a bit on his own and wanted to learn more about it. He’d found the programming aspect challenging to understand, but he still liked it.

“It’s very exciting,” he said.

Gordon plans to take a gap year following high school, but after that he’s hoping to study computers in college. His current interest is cybersecurity, which down the road could very well involve quantum computing.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Gordon said with wonder at all the advancements he sees happening in medicine, space exploration and, of course, computers. “It’s definitely an interesting time to be alive.”

Matt Golec can be reached at mattgolec@gmail.com.




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