Quantum computing illustration

Credit: Nicolle R. Fuller/National Science Foundation

A visualization of quantum computing.

In the curious world of quantum mechanics, a single atom or subatomic particle can exist simultaneously in multiple conditions. A new UC-led, multiuniversity institute will explore the realities of this emerging field as it focuses on advancing quantum science and engineering, with an additional goal of training a future workforce to build and use quantum computers.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $25 million over five years to establish the NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute (QLCI) for Present and Future Quantum Computation as part of the federal government’s effort to speed the development of quantum computers. The institute will work to overcome scientific challenges to achieving quantum computing and will design advanced, large-scale quantum computers that employ state-of-the-art scientific algorithms developed by the researchers.

“There is a sense that we are on the precipice of a really big move toward quantum computing,” said Dan Stamper-Kurn, UC Berkeley professor of physics and director of the institute. “We think that the development of the quantum computer will be a real scientific revolution, the defining scientific challenge of the moment, especially if you think about the fact that the computer plays a central role in just about everything society does. If you have a chance to revolutionize what a computer is, then you revolutionize just about everything else.”

Unlike conventional computers, quantum computers seek to harness the mysterious behavior of particles at the subatomic level to boost computing power. Once fully developed, they could be capable of solving large, extremely complex problems far beyond the capacity of today’s most powerful supercomputers. Quantum systems are expected to have a wide variety of applications in many fields, including medicine, national security and science.

Theoretical work has shown that quantum computers are the best way to do some important tasks: factoring large numbers, encrypting or decrypting data, searching databases or finding optimal solutions for problems. Using quantum mechanical principles to process information offers an enormous speedup over the time it takes to solve many computational problems on current digital computers.

“Scientific problems that would take the age of the universe to solve on a standard computer potentially could take only a few minutes on a quantum computer,” said Eric Hudson, a UCLA professor of physics and co-director of the new institute. “We may get the ability to design new pharmaceuticals to fight diseases on a quantum computer, instead of in a laboratory. Learning the structure of molecules and designing effective drugs, each of which has thousands of atoms, are inherently quantum challenges. A quantum computer potentially could calculate the structure of molecules and how molecules react and behave.”

Incubated through a crosscampus, multidisciplinary effort

The project came to fruition, in part, thanks to a UC-wide consortium, the California Institute for Quantum Entanglement, funded by UC’s Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives (MRPI). The MRPI funding opportunity incentivizes just this kind of multicampus collaboration in emerging fields that can position UC as a national leader.

“This new NSF institute is founded on the outstanding research contributions in theoretical and experimental quantum information science achieved by investigators from across the UC system through our initiative to foster multicampus collaborations,” said Theresa Maldonado, Ph.D., vice president for Research and Innovation of the University of California. “The award recognizes the team’s vision of how advances in computational quantum science can reveal new fundamental understanding of phenomena at the tiniest length-scale that can benefit innovations in artificial intelligence, medicine, engineering, and more. We are proud to lead the nation in engaging excellent students from diverse backgrounds into this field of study.”

The QLCI for Present and Future Quantum Computation connects UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC Santa Barbara with five other universities around the nation and in California. The institute will draw on a wealth of knowledge from experimental and theoretical quantum scientists to improve and determine how best to use today’s rudimentary quantum computers, most of them built by private industry or government labs. The goal, ultimately, is to make quantum computers as common as mobile phones, which are, after all, pocket-sized digital computers.

The institute will be multidisciplinary, spanning physics, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, and optical and electrical engineering, among other fields, and will include scientists and engineers with expertise in quantum algorithms, mechanics and chemistry. They will partner with outside institutions, including in the emerging quantum industry, and will host symposia, workshops and other programs. Research challenges will be addressed jointly through a process that incorporates both theory and experiment.

An engine for workforce development

Situated near the heart of today’s computer industry, Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach, and at major California universities and national labs, the institute will train a future workforce akin to the way computer science training at universities fueled Silicon Valley’s rise to become a tech giant. UCLA will pilot a master’s degree program in quantum science and technology to train a quantum-smart workforce, while massive online courses, or MOOCs, will help spread knowledge and understanding of quantum computers even to high school students.

“This center establishes California as a leader nationally and globally in quantum computing,” Stamper-Kurn said.

The institute’s initial members are all senior faculty from UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Southern California, the University of Washington and the University of Texas at Austin.

“We still do not know fully what quantum computers do well,” Stamper-Kurn said, “and we face deep challenges that arise in scaling up quantum devices. The mission of this institute is to address fundamental challenges in the development of the quantum computer.”

More information on NSF-supported research on quantum information science and engineering is available at nsf.gov/quantum.