December 2018

Featured Article

Kenneth Brown

Jungsang Kim

Quantum Engineering: 
The Critical Role of ECE Departments in the Future of Quantum Computation

Kenneth R. Brown and Jungsang Kim, 

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Duke University

The theory of quantum mechanics was developed in the early 20th century to understand the physical phenomena in the sub-atomic world made accessible through advances in technology. These phenomena could not be explained within the framework of classical mechanics. To date, it remains one of the most accurate scientific frameworks that provide both descriptions and predictions of the physical world at all scales. The counter-intuitive nature of matter at microscopic scales make understanding of complex materials and molecules extremely difficult, yet provides opportunities for utilizing them to our advantage, such as in computing, communications, or sensing. Many of these principles have been demonstrated in the lab over the past couple of decades, but the opportunity for building practically useful devices and systems based on these novel principles remain widely open. The challenges arising from the efforts in developing useful devices define the opportunities for the engineering research in academic environments.

Quantum computation uses the principles of quantum mechanics to perform logic operations that are inaccessible to classical computers. These operations map specific computational states to a superposition of computational states which can constructively and destructively interfere like waves.  Quantum algorithms manipulate these interference patterns to perform computational tasks algorithmically faster than standard computers. It is expected that quantum computers will provide an exponential advantage for a broad range of scientific computing tasks and an important class of cryptographic problems.

To date, no quantum computer has yielded a computational advantage over a classical computer due to the limited reliability of current devices.  The current interest in quantum information is driven by rapid theoretical and experimental advances.  The key theoretical advance is a result from quantum error correction that arbitrarily accurate quantum computers can be constructed from devices whose individual components fail 1% of the time.  The experimental advance is the demonstration of components that fail less than 1% of the time using trapped ion qubits and superconducting qubits.  There are tremendous opportunities for developing new algorithms and computational methodologies utilizing these novel computing machines. This has resulted in a growing industrial effort, many of which either grew or are conducted out of early research efforts at university environments, at both large tech companies including IBM, Google (transitioned from a UC Santa Barbara effort), Microsoft (parts of it carried out in universities, such as U. Copenhagen, U. Sydney and Purdue), and Intel (in close collaboration with TU Delft), as well as a number of start-up companies such as IonQ (spin-off from Duke and U. Maryland).

At present, there is an incredible amount of momentum in quantum information and no fundamental roadblocks for generating more complex systems.  This transition from traditional quantum information demonstrations that are physics experiments to functional, reliable, and complex computational systems squarely falls in the realm of engineering, albeit with solid foundations in quantum sciences.  ECE will play a critical role in developing the hardware and systems necessary for this new computational paradigm.

Quantum computers are not expected to completely replace standard computers: rather, the construction of a functional quantum computers will leverage cutting-edge digital electronics, analog circuits techniques, photonics technology and advanced materials research.  As a result, ECE departments will need to maintain current strengths in systems and digital processing. Quantum computing provides a new opportunity for applying ECE strengths in engineering physics, information theory, and systems engineering to a new domain.  This application will require domain experts in quantum information to work closely with engineers in traditional disciplines.

Besides quantum computation, a broader scope of quantum sciences and information processing also creates opportunities and challenges for sensing and communication.   Quantum sensors have already allowed for the development of new sensors for localized information in biological systems using qubits in diamonds and the construction of increasingly accurate atomic clocks using quantum logic gates.  They promise unprecedented levels of accuracy in positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) applications, supplementing the global positioning system (GPS) widely adopted for both military and commercial applications today. Quantum sensing is an active area of research and integration into deployable systems remains an engineering challenge.  Quantum communication allows for physically secure communication. Quantum key distribution, which has proven to be secure against any possible eavesdropping attacks utilizing basic principles of quantum mechanics, have progressed to a level where commercial devices are available for fiber-optical quantum networks, and secure channels are established between satellites and earth. These methods, although secure, have a limited bandwidth and requires new communication infrastructure. In the presence of security threat from quantum computers, continued development of post-quantum methods for securing classical information transfer is of utmost importance today.

It is challenging to predict the future, but the potential impact of quantum computers on security and scientific computing suggests that a new industry based on quantum information processing may emerge in the near future.  ECE departments that begin to develop expertise in quantum information will have a huge advantage to lead this potential trend as the quantum computing industry grows. The skills of quantum information engineers can be applied to a wider array of problems including sensing, signal processing, and computer architecture. A department with 3 or more faculty in the area of quantum information could make a significant contribution to the nascent field of quantum engineering.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has recently released a report on the topic, Quantum Computing: Progress and Prospects.  The report lays out the growth of the field globally and the importance of preparing for large scale quantum computers even though they might be more than a decade away. The report also points to many areas where tools from ECE could be of value including the engineering of higher quality qubits, the development of software stacks for controlling quantum systems, and the construction of quantum sensors.  Key Finding 7 of the report states   “Although the feasibility of a large-scale quantum computer is not yet certain, the benefits of the effort to develop a  practical QC are likely to be large, and they may continue to spill over to other nearer-term applications of quantum information technology, such as qubit-based sensing.” We believe that ECE departments will be critical for making these nearer-term applications robust and deployable. 

Quantum information has historically been funded by the Defense and Intelligence communities. More recently both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE) have increased their funding of projects in quantum information.  This summer the House of Representatives passed the National Quantum Initiative Act, which calls for substantially increased federal spending on quantum computing.  At this moment, it appears that the Senate will pass a similar bill and we can expect an increase of projects sponsored by the NSF, the DOE and the National Institute of Standards Technology (NIST) in the coming years.

ECE departments that start an effort in quantum information can benefit from the convergence of three trends:  academic physics research continually improving the reliability of quantum components, industrial quantum computing efforts facing a shortage of engineers with domain knowledge in quantum information, and an increase in federal funding in the area of quantum information.

Jungsang Kim served as a member of the committee that authored the National Academies report, Quantum Computing: Progress and Prospects, and Kenneth R. Brown served as a reviewer of the report.


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