So, you want to study quantum computing?

So, you want to study quantum computing?

Quantum computers were always a little like fusion reactors – always ten to thirty years away – but, if you have been paying attention, you’ll know that both are creeping closer. But are we ready?

Fusion reactor research is showing promise, but quantum technology is undergoing a revolution, with the rise of quantum computing.  And the field needs bright new minds – how about you?

The University of Western Australia (UWA) launched a few weeks ago Australia’s first undergraduate quantum computing major in response to strong industry demand. Three students are already enrolled.

The four-year Bachelor of Advanced Computer Science (Honours) in Quantum Computing was announced by UWA Vice Chancellor Amit Chakma at Quantum West, an industry event hosted by UWA.

Professor Jingbo Wang, of the Quantum Information, Simulation and Algorithm Research Centre at UWA, describes quantum computing as the ‘second quantum revolution.’

Quantum computer lab with scientist at laptop looking at camera
Professor Jingbo Wang with SpinQ quantum computers. Credit QUISA JBW UWA.

Quantum mechanics gave us the first, and atomic clocks, solar cells and GPS.

“Quantum computing is a pinnacle in science and technology. It’s really a brand-new way of harnessing nature at a much deeper level than ever before,” she says.  

Matthaus Zering, who has just completed a fourth-year course in quantum computing at UWA, sees the field as “an exciting opportunity to contribute to revolutionising our world.”

“All fields of research push the envelope, but rarely is such a distinct opportunity presented – it’s like hopping in a time machine and putting yourself in the 70s working on the development of our current digital world.”

Universities across the globe, including UNSW, UWA, UQ, ANU, and RMIT, research and teach quantum technology in three main categories: computing, sensing and imaging and communication. Potential applications include designing new pharmaceuticals, cracking encrypted data for intelligence applications, and optimising portfolio investments for financial institutions, says Scientia Professor Andrea Morello of Quantum Engineering, at UNSW’s School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications.

CSIRO projects that Australia’s quantum technology could be worth $2.2 billion, and generate 8,700 jobs, by 2030 – now only 6 years away. By 2045, estimates are nearly $6 billion and 19,400 jobs. And, Quantum computing is expected to account for about 60% of that value, despite uncertainty on the delivery dates for the first industry-ready quantum computers, anywhere in the world.

Tellingly, the potential risks associated with quantum computers’ projected capability to eventually break classical computer cryptography, are also driving governments, banks and the military to develop ‘post-quantum cryptography’.

Serious looking scientist with soul patch in quantum computer lab
Professor Andrea Morello in the lab. Credit: UNSW Andrea Morello.

Professors Wang, Morello, Datta and students spoke to Cosmos via video link and email.

What if building the machines is not your thing?

The UWA course is focussed on algorithm development and programming.

Wang, also a course lecturer, says” There is a quantum illiteracy problem, and we need a large workforce in both hardware and software. Lack of skills is a big issue, that’s why education becomes a very urgent call.”

The physical laws of the quantum realm are unusual, most of them counterintuitive, she adds. “Building the next generation’s knowledge and skills are essential to pushing the field forward faster, and developing applications.”

This new course joins UNSW’s popular Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) (Quantum Engineering) in educating Australian undergraduates in quantum technologies. Launched in 2020, the UNSW’s course focusses on all the elements you need to build machines – digital circuit design, electronics, quantum physics, photonics and of course, quantum computing and programming – everything you would expect from a top-level quantum engineering course. 

But what if building the machines is not your thing? UWA provides the niche for those maths, statistics and computer science undergraduates with a programming bent and an eye on this challenging field, wanting to be quantum computer scientists not quantum engineers.

The second quantum revolution could take years or decades … Best be ready.

The course, which promises challenging times, is “less physical, more mathematical, more computational”, says Wang. “And for really high-achieving students,” adds course coordinator, Professor Amitava Datta, of the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at UWA.

Thirty-six points are taken in each of the first three years (i.e. undergraduate) with cyber security and ethics, which features early, speaking to the enormous potential of this technology, particularly when paired with artificial intelligence

A first-year physics unit includes quantum physics and quantum mechanics, with Datta suggesting students would be wise to have this subject well in hand before starting the course.  Second year brings further tangling with quantum physics, including relativity. 

Most of the remaining undergrad units are on computing – algorithms, coding, networks, database management, except for first year linear algebra – very sophisticated maths – and the language of quantum computing, adds Datta. Fourth-year students will attack the honours project, with papers on quantum computing, machine learning, and high-performance computing, rounding out the degree.

Wang says that core quantum computing units will be shared with physics, which have been taught as part of the Physics Major, combined Bachelors and Masters program in Frontier Physics, and the Master of Physics in Quantum Technology and Computing program, with the following textbooks used: 

  • “Explorations in Quantum Computing” by Colin Williams [Springer, 2011]
  • “Physical Implementation of Quantum Walks” by Kia Manouchehri and Jingbo Wang [Springer, 2014]
  • “Quantum Computation and Quantum Information” by Michael Nielsen and Isaac Chuang [Cambridge University Press, 2010]
  • “Computational Quantum Mechanics” by Josh Izaac and Jingbo Wang  [Springer-Nature, 2019]

UWA students, Tosh Afanasiev and Matthaus Zering told Cosmos they had relied on Nielson and Chuang during their recently completed fourth-year quantum computing course.

Addressing the skills gap?

Quantum computer chip and fridge
Quantum chip and fridge. Credit: UNSW Andrea Morello.

UWA’s new course has been described as ‘addressing the industry skills gap.” More complex than it appears, the first iteration of this ‘gap’ originates from demand generated by the quantum computing research and development sector itself – universities and spin-out companies. The second iteration, possibly decades away, depending on how long it takes to produce a useful quantum computer, will originate in the same way from industry – the financial sector, the military, the university research sector and others, says Datta.

Uncertainty around the advent of industry-useful quantum computers is tackled by teaching a hybrid of classical and quantum computing, says Datta. “Providing quantum computing students with a solid grounding in classical computer science, including computer algorithms and computational complexity, is very important”, he adds.

If the promised quantum computing revolution doesn’t arrive as and when predicted, these students could follow alternative paths into traditional computer science, with quantum computing skills ready for use when needed – potentially increasing their attractiveness to employers.

UNSW’s Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) also provides alternative pathways, says 3rd year student, William Papantoniou, “even if I don’t end up going directly into the quantum engineering field, I could go into classical electrical engineering, go work for Ausgrid, he says.” 

Are we ready? “No,” says Professor Jingbo Wang. The second quantum revolution could take years or decades – “we know they are coming,” she adds. Best be ready.

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