Friday, September 16, 2022
A fundamental challenge for quantum technology development is resolving decoherence and error. A fundamental challenge facing the quantum ecosystem is the talent shortage. Q-CTRL, a quantum-computing startup tackling hardware error and instability, has been active on both fronts.
Quantum-based computers, simulators, networks, and sensors will solve problems we have yet to imagine and open new avenues for applications. Quantum’s full potential is immense, but unless we find ways to inspire, educate, and empower future quantum engineers, it will go unrealized.
How best to generate and manipulate quantum bits, or qubits? What is superposition? What is entanglement? What is decoherence? What is quantum supremacy? Q-CTRL has developed an education program that it expects will become the de facto resource for newcomers to quantum computing, whether as individuals, in academic courses, or in enterprise settings.
“We certainly agree with the central importance of delivering accessible education to help build the future pipeline of talent,” Michael J. Biercuk, founder and CEO of Q-CTRL, told EE Times Europe.
Developing global awareness
The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) predicts that quantum computing could generate US$450 billion to US$850 billion in value over the next 15 to 30 years. This market trend looks increasingly likely as investment continues to flow into the nascent sector. According to BCG, quantum computing attracted almost twice as much capital in 2020 and 2021 (US$2.15 billion) as it did in the previous decade (US$1.16 billion). And while hardware continues to attract the most money, investment in software jumped nearly 80% in 2020 and 2021 compared with the previous decade.
As quantum technologies prove their potential and the range of applications broadens, governments around the world are realizing the need to support and scale a quantum ecosystem as well as develop a diverse, quantum-literate workforce.
In February 2022, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s National Quantum Coordination Office and the U.S. National Science Foundation unveiled the National Strategic Plan for Quantum Information Science and Technology Workforce Development to grow the domestic quantum workforce through expanded training and education at all levels.
Similarly, the European Commission has launched the Quantum Technologies Flagship, a €1 billion initiative to fund research, education, and international cooperation activities in quantum technologies. More specifically, the EU-funded QTEdu project aims to help the Quantum Flagship create the learning ecosystem needed to inform, educate, and enable a quantum-ready workforce.
Targets must be set not only at the government level but also at the company level.
Forging a quantum community
While it seemed essential to build and develop a community to ensure the sustainability of the quantum industry, Q-CTRL still needed to refine the concept. What were the needs? Whom should the program target? How should it position itself? Which educational niche made the most sense?
“We knew that to sustain growth in our sector, we needed empowered customers and users,” said Biercuk. “Ultimately, we found that many inbound connections were excited about quantum computing but were not knowledgeable enough to determine how it could help them. When we saw this pattern emerge, we looked more broadly at the educational resources available for newcomers to quantum technology and identified a major gap. There was almost nothing between introductory YouTube videos and formal coursework targeted at professionals seeking to enter the quantum field — either as employees or as users. We decided to build something to fill that gap.”
In November 2021, Q-CTRL launched Black Opal, an interactive learning platform that introduces the fundamental physics principles that make quantum computers work and then moves on to quantum circuits, algorithms, and the programming of real quantum computers.
With Black Opal, Q-CTRL aims to lower the barrier to entry and help anyone — from engineers and developers to analysts, consultants, investors, and public servants — go from zero background in quantum physics to programming quantum systems.
Only six months after its launch, the program had 3,000 registered users. “Our users come from all over the world, with large cohorts from the U.K., U.S., Australia, India, New Zealand, and Singapore,” said Biercuk. “We have been overwhelmed with the positive response. We obviously believed that we had an opportunity to offer something well-tailored to the needs of non-experts seeking to learn quantum computing, but it’s been quite amazing to see how impactful the content, animations, visualizations, and interactivity have been for our users.”
In April, the quantum startup launched Black Opal Pro, an expansion of the technical content and functionality of Black Opal.
Biercuk explained that the free tier gives users an introductory taste of the background behind quantum computing. Black Opal Pro builds on that introduction, steering through algorithms and providing insights into what is holding back the field. Users learn to write code for programming real quantum computers. All the material — from hardware basics through to algorithms, applications, and programming — resides in one place.
Educating for impact
Quantum physics is often presented as the pinnacle of science and can be perceived as inaccessible. But this does not make it any less compelling.
“We’re told quantum physics is hard,” noted Biercuk. “Culturally, ‘quantum’ has become synonymous with things that are very difficult to understand. In our view, that was just because no one had tried to teach it in an intuitive way before. We set out to change that with Black Opal, providing everything you need in a simple package in order to learn quantum physics and quantum computing.”
Only by eliminating cultural misconceptions and democratizing education will more people be interested in quantum for their higher education and careers. So why wait to enter university to explore the intricacies of quantum physics? Don’t we say that the earlier people are exposed to technology, the more likely they are to apply the knowledge they have gained in fundamental courses to design systems? While this is true in the main, Q-CTRL works by priority and intervenes where the need is greatest. Hence, the Black Opal program is suitable for anyone above 16 years old.
“We have some high-school–aged retail users, but we are not looking to target even younger learners,” said Biercuk. “We feel there’s a sufficient need at the 16+ level.”
Several universities are using Black Opal in their introductory courses, Biercuk added. “It is not a university course, but it provides materials that can support academics as they try to build intuition and student engagement.”
Bridging the talent gap
The electronics industry is facing a talent shortage, and the field of quantum technology is no exception. Identifying and recruiting qualified engineers — men and women — has become a challenge. Education is key to reversing the skilled-labor shortage and is also a key aspect of workplace-diversity strategies.
Despite all the good intentions, it has become harder to find and recruit women in recent years. A 2020 study from Interference Advisors has shown that female representation in quantum startups has typically been about 10%.
Acknowledging that he is not qualified to comment on market studies, Biercuk outlined some of the actions Q-CTRL has taken to help reverse the trend.
Q-CTRL supports initiatives like the Global Women in Quantum program and the Women-in-Q-CTRL group. Among other initiatives, the startup has embraced a formal flexible-work policy for everyone on the team, providing flexibility in both hours and work location. It has adopted a compensation structure around structured bands in order to minimize differences that can arise during negotiations. And it routinely audits staff salaries and proactively identifies and adjusts any apparent gender-based disparities.
“More than anything, we listen to experts and individuals to learn how we can help,” he said.
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