Posted in: Quantum Computing, Thomas J Watson Research Center

Students try hand at cracking quantum code

screen shot of quantum experience

A screenshot of the IBM Quantum Experience

This week I had the opportunity to return to the University of Waterloo, where I had been a visiting scholar while I was a PhD student at MIT, to participate in the Undergraduate School on Experimental Quantum Information Processing program (USEQIP), a unique two-week workshop at the university’s Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC). The program introduces undergraduate students from all over the world, most of them in their third year of study, to the theoretical and experimental world of quantum information processing — and this year, to IBM’s Quantum Experience tool.

When we finally shared our 5-qubit quantum computing processor to the world last month it was an exciting moment for me because educating the public, and especially young students, about quantum is so important for growing the field. We want to rally more enthusiasm for quantum computing, and what better way than to open up and give universal access to a system – via the cloud – for people to experiment with five real qubits? It gives students like those at USEQIP, or any quantum enthusiast, the opportunity to visually understand what they’re learning about.

We’re also giving those in the academic and scientific field a chance to test the boundaries of what a quantum computer can do; to come up with algorithms we haven’t thought about.

Quantum homework

Sarah interacts with students

IBM Research’s Sarah Sheldon interacts with students in the USEQIP program

When I met with the USEQIP group, they had already experimented some with the IBM Quantum Experience demos and tutorials, and had come prepared with homework – an experiment of their own they’d like to run on the system. They had to think of how to convert the algorithms they wanted to run into something that would work with the gates (the building blocks of quantum circuits) provided in the IBM Quantum Experience. Some had already tested out sequences on the simulator, and then had to rewrite them to accommodate the physical device connectivity. Students who were testing out error correction protocols found, for example, that they had to make such long sequences that they actually introduced more error through decoherence and imperfect gates than they could correct, so they started to think about how they could write their protocols into shorter sequences.

It was a perfect jumping-off point for them to think about what else they could do with the device, how they could add in errors to look at the outcome, and how they could modify the algorithms they had learned about to test something interesting.

“Learning quantum mechanics in the classroom…there are these strong abstract ideas that can throw us students off, but to see physical data come from your computer and to see the pictures of the qubits running your code is a whole different learning experience.

Michael Wolfe, University of Maryland

Michael Wolfe, University of Maryland, a student of USEQIP 2016

“It brings students to the hands-on practical environment which is so rare in the quantum mechanical world. It’s important for us to have the opportunity to have access to quantum mechanical platforms where we can see complicated mathematics work out in the physical world,” said Michael Wolfe, a mathematics and physics major at the University of Maryland.

When students found that long error correction codes produced fidelities less than they had expected, that gave them an opportunity to think about where the errors were coming from, and then try to modify their algorithms, or test out pieces of it, to see what was working. One group noticed, for example, that there was more noise on one qubit in particular and started measuring coherence times to see which qubits were the “best.”

I loved how eager the students were to try out their ideas. Even before the session started they were working on designing sequences during their lunch break. They quickly started to “debug” their experiments on the device itself, which is the same way we work in the lab.

Emily Tyhurst, University of British Columbia

Emily Tyhurst, University of British Columbia, a student of USEQIP 2016

“We looked at a famous algorithm like Shor’s, that breaks modern cryptography, and a key piece of this is applicable to a huge number of other problems. I am working in fluid mechanics this summer and that piece could be useful to speeding up estimations of things like the weather, and differential equations … it makes me very excited about what quantum computing can do for all areas of science,” said Emily Tyhurst, a mathematics and physics major at the University of British Columbia.

I look forward to seeing these students and many others push the boundaries of what a 5-qubit system can do. But most importantly, I want the Quantum Experience to solidify their understanding of the concepts they’re being taught in the classroom, and apply them to an actual working system that will introduce them to a new world of quantum information, intuition and ideas. I think these students in particular recognized the significance of putting a quantum computer into the hands of anyone, especially this generation.

“IBM’s 5-qubits can’t outperform a classical computer, but it tells the world ‘hey, we have this working and we’re moving toward a fault tolerant computer.’ That’s something for people my age and younger to grab on to this fun race towards a quantum computer because it’s going to be happening within our generation,” Wolfe said. Watch Wolfe discuss his experience with the IBM Quantum Experience.


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Sarah Sheldon

Sarah Sheldon

Experimental Quantum Computing Scientist, IBM Research