Quantum Computing

Quantum Experiences: Q&A with Caltech’s Christine Corbett Moran

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Dr. Christine Corbett Moran travels the world in search of challenging problems to solve. The National Science Foundation’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at the California Institute of Technology earned a PhD in Zurich, taught mobile development and entrepreneurship in Manila, and now calls Antarctica home while conducting experiments on the South Pole Telescope. It’s here where she discovered something else to experiment with – IBM’s Quantum Experience.

Dr. Christine Corbett Moran

Dr. Christine Corbett Moran

The quantum computer on the cloud gives anyone the ability to run algorithms on its five-qubit processor. You just need an internet connection. Something that Corbett Moran, living in -50 to -100 degrees F (-45 to -75 C), doesn’t always have. So, she published a paper on how to test algorithms offline, without needing the Quantum Experience online.

“I could work in my favorite programming language (Python) offline, prototyping ideas to run on IBM QE for when I was online … [and] I thought it might be useful to others, whether learners or researchers,” Corbett Moran said.

We asked her about this paper, Quintuple: A Python 5-qubit quantum simulator to facilitate quantum computing, and other challenges she’s looking forward to, and places she still wants to see.

Your first international move was from MIT, where you studied philosophy, computer science and physics, to Switzerland. What prompted the move to study astrophysics at the University of Zurich?

Corbett Moran: My undergraduate focus was in machine translation research. But after working in industry for a while, and continuing to publish academic papers, I still wanted to take more physics classes. Even with a physics degree, I didn’t have any experience with research in physics. I went to Zurich to get a Master’s in computational astrophysics, thinking I’d take graduate physics courses that I wanted, and then see what was next. Terminal Master’s are more common in Europe, and besides I still loved linguistics and learning languages (Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh!) I ended up staying for a PhD, and in the fascinating field of astrophysics.

I always feel like I’m training for some sort of bigger, more impossible problem I’ll meet someday.

– Dr. Christine Corbett Moran

How did the opportunity to go to Antarctica come up, and what are you working on with the South Pole Telescope?

CM: My last few years in graduate school were hectic. In addition to my PhD work, several (originally volunteer) mobile app development projects had become nearly full time jobs that also needed extensive travel to promote them.

So, Antarctica. Well, I had a friend from undergrad who spent a lot of time in Antarctica, almost wintering at the South Pole. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a postdoc right away (I always like taking a break between academic steps to do interesting projects), so I began to research going to the South Pole for an entire year.

I didn’t get the job the first time I applied, and instead, went to work at SpaceX for a few months, and then went to a one year postdoc at Caltech. By then, I had transitioned my app projects to new hands, and won the NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics postdoc fellowship, which had a provision for a one year leave. I hoped to use the leave to go to Antarctica, and applied for another round, this time with a different experiment. It worked! I’ve loved it here and am looking forward to returning to Caltech next year.

How did you come across IBM’s Quantum Experience tool? 

CM: A tweet, I think. I get a lot of my science news and serendipitous connections via Twitter and other social media. As an intern at Bell Labs, I had a friend tutor me quantum computing, based on Nielsen and Chuang’s canonical textbook. But I didn’t know much computer science, and hadn’t taken linear algebra or quantum mechanics.

I set the textbook aside, but came back to it a few years later. It made more sense to me, but I didn’t have a practical use case for any of the knowledge, and thought taking a course would be good. It stayed on the end of my to-do list until I found the IBM Quantum Experience, which was a great mini course – and this time I definitely had much of the needed background to tackle it.

How did experimenting on the Quantum Experience lead to writing “Quintuple: A Python 5-qubit quantum simulator to facilitate quantum computing”?

CM: Well, as I was going through all the examples on the IBM Quantum Experience, I didn’t want to simply run them, but fully follow mathematically what was going on. At first I did this with pen and paper calculations (pictured); that worked for the early exercises. Eventually the matrices got larger and more annoying to work with by hand. Even when I did a hand calculation, because of the complexity, I checked it on my computer at stages along the way. I regularly use Python, so that’s what I used (to check the calculations).

Finally, the calculations were just too much of a slog to fix by hand, but I still wanted to follow them step by step to prove to myself that I followed what was going on. So I added some abstraction to the code I had written. By that time I was having as much fun with my simulator as with the quantum computer, and I implemented the ability to work in the same syntax as what the IBM QE printed out, so that it’d be easy to check that my simulator matched their results as I developed and debugged the code.

It all matched! That meant that I could also work on new algorithms and experiment with a variety of 5-qubit operations in Python without having the IBM QE loaded. This was especially great as internet access in Antarctica is limited. So I could work in my favorite programming language offline, prototyping ideas to run on IBM QE for when I was online. I thought it might be useful to others, whether learners or researchers, so I wrote up a blog post and an academic paper about it.

What would you like to build or do with a full (50-100 qubit) quantum computer?

CM: Quantum computing could be another Wild West for science. Sometimes I’ve thought: wouldn’t it be great to be there at the dawn of digital computing? So many problems there for the solving!

Quantum computing could be just like that. We aren’t there yet, but IBM QE is a start. I think one of the most fascinating and under-appreciated uses quantum computers would be to give us more insight into quantum mechanics and allow us to simulate physical processes that aren’t possible to with a classical computer.

What kinds of problems do you like to solve?

CM: I like tackling problems where I can use my existing skills to make a contribution to the world, and learn something interesting at the same time. Sometimes to my detriment, I am more attracted to areas where I have less experience, just because I have more to learn. I always feel like I’m training for some sort of bigger, more impossible problem I’ll meet someday, and the best way I can do that is try to be an impossible person – that is, someone with a unique combination of skills and experiences. Because if the person existed who could solve the problem, it would be solved already! Whether that works out or not, I’m having fun working on many smaller problems in the meantime.

You tweeted in July about your astronaut candidate application. What is the status, and what would be involved in preparing to go to space?

CM: Like Antarctica, space is a place I dream of going. I made it to Antarctica, but space is still a long way away. Right now, NASA is checking my references, which is further than I made it the last time I applied. The odds are long. Training to be an astronaut looks like a singular experience, and even if you don’t go to space, going through the training would be worth it: scuba diving, flying, parachuting…

I’d love to go to an asteroid, another moon, Mars. As for something like the International Space Station, I’m hoping by the time I retire, a tourist trip up to it or whatever replaces it would be conceivable.

When will we put a person on Mars? Would you go?

Absolutely! Elon Musk wants to retire there (and he’s older than I am!), so that puts a timeframe on things. I’d put money on Elon making it. Speaking of the Wild West, Mars could also be a “wild west” of science. Just tripping over your own foot walking there, you’d discover something new. With a high school chemistry set, you might produce research worth a Nobel Prize.

How did your interest in science, engineering, and physics start?

CM: As a kid, I was curious about many things. And I was a reader. I wanted to be in a career where I could do a lot of reading. High school science and math came easily to me, and it was frustrating to do something I understood immediately hundreds of times, so I wrote them off as exceedingly boring. But I was always the person people would go to with technical problems, — not that I thought of that as a potential career. It would have been different if I had a mentor who exposed me to the more advanced parts of these subjects, but that’s not how it worked out.

I was lucky to end up where I did, and it all ties back to deciding to attend MIT on a whim (even though I had already decided to study philosophy and law). I knew I wanted to go someplace with no risk I’d be at the top of my class or ever get bored in class again. When I went to an MIT information session, the people were quirky, interesting, fantastic. And the idea of going there seemed fun, almost comical for someone who wanted to be a lawyer!

You also speak many natural languages. English and German make sense based on your time in Zurich, but you also understand Spanish, Danish, Arabic, and Mandarin. What prompted the curiosity, and how do you carve out time to practice them?

CM: Spanish I learned in high school. And I took a year off before attending MIT to go to high school in Denmark, where I picked up Danish (along with an interest in how humans and computers learn and manipulate language, as well as my habit of taking sabbaticals).

Arabic I studied in and after college. It began when I wanted to know more about the Middle East. The key with staying motivated in language study is to realize that their value doesn’t require complete mastery; they become useful as cultural knowledge almost right away, and knowing a little can mean that in the right situation it is much easier to become fluent. My Arabic isn’t great, despite years of study, but it has been extremely valuable nonetheless. For example, it helped to know some Arabic because a lot of machine translation research was in Arabic text.

I’ve studied other languages to a lesser extent, again with the idea that even a little can be useful now, or as a building block later. Mandarin came about the same way as Arabic: I wanted to learn more about China. After a year of on-and-off study, I got a tutor, and we speak by phone in 100 percent Mandarin for two hours a week. I’m still progressing slowly. I don’t learn languages especially fast; I just enjoy the process and make it a part of my life. Plus the more language you know, the more cognates you have to work with.

With all of this experimenting with different subjects in different places, how do you juggle it all, and what advice do you give students curious about engineering and science?

CM: I somehow get more productive per unit time the more I have on my plate. That also means I always have more than one thing to work on at once, as well as an excuse to not work on something I don’t feel particular inspiration to (excepting deadlines). Keeping organized is key, along with developing a relationship with items on a to-do list that, once they are entered, they really do get done.

As for advice, I’d emphasize that science and engineering are incredibly creative, impactful, and rewarding careers. Whether you are multi-talented, have many career interests and options, and might not even be considering STEM yet, or already singularly focused on something in the STEM area, science or engineering is for you! Like languages, it isn’t a binary thing where you need complete mastery (or a degree). Even studying a little bit of computer programming, science, engineering can be extremely valuable. So why not take a few classes in college or online, or join that after school club?

Corbett Moran will continue “studying the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation from the comforts of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station” through November, returning to Caltech in 2017. Keep up with her on Twitter at @Corbett.

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