How did you go from surfboard mechanics to quantum mechanics?
I grew up in Queensland, Australia, so surfing was a big part of my life. Honestly, I liked building things, and thought I’d be a mechanic or carpenter. Getting into university meant I had a way to keep surfing.
While at school and looking for a university field of study I came across laser science and thought “that sounds cool.” And it was. We shot lasers into atoms. But after my undergrad degree at Griffith, Professor Howard Wiseman (who would become my PhD advisor) introduced me to quantum theory, and my perspective changed. He was so inspiring, and the math was so complex and beautiful that I started reading everything I could — independent of my Honors work — and decided to switch my PhD studies to theoretical quantum physics.
“I am attracted to the topics I know the least about.”
After my PhD, I actually took a job shaping surfboards. I had an aptitude for the math, but hadn’t yet committed to making science a career. After a couple months of sanding surfboards, Howard convinced me to come back to research. Returning to the lab led to an opportunity at Yale. Professor Steven Girvin needed someone with a knowledge of quantum optics — which I had from my PhD. This work is part of the foundation for quantum superconducting qubits, which our IBM Q systems are based on today.
What quantum breakthroughs made the biggest impression on you?
IBM Fellow Charlie Bennett’s novel 1993 paper about quantum teleportation really impressed me. It also put the idea in my mind that IBM was a great place for quantum information theory research. John Stewart Bell’s 1964 theorem showed me that the foundations of quantum mechanics are strange. It made me want to move from experimental physics to theoretical, and do my PhD in open quantum systems and interpretations of quantum mechanics.
Which quantum computer myth do you wish would end?
Quantum computers don’t do every calculation at once, or faster than a classical computer. They have a completely different model of computation that allows for operations that cannot be implemented classically.
How do you solve seemingly intractable problems?
It’s about having a good team. Quantum is so challenging and cross-disciplined, it can’t be done by an individual. At IBM we have a team of experimentalists, computer scientists, mathematicians and theoretical physicists who are tackling these questions together. This I find to be one of the most amazing things we have at IBM.
How do you explain quantum to your kids?
I’ve tried to foster a love for science in them from a very young age. When I talk quantum, I make the case that you should not use classical analogies. I start with quantum randomness. It’s different from flipping a coin, which is random every time. Flipping a quantum coin is random on the first, but not the second. This is due to the fact that different paths in quantum can cancel or add due to the phenomenon of quantum interference.
My 9-year-old daughter has got the hang of the basics. She has even run experiments on the IBM Q Experience composer.
What does it mean to be named an IBM Fellow?
It’s definitely rewarding to be appreciated for your work and I am so thankful. I take the view of “stay focused on the science, now.” I’m excited by it, but I didn’t set out to become a Fellow. I set out to do the science and if the science is good, then these kinds of recognitions will come.