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The expression “Quantum 2.0” implies the transition now under way from the academic study of “quantum weirdness,” such as entanglement and superposition of quantum states, to leveraging those properties in actual commercial devices. That transition has substantially boosted the interest of industry in building (and using) quantum applications.
But where will a quantum-ready workforce for this new industry come from? That was the topic of a Tuesday afternoon online panel discussion, “Workforce Development in Quantum Science and Technology,” at OSA’s first Quantum 2.0 Conference. The session highlighted some efforts already afoot to build a viable quantum workforce—and also touched on the changes in mindset that will be required to take things further.
The moderator of the panel, OSA Fellow Michael Raymer of the University of Oregon, USA, began by pointing out that there’s a “wide consensus” that better quantum education is needed. That’s particularly true given the breadth of disciplines—including mechanical engineering, optical engineering, systems engineering, application development and many other areas—that quantum information science (QIS) covers.
Raymer noted that some efforts to build new educational structures and a “quantum ecosystem” are already underway. These include the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C) in the United States, a stakeholder consortium funded by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as part of the federal strategy called for under the National Quantum Initiative (NQI) Act.
Building internal expertise
William Clark, the director of the quantum lab at the mission-systems division of General Dynamics, talked about the approach that company is taking to quantum training. The mission-systems group covers a very large area involving advanced communications and sensing systems. General Dynamics is looking at a mix of technologies and issues related to those applications, according to Clark—discrete versus continuous entanglement; pure versus hybrid systems; and the trade-offs between interoperability with future systems and some level of backwards compatibility.
To build its own workforce, Clark said, General Dynamics has been sponsoring R&D projects with a number of university research groups, and working with customers on projects of mutual interest. It has both looked internally at building up the training of its existing pool of engineers in quantum science and technology, and created a dedicated quantum laboratory for early prototyping.
Clark identified three main workforce challenges that his group is experiencing. One is in training—getting quantum scientists to think like engineers, getting engineers to think like scientists, and getting the groups to work together. Another is recruiting for well-trained, well-educated quantum engineers amid a significant demand for such employees. And the third is the long-term challenge of a robust supply chain, and sustainability in the long haul. “There’s a lot of excitement today,” Clark said. “But you need to ensure that there are work opportunities in the long haul. Commercially, you need to have large markets to support a large population of scientists and engineers.”
An “industry mindset”
Another panelist, Sonika Johri, works as an application engineer at IonQ, a hardware developer for trapped-ion quantum computers and systems. Her personal “long-term vision” on quantum education, she said, was that universities would end up having quantum engineering departments, similar to those of other engineering disciplines. But “industry needs skilled workers right now,” she said, which makes it essential to focus on interdisciplinary work to beef up the technical skill of quantum workers already in industry.
One challenge, Johri said, was “going from a research mindset to an industry mindset.” Often, she suggested, researchers are focused on writing papers and theoretical issues, while industry needs an emphasis on real-world performance and systems thinking. And “you might not need the same kind of quantum mechanics for quantum computing as you do for quantum sensing,” according to Johri.
Getting an early start
Emily Edwards, of the Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center (IQUIST) at the University of Illinois, USA, switched the focus to pathways for students to engage with QIS before they get to the university. She characterized the strategy as going from “a one-way expressway” into one that’s a “highway with multiple entry points.” This pathway might include pre-college exposure, undergrad education, grad school and on-the-job training, and even certificate programs for postgraduates, some of which are already starting up.
Most recently, she’s been involved with pre-college initiatives, such as the National Q-12 Education Partnership, an industry/professional society/academic collaboration. She also highlighted the “big role” played by public engagement and outreach. “I hope we’ll see a lot more activity in that space as well,” she said.
Bridging the academic gap
On the academic side, Will Oliver of the MIT Center for Quantum Engineering (CQE), USA, began by noting that there has been an “explosion” in the number of companies becoming involved in quantum technology in the past five years. “Most of these companies are not making quantum computers or sensors,” he pointed out. Instead, they are either selling the components to build quantum technology, or expect to be users of the technologies.
MIT’s CQE is designed to bridge academic gap between quantum science and quantum engineering—and thereby advance both, according to Oliver. “The science is still proceeding, but we need to pick up the engineering,” and help classical engineering “pivot” to quantum applications. One tool for doing so at the center is a four-course professional-development series (underwritten by IBM) on “the fundamentals and practical realities of quantum computing.” The center is also funding a number of fellowships that partly involve quantum curriculum development.
An international perspective
The last speaker on the panel, Tommaso Calarco of the University of Cologne, Germany, echoed some of the concerns of his U.S. colleagues—but noted some differences, particularly with respect to the European Union’s big Quantum Flagship initiative. “In the U.S., you have many funding agencies and one government,” Calarco said. “In the EC, you have one funding agency and 27 governments, and education happens at the national level.” Calarco said that the European quantum community is “trying to leverage the whole constellation of hundreds of universities and research institutions.”
Calarco also agreed with his U.S. colleagues on the need to put more of an emphasis on quantum engineering, not just quantum science. “Until now it’s been physicists leading the field,” he said. “At some point, you have to take the toys out of the hands of the physicists to make something useful,” taking into account things, such as systems thinking and use cases, that “we physicists don’t think of.”
Calarco emphasized the importance of an international perspective in solving these problems. “What we urgently need is much less export control, much more exchange of information—and much more hype control,” he said. Without the latter, Calarco fears that the community risks a “quantum winter” in which support for the enterprise will dry up. And, on the information-exchange side, he said that in developing training programs, a “handshake with our colleagues across the pond” would be beneficial.
“This is not a space race, in which every nation is sitting on its rocket,” Calarco said. It’s “a race between mankind and nature, and we should unite all possible forces.”