Dec 23 2020

IBM and HBCUs Partner in New Quantum Center

Led by Howard University, the center aims to create opportunities for Black scientists and students in an emerging field.

As the field of quantum computing promises new advances in many industries, a new initiative could help to ensure that a more diverse population participates in these opportunities.

In September, IBM launched a quantum education and research initiative for historically black colleges and universities that includes funding and expertise to drive greater diversity in the quantum workforce. Led by Howard University and 12 other HBCUs, the IBM-HBCU Quantum Center will offer access to quantum computers, academic collaboration, education and community outreach programs.

“Diversity and inclusion is what fuels innovation, and students from HBCUs will play a significant part of what will drive innovations for the future, like quantum computing, cloud and artificial intelligence,” said Carla Grant Pickens, IBM’s chief global diversity and inclusion officer, in a press release.

Quantum computing, based on quantum theory, uses methods such as superposition and entanglement to perform complex computations more efficiently than ordinary computers. Experts believe it could spur breakthroughs in many industries, including science, pharmaceuticals and manufacturing. In addition to IBM, Google, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Intel and other major companies are pursuing quantum computing and quantum communication initiatives.

In Research, Diverse Perspectives Lead to Better Outcomes

While more universities have introduced quantum computing programs in recent years, greater diversity could bring additional benefits to the field. In 2019, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology determined that increasing diversity on quantum teams could expand points of view and help reduce blind spots in complex problems.

“Whenever you are attacking a large problem, I have found it’s best to include as many ideas as possible from various backgrounds. It takes a host of ideas,” says Thomas Searles, an associate professor of physics at Howard University who is directing the initiative.

The goal of the IBM-HBCU Quantum Center is to create a place for faculty and students from participating institutions to learn about the technology, to provide undergraduate and graduate research opportunities, and to connect talent to the quantum research community. Providing diverse communities with opportunities will eventually increase the number of Black students educated in quantum information science and engineering while strengthening faculty research efforts. The program will also provide mentoring and opportunities for fellowships, scholarships and internships for HBCU students.

IBM’s multiyear, $100 million investment will include technology, curriculum, content, training and other assets through the IBM Skills Academy Academic Initiative. Participating institutions include, among others, Albany State University, Morehouse College, Southern University and A&M College, Virginia Union University and Xavier University of Louisiana.

RELATED: Read about the University of Arizona's quantum networking project.

Bringing Black Learners of All Ages into Science

In addition to higher education, the initiative will also help to create pathways for K–12 students in Black communities. In August, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation created the National Q–12 Education Partnership to expand access to quantum information science education for younger learners.

“We are now trying to create pathways where a 10-year-old, whether they are in Atlanta, Detroit or California, can see Black students and faculty doing this type of work and say, ‘I too can one day be a quantum scientist or engineer,’” says Searles.

He notes how many exciting developments are happening in the quantum field, with new discoveries, startups and initiatives expected to rapidly increase in the coming years.

“It is something that will drastically change the way we operate in society,” he says. “We are hoping to collaborate and bring more Black students and faculty to not only solve the problems for quantum installation but to build a more diverse workforce.”

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