Jun 30 2023

How Is Higher Education Preparing for Quantum Computing?

Students are increasingly interested in the quantum field, and employers are looking for graduates to fill jobs in a growing arena. 

The promise of quantum computing is simple enough to understand.

“Do you know any industry that doesn’t need faster processing speeds?” says David Stewart, managing director of the Quantum Science and Engineering Institute at Purdue University. “If you think of it that way, it’s going to be applicable for everything.”

Exactly when quantum computing will be “applicable for everything” remains an open question. It’s been that way since the 1980s, when researchers first floated the idea that the principles of quantum mechanics could be applied to computing in a revolutionary way.

Quantum computing’s theoretical advantage comes from qubits that, unlike traditional bits and bytes, assess more than just 1s and 0s when solving a problem. There is a lot of heady theory behind quantum mechanics. The concept is confusing enough that one prominent researcher remarked in the 1960s, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” So, rather than focus on what it is and how it works — find more on that subject here — the more important questions for leadership at higher education institutions are what to do about quantum computing and when to do it.

The answer to the former is subjective, but the answer to the latter is clear: Quantum computing is just about here. The sooner colleges and universities address it as a growing workforce need and research opportunity, the more likely they are to stay ahead of the curve.

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What Are Higher Ed Institutions Doing with Quantum Computing?

In addition to his role at Purdue, Stewart also is the managing director of the Center for Quantum Technologies. It’s a unique collaborative research facility sponsored by the National Science Foundation that includes representatives from Purdue, Indiana University, the University of Notre Dame and Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, along with leaders from a number of interested industries.

After more than three years of planning, securing grants, working with the NSF and identifying those industry partners, the center began conducting its first research projects earlier this year. The students, primarily graduate-level with some undergrads involved, are studying the theories behind quantum technology as they also work with it in a hands-on environment to prepare for careers in the field.

Technology companies including IBM, Google and Microsoft are leading the way in the study of quantum computing, but the financial industry also has latched on, thanks to the massive computing power offered by quantum tools. Sabre Kais, a distinguished professor of chemistry at Purdue and the director of the CQT, says students have landed internships at places such as JPMorgan Chase and Fidelity Investments, as well as with more traditional tech partners.

“Students already are going to work in the field,” says Kais. “There’s plenty of jobs open now for graduating students.”

Indeed, the Quantum Economic Development Consortium lists hundreds of open jobs on its website, and Stewart agrees that the opportunities are only growing for students at Purdue and elsewhere.

“There’s a critical need to develop this workforce,” he says. “The CQT is going to do that. It’s going to especially give these students some use-inspired training and experience.”

That experience comes not on fully realized quantum computers but on cloud-based applications developed and made available for free by companies including IBM, which allow users to access quantum computing power from anywhere in the world. Amazon has Braket, a similar tool that is likewise widely available for anyone who wants to give quantum computing a try.

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What Will the Quantum Future Look Like?

In June, IBM made the latest quantum breakthrough and announced that it had created a quantum processor powered by an unprecedented 127 qubits. It was big news for people like Kais, who have spent years immersed in the field.

“This is an open field of research, and we have so many people working now in this field,” says Kais. “You don’t know or expect when the next breakthrough in the field will be.”

Wherever quantum computing goes, however, both Kais and Stewart agree it will exist only as a supplement to classical computing. After all, the power generated through quantum processing is unnecessary to answer most of the problems we can throw at a computer today.

“For certain problems, we need quantum. For others we need the classical. It’s not going to replace it,” says Kais. Even today, traditional computers and quantum computers can communicate and work together to solve problems, and students who are able to navigate both areas are giving themselves an advantage as they enter the modern workforce.

Unsurprisingly, high school students — who are sometimes being introduced to quantum theory through things like Purdue’s Quantum Game Club — are increasingly interested in studying the field.

Stewart says Purdue has hired about 20 new faculty members with a quantum focus since 2015, and Kais has seen interest grow among students from a variety of programs throughout campus.

“You see an increase in students in this field because it’s a frontier field, it’s an exciting field and there are job openings in the field,” says Kais. “We have people from math, from physics, from all the sciences and from engineering going into this field.”

In the meantime, Stewart, Kais and others at the CQT are looking for new industry partners with which to work on the next round of research projects, projects that are selected in collaboration with those industry sponsors.

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