Episode 47: Building the Impossible

This episode features Winfried Hensinger, Professor of Quantum Technologies at the University of Sussex. Following on from our chat with the brilliant Chad Rigetti, we were keen to get the academic perspective on the burgeoning field of quantum computing. We were immediately struck by Winfried's fire for this field, describing it as making science fiction a reality (he made his way into physics via a love of Star Trek).

We were keen to dive into the core challenges of building the technology, whether there's any fundamental physics left to do to make quantum computing (or whether it's now in the hands of the engineers), and the desperate need for coders willing to learn and develop quantum algorithms. 

Winfried was also very candid about how he feels physics and quantum physics in particular should be taught, through meaning rather than through rote learning of facts, and that nobody should be left behind when it comes to accessing this realm of physics.

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* The audio on Winfried's end does some strange things occasionally, however he was really an amazing person to chat to and so we wanted to get this episode out to you. We'll also be visiting his lab in the near future, so if you have any burning questions for an active quantum researchers, let us know and we'll ask it on the pod

** If you liked the episode be sure to subscribe on iTunes (or your podcast site of choice) and leave a rating/comment. It helps a bunch :)

*** Other podcasts on similar topics:

Episode 40: Quantum Computing in Startup Land, with Chad Rigetti Founder of Rigetti Computing
Episode 33: From Lab Bench to Marketplace, with Katie Rae CEO of MIT's Deep Tech Accelerator - The Engine

Show Notes

Theorists versus experimentalists

  • Harking back to episode with Mark Levinson where we discussed the rivalry between experimental and theoretical physicists 
  • Winfried’s experience is much more harmonious – he believes the two work best when they’re working together
  • The theorists learn the limits of experimentation in practice
  • The experimentalists can learn from the creative thinking and leaps of imagination of the theorists

Why are more people talking about quantum technologies now?

  • There are 2 technologies which have got to the point of not being restricted to fundamental physics research in order to advance
  • Super conducting qubits
  • Charged atoms – ions

Where are we right now in quantum computing?

  • Similar to computing in the 1940s
  • No one had personal computers, they were research projects
  • But they arguably won the war – so despite not being ‘out of the lab’, they still had huge impact
  • There were few applications to begin with, and only a few players had them
  • The software development took a while to advance
  • Lots of people ask why we haven’t yet made it to Mars – it’s a similar question around quantum computing
  • Still need all the engineering details reliably right
  • We need minds, money, infrastructure and time

Advancing physics education for a quantum future

  • Need computer scientists to help program these machines
  • Could count on one hand the number of quantum programmers in the UK
  • We don’t teach the amazing things out there in physics, in the classroom – we are losing brilliant minds to boredom
  • We can build what’s in science fiction – we can make it real…that’s what we should teach
  • At the undergrad level, should be encouraging research experience right at the start so as to get exposure of lab work and understand how to make things happen in the lab
  • Hark back to Chad Rigetti idea of teaching quantum mechanics by introducing first the idea of building a quantum computer – and work up to that
  • Idea of teaching meaning, not a historical timeline – problem-based teaching
  • “I want to know more”, not “Is this going to be in the exam?”

Corporate / Academic / Startup dynamics

  • University research groups are great at developing early prototypes and theory, and asking fundamental questions
  • Recently, Winni and his team published the ‘blueprints’ for a quantum computer
  • But university research groups aren’t the best place to do the building
  • You need reliability, manufacturing, engineers, and traditional formal employment systems
  • So Winni and his team are starting a company to do this – watch this space!

Forming strong networks to advance

  • National Quantum Technology Programme (£270m investment by the UK government to accelerate the translation of quantum tech into the marketplace)
  • 4 hubs of quantum research, and they work with each other and with companies
  • 1st phase of the project has been a huge success – and in order to refine the 2nd phase, focus needs to go on encouraging companies to commit, despite not being able to make a profit for ~10 years while research develops

Superconducting qubits v ion trapping

  • All will contribute to future of the technology – who can remember who ‘won’ in the development of computers in the 1940s?
  • There is simplicity in ion trapping, which Winni believes makes it a much more powerful system
  • No matter who ‘wins’, there will be translation of findings, skills
  • Cannot reduce it to ‘VHS v betamax’ – will be different machines with different strengths (IBM machine, Rigetti machine, Sussex machine!)

Debunking media myths

  • Quantum computers aren’t ‘fast computers’
  • They solve certain problems conventional computers could never solve, no matter how fast they become
  • The nature of the problem is different
  • You won’t own a quantum computer
  • You will operate on the cloud, buying time on them – so you will have to decide which problems to assign to the quantum computers, which are worth it
  • They will be large – about the size of a football field or a whole building

What else in science needs disrupted?

  • We shouldn’t underestimate blue sky research
  • Make education in schools such that more people realise the amazing things they can do with science
  • Cut out the boring stuff people teach simply because of tradition
  • Teach not by historical events, but by meaning
  • Widen participation in science
  • At Sussex they offer a foundation year to bring everyone’s science knowledge to the same level before the degree begins
  • Need more of this to get more people to enter science through alternative routes