If you're thinking you have been hearing more lately about quantum computers, you have: researchers have been leveraging them since the Covid-19 pandemic began to help make data-informed decisions so state agencies can develop public health interventions. The high volumes of data researchers are dealing with make quantum computers an important tool in the arsenal in the fight against the coronavirus.
As innovation continues to accelerate, quantum computing is being eyed to solve complex problems across multiple industry sectors, including pharmaceuticals, energy, finance, logistics, manufacturing, and materials. This is leading some industry experts to issue a call for greater efforts to build a quantum workforce, which they say is lacking.
For example, in August, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and over a dozen U.S. industry and academic leaders launched the National Q-12 Education Partnership, an initiative to expand access to K-12 quantum information science (QIS) education.
The NSF said it was awarding nearly $1 million to QIS education efforts, including the establishment of the Q2Work Program to support quantum education workforce development across the country.
The National Q-12 Education Partnership program is aimed at expanding key quantum concepts for K-12 education, which is critical right now, says Christopher Savoie, CEO and cofounder of Zapata Computing, which develops quantum software and algorithms, and is one of the founding members of the partnership. "Currently, the education necessary for developing qualified talent to help identify the next opportunities for applying and advancing quantum computing exist mainly at the collegiate level," says Savoie. "This Q2Work Program is a much needed, progressive initiative because it's aimed at sparking quantum passion much earlier in a child's education through early exposure to all of the wonders and possibilities of quantum computing."
IBM had more than 4,000 students around the world attend its Qiskit Global Summer School for future quantum software developers.
Yet at an IBM virtual roundtable in July, industry experts who gathered to discuss the topic concluded that K-12 students are not being prepared to go to colleges with the requisite curriculum to work in this industry. They advocated for academia and industry to join forces to engage the broadest number of students to prepare them to become part of a quantum workforce.
Students in grades K-12 don't always know what they want to study, "so it's important to give students research experiences that are varied" and teach them about quantum bits (qubits), said panelist Tina Brower-Thomas, education director and executive director for the Center for Integrated Quantum Materials at Howard University. "The talent is there … but the question is, how do you engage them and keep them interested and see what the benefit is" of quantum computing, she said.
Students need to be given opportunities to connect research with their education, Brower-Thomas said, adding that "We'd benefit from more private/public collaboration. If young people see the practical side of what they can do with their education, that would give them" the impetus to apply their energies to quantum computing.
"We'll always need those with expertise in fundamental quantum sciences—such as chemistry, mechanics, and theory—as well as the related cryogenic hardware and electronics,'' says Jay Gambetta, an IBM fellow and vice president of quantum computing at IBM. "As we've developed ways to program our quantum computers since putting the first on the cloud in 2016, there's a greater need for those with coding expertise. The quantum developer as a career discipline is just getting started."
Right now, there aren't enough graduate-level or undergraduate-level physics and quantum information sciences degree programs available to train people in the quantum field, according to Savoie. "I'll be very blunt. I've spent a lot of my adult life in Japan, and there is a higher level of emphasis on fundamental mathematics education in other countries. …It's a very serious pipeline problem."
While no program is going to be a panacea, it's important to get people interested at an early age, especially women, Savoie stresses. Often, due to cultural bias, girls "don't get the message that women can do STEM and it's an appropriate thing to get interested in."
Zapata is able to hire staff with quantum skills, but typically, they come from overseas, Savoie says, and that's been more difficult to do lately.
Quantum cloud services provider D-Wave, which is also part of the partnership, agrees that more needs to be done and that quantum computing is at an inflection point. "As the industry sets its sights on developing mainstream applications with real business and government value, public agencies are taking cues from the market and implementing policies to ensure a quantum-ready workforce,'' said a company spokesperson. "To build a stronger quantum future, we need to start investing in potential talent today."
Quantum computing also needs to be relatable, observes Daniel Lidar, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California (USC), who is also director of USC's Center for Quantum Information Science & Technology, and co-director of the USC-Lockheed Martin Quantum Computing Center. To that end, quantum computing has been featured in TV series such as Devs, Lidar notes. Several years ago, USC's Information Sciences Institute (ISI) collaborated with a resident musician to create a quantum opera. D-Wave's quantum annealing computers were also the subject of the 2017 book "The Quantum Spy,'' he adds.
"Generally speaking, arts, social media, and podcasts are a natural way to incentivize more young students to become interested, and scientists active in the field can always do more to engage with the public in this way,'' Lidar says.
The greatest obstacle to growth is not a lack of interest from young students, but our capacity to train the quantum workforce, he notes. "I regularly find that I have to turn away interested students for lack of capacity, and many of my colleagues are in the same situation,'' Lidar says. "A substantial increase in hiring of academic faculty working in quantum-workforce-related areas would certainly help with that bottleneck."
Some of the national partnership's initial work will put "active boots on the ground,'' Savoie says. "We need to have people like me who have experience in the field to go to inner city or rural schools [that] wouldn't touch a quantum computer or watch a documentary on quantum computing, frankly, and say 'look at the cool stuff this can do and here's an actual video of an IBM computer that actually does this thing'."
The emphasis should not be on "making it about a bunch of equations and hard stuff," he says. "Once they're intrigued, kids will learn. We just need to make it cool."
Esther Shein is a freelance technology and business writer based in the Boston area.
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