Added to the complexity, the qubits are entangled in a subatomic maze which can best be described by someone with a PhD in physics. You get the point. Much of what quantum physics will be used for is still unknown. First it has to be better understood. Then it has to be controlled. Then its uses will begin to emerge.
Enter UCSB associate professor Ania Jayrich, one of the rock starts of quantum computing at UCSB. Jayrich has mega-credentials. She double majored at Stanford in math and physics. Received her PhD at Harvard and did her post-doc work at Yale. She holds the Brucker Endowed Chair in science and engineering at UCSB and was named the co-director of UCSB’s new Quantum Foundry. Oh, and she plays tennis at a very high level which is how she first visited the UCSB campus and thought this would be a great place to work.
Jayrich is quick to point out that while quantum computing has received almost all the media attention, quantum physics actually has several areas of interest and research, including areas that are of interest to Jayrich. Quantum devices, not necessarily computers, have the potential and power to act as sensors for very small objects and as a vehicle for communication. It will be the job of UCSB’s Quantum Foundry to establish an infrastructure that will build platforms where all three endeavors can be pursued: computers, sensors and communicators. The story of UCSB’s selection as the only site for an initial Quantum Foundry is a testament to the status and achievements of the University.
Everybody [in academia} talks about collaboration and inter-disciplinary cultures, but we actually have it.
Some of the most prestigious physics departments in the country applied to the National Science Foundation for what was originally intended to be three or four Foundries. UCSB not only beat out these other institutions, but the NSF decided they would only fund one institution: UCSB.
Why? “UCSB has a special and good reason for getting the grant,” explained Jayrich. “Everybody [in academia} talks about collaboration and inter-disciplinary cultures, but we actually have it.” She recalled that when the NSF first put out the call for grant applications researchers across many disciplines at UCSB starting contacting each other, planning how to work together to get the grant. At other institutions, Jayrich recalled, she was told that key departments were not even communicating with each other.
It also did not hurt, Jayrich said, that UCSB has one of the largest undergrad physics departments in the country, has probably the top Materials Department in the country, and already houses the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics, considered the jewel of physics research in the U.S. The NSF wants the new Foundry to build strong ties to industry, to train undergrads and graduate students in quantum research, and to develop research that has the potential to be spun off into the economy.
“The main challenge,” Jayrich explained as she slipped into her physicist mode, “is pursuing quantum coherence.” This is one of the many holy grails of quantum computing. Because the qubits disappear quickly in the laboratory, physicists need to find ways to achieve “coherence” or the stable maintenance of qubits as they perform their tasks. To reach coherence the laboratories in the Foundry will have to be the most pristine, the cleanest in terms of outside particles, and superbly maintained. Google and Microsoft have already partnered in lab work at UCSB and have helped set the standard for quantum infrastructure. The Foundry will receive $7 million to advance the quality of the UCSB labs.
We have Albert Einstein to thank for all this. He explained the theory of quantum bits but never could actually see them. Jayrich 50 years later is seeing them. But she is quick to note, she does not know where quantum research will lead. The unknown world of physics has never been bigger. Even as quantum takes us into the nanoworld of the subatomic.
One last word to the reader: In the end, I found Wired Magazine’s Guide to Quantum Computing published in 2018 was the best explanation for a sociologist of a world that exists mostly in thoughts more than in our everyday world.