Dr. Lucero designed, built, and operates Google’s Quantum AI campus in Santa Barbara -- with the mission to build a useful error-corrected quantum computer for the world to enable humankind to solve problems that would otherwise be impossible. He is one of the scientists on the Google Quantum AI team who demonstrated humanity’s first beyond-classical computation (Nature 2019), recognized as one of the Breakthroughs of the year. He has two decades of experience in quantum architectures: controlling qubits at Google, HRL Laboratories, IBM T. J. Watson, the University of California, Santa Barbara, NIST Boulder, and the University of Colorado, Denver. Erik has created a portfolio of photographs documenting the evolution of quantum processors from single qubit devices to Google’s Sycamore quantum computer. Dr. Lucero engineers quantum systems from the qubit level to the campus level, and is passionate about building a community for all quantum mechanics.
Q: You did your undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado Denver. What and/or who drew you out west for your graduate studies at UCSB?
As a child, an adolescent, and as an adult I was and still am drawn to California for all its creative culture: food, music, movies, fashion, art, technology, and proximity to amazing natural beauty, ocean, desert, mountains -all the wide-ranging ecosystems.
As a scientist, I was drawn by the giants in the field of quantum computing who were coalescing in the physics department at UCSB. These were the people and teams I wanted to learn from and be peers with. I remember receiving a recruitment phone call from John Martinis asking me to come join his team at UCSB. “Hey Erik, how about you come on out this summer and get a head start in the lab before classes begin?”.
Q: How would you describe your experience at UCSB? Are there any professors that stand out as particularly influential in your professional and personal development?
I had an amazing experience at UCSB. It truly transformed my life. My creativity was fed a nourishing diet of physics, engineering, entrepreneurism, art, boat-making, cooking, climbing, and running. Certainly, my PhD advisor John Martinis was highly influential in my professional development and career in quantum computing. My close collaborators like Andrew Cleland helped me become a better writer and stronger scientist. I had the pleasure of helping to design a course and teach it with David Awschalom, and Fiona Goodchild that exposed undergraduates to research. David Seibold and the early days of the Technology Management Program, which held a space for graduate students across UCSB to cross-pollinate ideas and shape the future.
Q: The Google Quantum AI team in Goleta has a strong connection to UCSB. Can you share the origins story of how it came to be and how UCSB professors and students were involved?
Here is a condensed version, as there are so many great details within any origin story. Professor John Martinis, my former Ph.D. advisor, had been working to build a superconducting quantum computer for decades, starting with his initial PhD work at UC Berkeley with John Clarke and Michel Devoret. Together they showed the first signatures of a superconducting quantum bit. Fast forward through many seminal papers and many PhDs, the team John Martinis had coached, trained, and led at UCSB was showing some of the most promising results in the field, superconducting qubits had arrived. Graduating from a mere curiosity in the lab to a viable candidate to scale up to an industrial-sized quantum computer. Enter Google. Hartmut Neven, the founder of the Quantum AI lab at Google, recruited John Martinis and his team to start the hardware effort at Google to create the world’s first error-corrected quantum computer. Through a fruitful collaboration with UCSB, the Google Quantum AI lab continued to leverage the UCSB Nanofab as we demonstrated some of the world’s most exquisite quantum bits in that cleanroom. That partnership continues today and we continue to enjoy deepening our collaborations with UCSB.
Q: How would you describe your role at Google?
Multifaceted. A job where every day I get to answer the question of what the future of computing will look like. Yes, please! I love my job and I get to wear many hats at Google. I engineer quantum systems from the qubit scale to the campus scale -Silicon to Steel. This requires me to pull on every facet of my scientific training, engineering expertise, and years of creative practice. I also have the pleasure of working with some of the brightest and highly capable minds in the world. We have an amazing team with a singular mission to build an error-corrected quantum computer for the world.
Q: Can you explain what quantum computing is (in terms that mere mortals can understand) and why it is seen as the future of computing?
A quantum computer is an entirely different type of computer. In classical computers, the fundamental building blocks are “bits” with two discrete values - “on” or “off”, 1 or 0. A classical computer is in the same computing class as an abacus, its computations are completed using boolean logic.
A quantum computer utilizes quantum mechanics, our best-known description of how nature works, to perform calculations. For example, the fundamental building blocks in a quantum computer are quantum bits, “qubits” for short. Qubits can exist in a superposition of states, 1 and 0 at the same time. Superposition is one of the properties available to a quantum computer that provides a richer computational space than classical computers and enables quantum computers to solve problems that are impossible for classic computers.
Q: The Google Quantum AI campus has been described as the intersection of art and science. What was the motivation for teaming up with Forest Stearns to create the Quantum AI Artist in Residence program?
I was motivated to create a lab for the future of computing and I had the opportunity to imagine it as a space for creativity. Forest Stearns was the perfect partner to help me realize this vision. I recruited Forest after seeing the first art show in space, where Forest transformed Planet Labs satellites into gorgeous works of art. I thought to myself, well he has put art on spaceships, let’s see if he can put art on quantum computers. This initial challenge evolved into the Quantum AI Artist in Residence Program. We now have more than 20 artists from around the world who have helped to embellish our quantum computers and merge the lines between art and science.
Q: Do you have any hobbies or pursuits outside of the office?
Getting outside and being creative! Photography, cooking, running, and exploring mountains and deserts. I recently returned from 3 weeks walking the desert in the four corners area of the southwest. I spent the majority of the time in the Navajo Nation with one of our artists in residence, Ravis Henry, who works for the National Park Service as a park ranger at Canyon De Chelly where he and his ancestors call home.
Q: What role does private philanthropy play in graduate education?
I will answer that in a more general sense and say that private philanthropy has an impactful role to play in education, graduate education yes, undergraduate definitely.
Q: Were you fortunate enough to receive any fellowship support while you were a graduate student?
Yes, I was a Broida fellow in graduate school. I held a number of fellowship positions in my undergraduate career which helped to fund my bachelor's degrees.
You can check out a select collection of Dr. Erik Lucero's photography here and you can Google “quantum computer” to see more of my quantum computing photos.