Australia's ambitious plan to win the quantum race

Professor Michelle Simmons thinks Australia has what it takes to be the first to the finish line in the international quantum computing race.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Professor Michelle Simmons and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull open the CQC2T.

Image: Dave Cheng/ZDNet

Quantum computing is expected to revolutionise the world. It's an ambitious statement, but one professor Michelle Simmons, director at the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communications Technology (CQC2T), and teams of researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) believe to be true.

A quantum computer will have the capacity to perform complex mathematical equations within minutes that would otherwise take a classical computer years or even centuries to complete.

In the quantum world, every time a quantum bit (qubit) is added, the amount of information is doubled.

"If I can get to 300 qubits, there's a prediction that it's more than all the atoms in the universe working together as a calculation," Simmons said, speaking at D61+ Live in Melbourne last week. "If you try and build a million qubit system, at the moment, they're predicting it would be the size of a football pitch to actually build it."

There's a big race internationally to get to a 30-qubit system as fast as possible to show that calculations in a quantum regime will beat a classical computer. Simmons believes Australia can get there first.

UNSW puts its money on silicon reigning supreme

There are five leading hardware configurations for a quantum computer, and scientists the world over are trying to determine which is going to be the winner.

"We've invested in silicon so we think that's going to win," Simmons said. "There's competition out there and it's very interesting to see how that competition is evolving."

One of the key aspects in looking at how good a qubit is, is its longevity -- how long and how accurately can it hold quantum information.

According to Simmons, silicon qubits have some of the best numbers in those fields, but UNSW are behind where they wanted to be because it had to develop the technology to build at the atomic scale. The university is currently attempting to build a 10-qubit system.

"We do believe that silicon is the one that has longevity; it's a manufacturable material and it has some of the highest quality qubits that are out there," Simmons said.

"That's why it's very exciting for Australia. We actually believe this can go all the way, and we believe we can build it in Australia."

Simmons said there are just six companies dedicated to quantum computing hardware in the world, and said Australia is incredibly well-positioned.

"I came away thinking, 'thank god I'm in Australia', because I think what we've got going on in Australia is something unique and I think the technology we've got is going to take us all the way," she said of her recent meeting in Europe with the five other organisations.

"If you look at all the US government labs, they're all chasing us in the silicon field.

"My goal is to get there first -- so wish me luck."

The application & commercialisation of quantum computing

Simmons said today organisations are faced with what is called the travelling salesman problem -- a dilemma near impossible in the classical computing world.

"This is a real problem companies face to try and minimise their fuel costs, or optimise their distribution systems," Simmons explained. "This is one example ... where massively paralleled computing, if it comes in, will start to solve that in real-time."

Simmons said calculations that simply cannot be done in one lifetime start to become accessible in the quantum world.

With the likes of defence giant Lockheed Martin testing its jet software; NASA gathering copious amounts of data from space; and Google investing aggressively in self-driving cars, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, Simmons said it's predicted 40 percent of all industry in Australia will be impacted by quantum computing, pointing also to the interest and investments the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) has made in quantum computing thus far.

One of the questions Simmons is constantly asked is how long until quantum computing becomes a reality.

She has mapped out the classical industry from the invention of the first transistor back in 1947, explaining it took roughly 10 years before it got integrated. It then took another five to 10 years before a commercial product began to emerge.

"You can actually plot that for the transistor on my laptop now, developed in 1960, took about 10 years before they got the first integrated processor, another five to 10 years before they got products out of it," Simmons said.

"The key message from this is that it takes 10 years from the design of a particular transistor type before you can get it an integrated circuit and then another five years before you get commercial products coming out."

The CQC2T roadmap sees its researchers now rushing towards an integrated circuit by 2022. But, at the same time, Simmons needs to ensure there's a commercially viable product at the end of the process.

"This a long-term project -- we're looking at another 10 to 15 years of investment to be able to get to a product," she explained.

Simmons and the university's Centre of Excellence has partnered with the federal government, CBA, and Telstra to form a startup company that is tasked to build a 10 qubit prototype.

The startup sits alongside the university's Centre of Excellence, which has been funded for another seven years as of 2018, to do the fundamental research, engineering, and algorithm development around how UNSW is going to operate and run the quantum computer.

UNSW researchers are working with almost every school of quantum research across the world it can, while also working directly with end-users to figure out what hardware is required specific to the application the end-users want to run.

Australia accelerating with quantum advancements

Simmons and her teams have been working on all this since 2000, developing their first qubit in 2012.

A team of researchers she led unlocked the key to enabling quantum computer coding in silicon in late 2015, announcing that UNSW had the capability to write and manipulate a quantum version of computer code using two qubits in a silicon microchip.

The breakthrough followed on from an announcement made a month prior when another team of engineers from the university built a quantum logic gate in silicon, which made calculations between two qubits of information possible.

Engineers at UNSW then announced in October they had created a new qubit which remains in a stable superposition for 10 times longer than previously achieved, expanding the time during which calculations could be performed in a future silicon quantum computer.

Following the advancements UNSW achieved in quantum computing, the federal government allocated AU$26 million of its AU$500 million science funding to support its work in quantum computing, made available under Australia's AU$1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda.

Within 48 hours of the cash injection from the federal government, CBA pledged AU$10 million over five years to support the university's researchers, and Telstra then matched the bank's efforts, also pledging AU$10 million over five years, to boost UNSW's capacity to develop the world's first silicon-based quantum computer.

It isn't just UNSW making quantum breakthroughs in Australia; scientists at the University of Sydney have developed a machine learning technique to predict the demise of quantum computing systems in a bid to keep qubits from breaking.

The university was also awarded part of a multimillion dollar research grant from the United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence to advance its research in quantum computing last May.

Physicists at the Australian National University successfully completed an experiment to stop light in September, a critical step in developing future quantum computers; while the University of Technology launched its new Centre for Quantum Software and Information in December, dedicated to the development of the software and information processing infrastructure required to run applications at quantum scale.

Disclosure: Asha Barbaschow travelled to D61+ Live as a guest of Data61.

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