This partnership may bring groundbreaking quantum computing technologies to various fields.
Last year, a new two-story building was built in the northeast corner of the California Institute of Technology campus. Although the design is small, what happens inside the structure may change the future of computing. The building is the AWS Quantum Computing Center, the result of a collaboration between California Institute of Technology and Amazon Web Services, the cloud computing division of Amazon. The goal of the collaboration is to create quantum computers and related technologies that have the potential to revolutionize data security, machine learning, drug development, and sustainability practices.
“Most people know Amazon. We can shop there, but it is also an engineering powerhouse,” said Fernando Brandão, professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology and head of AWS quantum algorithms. “Amazon Web Services is the largest cloud service provider in the world today. They are considering how to make computing easier and better for people using AWS. And they are also thinking about the next step, how to do cloud computing in the next five to ten years. And calculations.”
This collaboration will help link the commercial aspects of quantum computing with the ongoing basic research at the California Institute of Technology, which has a long history of development in quantum science.
“AWS will benefit from the idea of penetrating campuses,” said John G. Braun, Oskar Painter (MS ’95, PhD ’01), Professor of Applied Physics and Physics at the California Institute of Technology and Director of AWS Quantum Hardware. Painter said that quantum computing is still a very young technology, so it is vital that the development work is directly related to the latest research in academia.
“If we accept today’s ideas and move on, we will create a dinosaur using a quantum computer,” Painter said. “We need to be closely connected with these basic research work.”
This is the first corporate association on the Caltech campus and reflects Caltech’s interest in bringing basic science to the market. Through scholarships, internships and seminars, the center will also support Caltech students and scientists to start their careers.
“Students will have the opportunity to interact with cutting-edge research through the center at the California Institute of Technology. For students, this will be very surprising,” Painter said. “And AWS can use these talents. Those are the engineers and scientists who will build quantum computers in the future.”
One of the biggest challenges in building quantum computers is to expand them. Due to the complexity of the technology behind the computer, the current prototype is still in the experimental stage. In order for quantum computers to truly surpass the capabilities of today’s classical computers, this is a milestone quantum advantage, and they need to be bigger.
For example, today’s basic quantum computers only run on dozens of qubits, the quantum equivalent of bits, or the ones and zeros that make up the language of classical computers. Researchers hope to build quantum computers with thousands or more qubits.
“Classic computers have billions or even trillions of bits, and this is where we ultimately want to have qubits,” Brandão said.
Painter said that although some media reports suggest that quantum computers are just around the corner, the technology is still in its infancy. “Now we can use quantum computers to solve small problems, but we need to expand the technology by multiple orders of magnitude before we can really solve the problems with significant impact. Finding out which problems quantum computers best solve is also an active area of research. It is exciting. The thing is, we started to be able to control large-scale quantum systems, but we haven’t got all the answers yet.”
Unlike bits, qubits can exist in quantum states called superpositions, where they are 1 and 0 at the same time, and all possible states in between. (In Irwin Schrödinger’s famous metaphor of superposition, cats can live and die at the same time, but cats can also be in any combination or superposition of these two states.)
Power brings fragility
The ability of qubits to present multiple states at the same time makes it possible for quantum computers to be much more powerful than classical computers on certain types of problems, including chemistry, finance, and cryptography. But this power has its shortcomings. Qubits are very fragile; any slight disturbance, such as vibration or heat, can push them away from the overlap. This phenomenon is called decoherence. The key to building a successful quantum computer in the future is to control these errors.
“The error rate of transistors in our modern computers is extremely low, reaching a level of one error per billion operations, which allows for complex calculations,” Painter said. “From now on, quantum computers will be limited by an error rate of approximately one error level per thousand operations.”
One of AWS’s main goals is to create a computer architecture that includes quantum error correction in the hardware. AWS hardware is based on superconducting qubits and can operate at ultra-low temperatures slightly above absolute zero. The quantum error correction method uses a set of redundant qubits at the physical hardware level (“physical” qubits) to form “logical” qubits, which encode quantum information and can be used to detect and correct errors. A major challenge in correcting quantum errors is the large amount of hardware related to the number of physical qubits required for each logical qubit.
“In an error-correcting quantum computer, the more physical qubits used to form logical qubits, the better the error rate of the logical qubits is reduced relative to the error rate of a single physical qubit,” Painter said. “In the future, we hope to increase the number of logic qubits to hundreds or thousands, while reducing the error rate of logic qubits by several orders of magnitude, so that we can perform sufficiently complex quantum calculations to solve high-complexity problems. Value… To this end, we need to further develop the physical hardware and logical architecture of qubits.”
Due to its rich history in this field, California Institute of Technology is well suited as a center for quantum innovation. The late Richard Feynman was a long-term professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, and he was one of the first to propose quantum computers. In a lecture in 1981, he explained that there are limits to simulating systems in physics with classical computers, because “Nature is not classical, damn it, if you want to simulate nature, it’s best to do it from quantum mechanics. Oh my goodness this is a good question, because it doesn’t seem so easy.”
In 1994, California Institute of Technology alumni Peter Shor (BS ’81), at Bell Labs, developed a quantum algorithm that can decompose a large number of numbers in a short period of time, demonstrating the great power of future technology. For example, a quantum computer can decompose 2,048 digits in 8 hours, while a classical computer takes about 300 billion years. “When I heard about it, I was in awe,” Amazon scholar John Preskill, Richard Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics and Director of the Institute of Quantum Science and Technology (IQIM) in California in 2013 Recalled in an article from the Polytechnic Institute. Helped pioneer the development of quantum error correction codes.
Jeff Kimble and William L. Professor Emeritus of Physics at the California Institute of Technology have direct contact with each other. In 2008, he and his colleagues were also the first to store entangled quantum states on storage devices.
“I came to California Institute of Technology as a graduate student to study with people like Jeff Kimble. He is measuring tiny atom-photon quantum systems with extremely high sensitivity and is using these systems to develop quantum protocols that can eventually be used to create quantum Form. The Internet will one day,” said the painter.
Annika Dugad, a current graduate student at Caltech, said that having an AWS center on campus has brought more excitement to the cutting-edge quantum research that Caltech is doing. Dugad is one of several scholars that Amazon has funded its graduate studies. She is using this scaffold to study the black hole information paradox, which is a mystery, first clarified by Stephen Hawking in the early 1970s, asking what happens to the information trapped in the black hole. In the end, Dugad said that he hopes to apply what he has learned to more practical problems in quantum computing.
“Not many campuses have such quantum centers,” he said. “I know I can turn to a medium to collaborate on experiments. Colleges are naturally slower, but in industry, they have deadlines and they can really make things work.”
“There is a new computing paradigm,” Brandão said. “It’s not just about making our current computers faster or better, as we’ve seen for at least the past 50 years. It’s about building a whole new kind of computer. Quantum computing is very early, but I think it’s also very Exciting.”