Quantum Computing 101: Brilliant, Google, Microsoft Training Workers

Xconomy San Francisco — 

From Microsoft and IBM to Alphabet’s unit X and Canada’s D-Wave Systems, companies are racing to build powerful quantum computers that may solve problems beyond the capacity of the most sophisticated conventional processors, and do it much faster.

It’ll be some years before such uber-computers are robust and reliable enough for broad commercial use. But tech companies are already writing the novel kinds of software these revolutionary computers will need in order to operate—and businesses are even helping to train the workforce for a future era of “quantum speed-up.’’ For that training task, Microsoft and X, the cutting-edge research arm of Google parent company Alphabet, have partnered with a San Francisco-based educational technology company called Brilliant.

In a new course offered by Brilliant, students can learn the basics about quantum computing, write some quantum code, and give it a spin on a system that simulates the workings of a quantum computer—all using their smartphones if they like, says chief operating officer Eli Ross.

Advanced skill in quantum computing is rare—even more rare than expertise in other emerging fields where engineers are highly sought, such as in artificial intelligence disciplines like machine learning and deep learning. The global number of high-level researchers in quantum computing may be less than a thousand, the New York Times estimated in October. And that scarcity could stymie progress for companies in the field.

“To date, the tech talent shortage in quantum science has been a critical bottleneck to the industry’s progress,’’ the quantum software company Zapata Computing said as it announced a $21 million Series A funding round in April.

Brilliant and its two big partners hope to do something about that bottleneck.

Brilliant teaches STEM topics, from math fundamentals on up, by feeding online students with small, digestible bites of content along with exercises that encourage them to make immediate use of what they’ve learned.

Among Brilliant’s courses is an introduction to basic, classical computer science concepts, like the fact that each “bit’’ of information consists of only one of two numbers: zero or one. (A string of 8 bits, such as 0 1 0 1 1 0 1 0, makes up a byte, which codes for a single letter or other character, such as an “A” or a “&.’’)

In its new course, though, Brilliant is teaching students to set aside that traditional CompSci canon and grapple with the bizarro-world perspective of quantum computing, which looks at 0 and 1 and says, “Why choose?’’

In quantum computing, the units of information are known as quantum bits, or “qubits,’’ that can each stand for 0, or 1, or—brace yourself—they can be said to represent both 0 and 1 at the same time. This startling feat is achieved when quantum computer designers nudge the qubits into a state called superposition.

Tech innovators anticipate that computers based on such underpinnings could outperform conventional processors by exponential leaps when tackling certain complex problems. (Dive in here for a quick explainer from WIRED to find out how the quantum speed-up might result from this technology.) The technical challenges are huge, but companies are pouring resources into creating qubit chips, quantum software, and cloud-based services where enterprise-scale businesses can test out early quantum computers.

Not surprisingly, conventional software algorithms won’t do for these quantum computers. They’re based on quantum mechanics—which concerns the behavior of atoms, subatomic particles, and energy—-rather than on the classical physics that describes the familiar behavior of relatively large-scale things like tennis balls. (Subatomic particles such as electrons can exist in transient, in-between states, similar to superposition in a qubit.)

Brilliant’s class in quantum computing moves on to explain much more complex and counterintuitive concepts—like what happens when two qubits become entangled. Along with superposition, entanglement is a key technique in amplifying computing power. There’s a payoff for mastering all this weirdness, because it opens up a universe of strange possibilities. (Hint: Teleportation!)

The course introduces students to Microsoft’s Q# programming language, which was designed to work with the real quantum computers that have already been built. Though these machines are still at an experimental stage, and so far lack the capabilities needed to tackle the most challenging computational tasks, they are already serving as test beds for their inventors and for selected companies invited to explore their potential.

Developers of these powerhouse computers want more researchers and programmers to be up to speed on quantum computing—and standing ready to pose really big questions—as the technology matures and becomes more widely available. Quantum computers could deliver breakthroughs in fields from code-breaking to drug development and to the design of super-catalysts, advocates say. Their anticipated ability to bust through the encryption that shields sensitive data raises national security concerns—one of the reasons why quantum computing is an arena of intense international competition.

Cambridge, MA-based Zapata Computing is one of the US companies competing to make hires from the scanty global pool of quantum computing experts. Zapata’s work on a software platform for quantum computing is based on a collection of quantum algorithms it licensed from Harvard University. Zapata’s hiring struggles may have been worsened by restrictive US immigration policies, its CEO and co-founder Christopher Savoie told the New York Times late last year.

Zapata helped organize a campaign to bolster US education and research on quantum computing as a co-founder of the Quantum Industry Coalition—one of the groups that advocated for the passage of a new federal statute, the National Quantum Initiative Act, which became law in December. It sets up a multi-part initiative to support not only research in quantum computing, but also a raft of US educational programs in the field. Much of this 10-year initiative will involve universities and research centers, which can apply for millions of dollars in funding from federal grants.

Companies are already contributing to the training of experienced engineers through entry points such as Microsoft’s Quantum Development Kit.

But Brilliant and its partners Microsoft and X also provided students anywhere a quick way to get started in the field when the company first offered its Quantum Computing course to existing users in December.

Since then, 26,000 people have enrolled in the course, COO Ross says. Although Quantum Computing is classified as one of Brilliant’s advanced courses, students don’t need to be … Next Page »

Single PageCurrently on Page: 1 2