It’s been nearly four years since the Pacific Northwest’s leaders in the field of quantum computing met in Seattle for the first Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit, and since then, the scientific buzz around quantum technology has grown more exciting. So what’s next for the Nexus? A second summit full of stars.
Amazon Web Services and Boeing will join this week’s gathering at the University of Washington, and nearly 300 academic, business, and government representatives have signed up to attend. Some of the companies that showed up at the second summit, like Seattle startup Moonbeam Exchange, didn’t even exist when the first summit took place in March 2019.
In the past four years, the UW has received about $45 million in federal funding to support quantum information science research. Quantum computing has received fresh impetus from Congress and the Biden administration. The two cloud computing powerhouses of the Pacific Northwest, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, have implemented hybrid quantum platforms. And last week, Maryland-based IonQ announced that it will establish a quantum computer research and manufacturing facility in Bothell, a suburb of Seattle.
Microsoft, UW, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory launched the Northwest Quantum Nexus in 2019. IonQ, Washington State University, and the University of Oregon’s Center for Optical, Molecular, and Quantum Sciences joined the team a couple of years later. Now, the addition of Amazon and Boeing brings two of the region’s tech giants into the fold.
Amazon adds quantum to the cloud
Sebastian Hassinger, principal specialist for AWS’s Amazon Braket quantum platform, said his team did not need convincing to join the public-private consortium, even though it was co-founded by rivals at Microsoft. AWS higher-ups just needed “a little” convincing, he said.
“With classic technologies, there is a brief period of time where there can be some pre-competitive open science…but very quickly it becomes a race to market,” Hassinger said. “In quantum, we are looking at, as everyone knows, an extended period of time that is pre-competitive open science. There is a lot of fundamental work to be done that requires the broader academic community and the kinds of public-private partnership interactions.”
Hassinger said AWS added quantum computing to its cloud portfolio because many of its customers were asking about the technology’s potential. Amazon Braket is meant to serve as a sandbox for applications, but it’s not AWS’s only involvement in the quantum realm. AWS has established research centers in cooperation with computer scientists from Caltech and Harvard, as well as a network to establish links with quantum companies.
Quantum computing takes a different approach than classical computing. Rather than deal with clearly defined zeroes and ones, quantum processors are designed to manipulate tiny particles that can represent multiple values until the result is read. That is the power of quantum, and also the challenge.
“It’s not going to be a piece of cake,” Hassinger said. “When the first quantum computer can do something that’s truly useful for whatever, pharmaceutical or fintech, it’s not going to be like, ‘Okay, plug it in and go.'”
AWS is gearing up to support those applications, whether it’s discovering new drugs, developing new high-performance materials, or building better batteries. And that’s why AWS is joining the Northwest Quantum Nexus. “Every region of the country, and every country in the world, owes it to themselves to make this kind of effort,” Hassinger said.
Boeing takes off towards quantum frontiers
You might be wondering what America’s largest aerospace company hopes to get out of quantum computing. “There are no quantum airplanes yet,” joked Ben Koltenbah, a Boeing associate technical fellow who specializes in applied physics and quantum technology, during a presentation at the summit.
But Marna Kagele, a technical fellow who leads Boeing’s quantum applications research team, said the field offers a lot of potential.
“We have many products beyond commercial aircraft,” he said. “We have defense aircraft, we have space vehicles, underwater vehicles. … We have all kinds of complicated operations. We are designing new materials for all of those products. And all of them could benefit from quantum technology.”
Boeing’s Disruptive Computing & Networks unit serves as the company’s nexus for quantum research and development.
One project calls for the use of quantum sensor technology in new types of optical clocks for ultra-precise time measurement and GPS-level navigation. Another project aims to use quantum computing tools to learn more about how advanced materials interact with the environment.
“Anyone building vehicles has their vehicle interacting with the environment around it, and those environments are harsh,” Kagele explained. “Even vehicles that are exposed to the sun, UV radiation is really hard on a vehicle. So you can imagine that with the salts it is corroding a lot. the department of defense [Department of Defense] estimates they spend $20 billion a year on corrosion.”
Quantum computing could produce better models of how corrosion occurs and suggest ways to reduce the damage.
System optimization is one of the key issues for quantum computing, and that capability could help Boeing find better ways to build carbon-composite wings for its planes. “When we designed these wings, we used composite layers. You can imagine that a composite layer is like a piece of fabric, and you are putting together various layers of these pieces of fabric in different ways to get different structural properties on your wing,” Kagele said. “There’s a whole lot of optimization that can be done with this process to figure out how we can best do it to get the properties we want and optimize our overall design.”
Boeing is also investigating how to use quantum tools to optimize its own networks and streamline the process of designing and testing cryogenic microelectronics. “We have been very successful in that area,” Kagele said.
The Northwest Quantum Nexus isn’t the only public-private partnership with Boeing as a partner: In 2019, Boeing joined the Chicago Quantum Exchange. But Kagele said she’s glad to be part of the quantum club in the birthplace of Boeing.
“We are really excited to be a member of this network, to share more with you in the future, and to connect with all of you and move forward on this quantum journey together,” he said.
Stay tuned for more updates from this week’s Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit.