Quantum computing leaps: Sydney University and UNSW as the best of frenemies

Turnbull makes an announcement on quantum computing at Uni of NSW on April 22, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. Photo:  Anthony Johnson
Turnbull makes an announcement on quantum computing at Uni of NSW on April 22, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. Photo: Anthony Johnson
University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence (left) with Microsoft's Norm Whitaker (centre) and Professor David Reilly in Reilly's laboratory at the Nanoscience Hub. Photo: Louise Kennerley

University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence (left) with Microsoft's Norm Whitaker (centre) and Professor David Reilly in Reilly's laboratory at the Nanoscience Hub. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Turnbull makes an announcement on quantum computing at Uni of NSW on April 22, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. Photo: Anthony Johnson

Turnbull makes an announcement on quantum computing at Uni of NSW on April 22, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. Photo: Anthony Johnson

Professor Michelle Simmons at UNSW. Photo: Nic Walker

Professor Michelle Simmons at UNSW. Photo: Nic Walker

Sydney this week hosted the opening of not one, but two, quantum computing laboratories. The University of Sydney opened its state-of-the-art $150 million Nanoscience Hub with a two-day quantum science symposium that attracted bigwigs from Microsoft, along with some of the best brains in physics from across the world.

Across South Dowling Street in Kensington, the University of NSW opened an extension to its already world-class quantum labs. In what some saw as a cheeky attempt to steal Sydney Uni's thunder, UNSW was able to wheel out none other than the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to open the $25 million new wing of its Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology.

Quantum computing is one of the great untapped fields of experimental physics that promises to transform the global economy and the technology that underpins our lives.

It seeks to manipulate the strange behaviour of matter at the scale of a billionth of a metre to build a new generation of technological hardware. If successfully harnessed, the processing power of quantum computing could help solve problems out of reach of even the fastest classical computers.

Turnbull, who is at pains to display his government's commitment to scientific innovation and agility, has committed $26 million to UNSW's quantum computing endeavours over five years. That money came as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda announcement in December.

While there was no federal money in the UNSW extension announced on Friday, Turnbull was keen to get himself in front of this cutting-edge research facility exploring the practicality of quantum computing. It comes just a week after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wowed a press conference with his scripted "off-the-cuff" explanation of quantum computing at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario.

Speaking at the launch on Friday, Turnbull explained his version of quantum computing, albeit without allowing questions. In wry self-deprecation, the Prime Minister concluded his comments, saying "There has never been a better time to be in quantum computing".

"This is not just a great position to be in, but a superposition," Turnbull said, referring to the superpositioning behaviour of quantum objects.

Professor Michelle Simmons at UNSW has previously said: "This is the space race of the computing era."

Simmons is leading UNSW's quantum computing charge. Her team has an impressive string of achievements. Last year members of UNSW's team successfully ran an algorithm – or computation – using two quantum bits in silicon. This was the world's first silicon logic gate in quantum computing.

The first thing you need to know about quantum mechanics is that it's OK if you find it confusing. Trudeau's slick response notwithstanding, the quantum world is by definition beyond the lived experience of human beings. Some of the best minds in history have struggled with it.

Albert Einstein himself rejected its premise, saying: "The more success the quantum theory has the sillier it looks." Another of the 20th century's greatest physicists, Richard Feynman, bluntly said: "Nobody understands quantum mechanics."

But increasingly people do – and we are lucky to have some of the best operators here in Sydney.

While they are polite about it, there is something of a niggle between UNSW and Sydney University.

UNSW, perhaps rightly, considers itself ahead of the pack. It has more peer-reviewed articles in leading scientific journals such as Nature, than many of its competitors. And it is more narrowly focused on one path to quantum computing success.

However, many voices in quantum physics say there will be no single "winner" in quantum computing.

Norman Whitaker, global managing director of Microsoft's special projects program, was at Sydney University to launch the Nanoscience Hub. The global computing giant is backing Sydney University's quantum computing program as part of its Station Q project.

He said: "It's a question of many flowers blooming. If these folks [at UNSW] have a great technology, we will want to learn from that. [While we are supporting Sydney University] it's not an exclusionary position we are in right now."

Raymond Laflamme is a theoretical and experimental physicist at Canada's Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. He told the Herald that quantum computing was in its early days. He said it's probably best not to think of a quantum computer as one type of device.

"There are many modalities that quantum technology can be. Which one is most promising? It depends on what you want to do. In the end we will likely end with a hybrid device," Laflamme says.

It is important to realise that quantum computers will not replace our laptops but, rather, will probably become workhorses crunching big data. They will help us mine huge databases, build cyber-security systems that can't be hacked, help design new pharmaceuticals, model complex chemical, climate and economic systems.

Our day-to-day computing will be done on familiar, classical devices.

A central difference of approach between Sydney and UNSW seems to be scope of research.

Simmons at UNSW tells the Herald: "We're very focused. From the get-go we were always going to build a processor and we're going to stick with silicon. That's been our hallmark of success."

So where UNSW could be described as material fundamentalists, at Sydney Uni they are agnostic.

Professor David Reilly is director of the Quantum Nanoscience Laboratory at Sydney University. He says: "It's not a materials race. I'm a materials agnostic – we are working with gallium arsenide and also silicon-germanium – both interesting. It's too hard to say what will ultimately be needed. Maybe both, maybe neither."

And while he salutes the advances made at UNSW, he points out that those, including their two qubit system, are in silicon. He says that in his lab he can briefly scale up to a four or five qubit systems in his preferred medium, gallium arsenide, a common alloy used in semiconducting materials.

Reilly's colleague is Associate Professor Michael Biercuk, who runs the quantum simulation lab at Sydney Uni's Nanoscience Hub. He agrees with Simmons that there is a "space race" to quantum computing. However, he says: "It's not like we're the Americans and they're the Russians."

Competitive collaboration seems to be the order. So while both teams are at times defensive of their respective approaches, they retain deep respect for each other.

Simmons says: "Australia has been disproportionately strong in the quantum technology field, which is very exciting.

"One of the reasons is our collaborative spirit. Australians are pioneering and they're collaborative and that gives us a competitive edge internationally."

Sydney University vice-chancellor Michael Spence says: "We don't play the Sydney v UNSW game. From a global perspective, having a concentration of quantum expertise in the Sydney basin is a real advantage for our city and the more we can present a united front in that, the better."

When more reflective, both Sydney and UNSW researchers acknowledge that the path forward is not certain.

Reilly says: "Nobody yet knows what the ideal material system is in which to build a quantum computer.

"My feeling is it will be a hybrid. It will be a combination of the best properties of materials, the best aspects of architectures and so on. At this time it does feel a little bit like a race, but it's a collaborative race."

Simmons says: "Everyone's [approach] has positives and negatives. I don't want to be seen as thinking that any other approach isn't going to work. Because each one of us doesn't know, to be honest."

Of course, there is a slim chance that quantum computing is impossible. Perhaps quantum state systems are just too fragile to control.

Reilly says: "The laws of physics allow for computation using quantum mechanics. If it doesn't work, then we are missing something vitally important in our fundamental models. If that's the case then that piece of physics will be much more exciting than building a quantum computer.

"It will tell us something fundamental about the universe and lead to all kinds of new technology."

So either way, it is worth the ride.

This story Quantum computing leaps: Sydney University and UNSW as the best of frenemies first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.