Canada’s Moment to Invest in Quantum Computing is Now
Canada 150 Research Chair in Theoretical and Quantum Chemistry
Alán Aspuru-Guzik is the Canada 150 Research Chair in Theoretical and Quantum Chemistry and a professor of Chemistry and Computer Science at the University of Toronto. He conducts research in the interfaces of quantum information, chemistry, machine learning and chemistry. He was a pioneer in the development of algorithms and experimental implementations of quantum computers and quantum simulators dedicated to chemical systems. He has worked on molecular representations and generative models for the automatic learning of molecular properties. Currently, Alán is interested in automation and "autonomous" chemical laboratories. He was previously a full professor at Harvard University. Alán is also a co-founder of Zapata Computing and Kebotix, two early-stage ventures in quantum computing and self-driving laboratories respectively.
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1- Quantum computing will become more powerful than classical computing by 2040, and Canada is one of the global leaders in this important future economy field.
2- Areas of current computational science will be revolutionized and disrupted by the presence of quantum computers. Canada must invest in gaining a lead in these areas to turn potential threats into opportunities.
3- Canada should aim to become a world leader in innovations in material science by transforming our natural resources into the products of the future. This is especially salient as it pertains to materials used for energy generation.
I would call on Justin Trudeau to pitch him the opportunity to replicate the extreme success of institutes like MILA, Amii and the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in other areas. We have to see these industry-academia partnerships of innovation in quantum, biotech, materials and many other areas that are important for our future economy.
How would you explain quantum science and quantum computing?
The computers that we use every day are called classical computers and they obey the laws of classical physics, which state that microscopic objects cannot be in quantum superposition, therefore they are in definite states. So, our current computers can have either 0 or 1 bits. On the other hand, quantum computers exploit the quantum mechanical nature of matter to create bits that we call quantum bits – or qubits – that can be 0 and 1 at the same time. To make things even more intriguing, we use another property of quantum mechanics called entanglement to basically correlate qubits together in a way you cannot in a classical computer. So, a quantum computer uses entanglement and superposition to do calculations that are unlikely to be done on a classical computer.
When we say the word “supercomputer”, what comes to mind is a very large classical computer with a large array and a number of processors that work together to do a calculation. The United States and China are in a race to see who has the largest one. Europe is also in the game sometimes and Canada has some supercomputers as well.
Quantum computers, on the other hand, are a new class of computers. They can do anything that a classical computer can do, but quantum computers have an advantage over classical ones in certain classes of algorithms. Some areas of computational science will be revolutionized or even disrupted by the presence of quantum computers. But, there is no advantage in using quantum computers over classical computers in other areas such as internet browsing.
For example, quantum computers are known to be better at factoring numbers, which is necessary for password encryption. Quantum computers can also efficiently simulate matter like solid-state compounds, materials and molecules. This is where the design of new chemicals, materials and drugs comes into play. Classical computers can only approximate the solutions to these types of problems. One of my areas of focus over the last 12 years has been on using quantum computers to design new molecules or materials that are of benefit to humanity.
How far have we reached in the development trajectory of quantum computing?
There has definitely recently been an inflection point in quantum computing. In the last couple of years, the public has found out that big corporations such as IBM, Google, Microsoft, Intel, Honeywell, Alibaba, and others are all trying to build quantum computers. In addition, start-ups like Rigetti and IonQ are trying to build practical quantum devices for the near future. These are called near-term intermediate scale quantum computers or noisy intermediate scale quantum (NISQ) computers. My phone is way more powerful than them at the moment, but they promise to become more and more powerful really quickly. Furthermore, many people are racing to use quantum computers for tasks that are difficult on a classical computer in the very near future. That does not mean that the application will be of commercial relevance, but it will be a milestone to show the quantum advantage.
My hunch is that quantum computing will become more powerful than classical computing by 2040. I cannot predict the future, but my guess would be that we will have achieved quantum error correction (QEC) by then. Canada has tremendous momentum in quantum computing through the Creative Destruction Lab initiative that has been replicated in many Canadian cities to create start-ups focused on the space. I believe that the materials market is in the low trillions of dollars and quantum computing can capture a huge share of it in the future.
How fierce is the international competition in quantum computing and how competitive is Canada in this space?
China has announced huge investments in quantum computing. The European Union has also announced massive investments in their Quantum Flagship project, under the Horizon 2020 initiative. Even the United States, in this era of polarization, was able to pass a bipartisan bill that substantially supports quantum computing. Canada has always been a player and is increasing investments in quantum as well. I co-founded a start-up called Zapata Computing that is developing software for new quantum computers. Just like me, many of the academics around the world are also involved in new companies in this space because they are feeling a sense of urgency to show that NISQ computers can do something useful.
I moved the Matter Lab from Harvard to the University of Toronto because Canada is a very interesting place. On a personal level, Canadian society, values and culture are highly attractive to me. I feel a drive and thirst for innovation among Canadians from all sectors of the economy. So, Canada has the right attitude for becoming a high tech and science-driven economy. In terms of the quantum space, Canada has historically been a very big player. All Canadian universities have excellent research, but Waterloo is the most well known area for quantum information because of the presence of the Institute of Quantum Computing (IQC) and the Perimeter Institute.
“Canada needs to become a leader in the transformation of natural resources into useful products. We need to transition from being a natural resources extraction economy into an economy where we are the masters of matter.”
Canada’s massive investment in AI has led to the growth of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA), Amii (Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute) and the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Similarly, I believe that Canada’s moment to invest in quantum computing is now.
With this in mind, I would pitch Justin Trudeau on the opportunity to replicate the extreme success of institutes like MILA, Amii and the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in other areas of Canada’s economy. We have to see such industry-academia innovation partnerships in quantum computing, biotech, materials and many other areas that are important for our future economy.
What do you see as the challenges and risks that quantum science could pose for society?
In a recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, we have identified cryptosystems as a major challenge. Even if we started today, deploying a new cryptosystem could take around 10 years. So, if a quantum computer that is able to crack passwords is developed within a decade, certainly our current safety protocols for the internet will be broken. So, one of our recommendations is to get started with post-quantum data now. We have to start developing, investing in and deploying new technologies that are resistant to current quantum algorithms.
Secondly, Canada is involved in quantum radar research, which is the idea of using entangled photons to detect stealth aircrafts. With competition from China and the US, Canada has to be careful in this “weaponized” area of quantum technology. While these aspects of quantum could be perceived as threats, I consider them to be opportunities. Even in the quantum cryptology case, there is an opportunity to develop data encryption using quantum resources. Every technological breakthrough has its positives and negatives; in the case of quantum science and computing, I think the positives outweigh the negatives.
What is the future of energy research in Canada?
I am currently a Senior Fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), which is a uniquely Canadian organization. CIFAR brings together the best minds in the world around particular research questions and enables multidisciplinary research in the field. I am a part of CIFAR’s Biologically-Inspired Solar Energy Program, which aims to learn from and apply biological energy creation processes to the energy sector.
Moreover, Mission Innovation is a fantastic collaboration of 23 countries under the Paris agreement. Out of the seven worldwide ideas that are being pursued under the Mission, one goal is to find new energy technologies from plants. It is called Mission Innovation Challenge 6, which Canada co-leads with Mexico. Beyond AI and quantum computing, Canada needs to become a leader in the transformation of natural resources into useful products. We need to transition from being a natural resources extraction economy into an economy where we are the masters of matter. That is why the name of my lab is Matter Lab. We are using AI, robotics and high-performance computing in a system called a Materials Acceleration Platform (MAP) or a self-driving laboratory. This is the laboratory of the future; it is able to carry out many experiments at once in an automated fashion. More importantly, the laboratory uses AI to make its own decisions around the next best experiment to carry out. If we added a quantum device that simulated matter exactly, it could greatly accelerate the discovery of materials. If these self-driving laboratories also had a quantum computer in the mix, I could call them super self-driving laboratories. This project is under the umbrella of Mission Innovation, so we are trying to assemble a team of scientists from around the world. But, at least half of our core team is Canadian and Canada could truly become a leader in material innovation around energy.