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Do we need a 'Quantum Generation'?

Do we need a 'Quantum Generation'?
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Driving Route 66 requires no specialized training. Steering wheel, pedals, lights, mirror controls — they are all familiar concepts, each one a well-established automobile technology. If you’ve driven one car, you’ve more or less driven them all. Call it driver’s intuition.

However, despite the public’s growing awareness of quantum technology, a corresponding intuition is rare, even among experts in the field.  With quantum intuition, one could differentiate between quantum and classical worlds — at the most basic level — without deliberation.

For most of us, stuck with our classical minds, quantum intuition is difficult due to the counterintuitive nature of the quantum world. Concepts like entanglement and superposition can be challenging, since there is no obvious mapping of the bizarre quantum world to everyday life.

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Developing our quantum minds

Most of us have technological intuition, like the ability to drive an unfamiliar car or use a new computer program. Unhindered by philosophical obstacles, it allows children to program a TV remote or master a smartphone much faster than their parents. That’s because kids today have been born and raised surrounded by technology built upon classical computers and have developed an intuition for them.

With quantum computers only now emerging, such early development is lacking. Consider, for example, light. While familiar in the macroscopic world, its quantum properties are odd. Sometimes it behaves like a wave, sometimes like a particle. Think of quantum particles that can pass, or tunnel, through energy barriers. Or imagine entangled particles, which influence each other even if separated by a large distance. There are also mind-boggling interpretations of quantum mechanics that drive ongoing and vigorous debates among specialists, such as theories of multiple universes or theories in which the future influences the past

The legendary “spookiness” of quantum mechanics which so bothered Albert Einstein is born from similar examples, and the frustrations expressed by Einstein, Richard Feynman or Erwin Schrödinger are as painful today as they were a century ago.

As the quantum technological revolution changes the world, it must first move out from laboratories and into proverbial garages. To get there requires a quantum education at an early stage, an effort to tunnel through the barrier of quantum weirdness and kick-start a “quantum generation” of young people who can consider entanglement without being spooked, like we are, and instead set up those garages and launch completely new approaches to quantum technology.

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From quantum intuition to quantum workforce

We are not yet ready for that transition. Mastering intuition requires a solid quantum education, one that crosses disciplines and fuses physics, computer science, engineering, mathematics and materials research in nearly equal parts.

Such an education must include focused training at the elementary, middle and high school levels, as well as informal education at museums and unconventional approaches like merging art into quantum education.

How do we get there? With much to do, the United States is not sitting idle. For example, several first steps emerged from a recent collaborative effort from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy that brought together cross-disciplinary specialists to develop core resources for inspiring quantum information science learners. One outcome, a “necessary minimum” list of nine key concepts with narratives developed by subject-matter experts, is helping shape the nation’s approach to early education, tackling such concepts as qubits, quantum computers and entanglement, just to name a few.

Industry is also getting involved. As students further develop their careers, the convergent efforts of industry, academia and government will be vital, as will early introductions to industrial settings. One initial effort, known as the TRIPLETS program, was initiated by NSF and co-sponsored by industrial partners such as IBM, Google, Raytheon, Montana Instruments and many others, including several Department of Energy National Laboratories. This approach allows students to collaborate with both an industrial advisor and an academic investigator, forming a “triplet” that introduces fundamental research and industrial culture well before graduation.

A continuing national investment

Fundamental research generates high quality educational experiences, which will lead to quantum intuition, and this cultural and technological shift requires investment.

The ambitious all-of-government approach known as Industries of the Future includes a plan to increase federal investments in five key industries to $10 billion per year by fiscal year 2025. In addition to quantum information science, the targeted industries include artificial intelligence, 5G technologies and advanced communications, biotechnology and advanced manufacturing, with quantum technologies further integrating across the other fields.

This plan builds upon the National Quantum Initiative Act, established in 2018, with both efforts calling for the development of a future quantum workforce and a strong focus on education.

However, implementation will require educators, academics, industry, and government agencies working together to create the policies and practices that enable young people today to develop the quantum intuition needed for the future.

Armed with intuition, the quantum generation will come.

Tomasz Durakiewicz is program director for Condensed Matter Physics at the National Science Foundation, Division of Materials Research, and since February 2019 has served as staff associate, Office of the Assistant Director, in the agency's Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Durakiewicz has co-authored more than 170 peer-reviewed publications, more than 210 conference abstracts and six patents, and he has presented more than 60 invited talks. For more than a decade prior to his service at NSF, Durakiewicz was a materials researcher at the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory.