Q&A: Quantum Computing’s Researcher Shortage

Expert William Hurley says the problem could be solved by opening up the field to software developers

12 December 2018

The race is on to build quantum computers and associated technologies. But U.S. businesses and universities are growing concerned there aren’t enough qualified engineers and researchers to meet demand, according to a recent article in The New York Times. In fact, there might be fewer than a thousand people in the world who are doing leading work in the field, the story says.

That could pose a problem for businesses that want to build fast computers—as well as governments that want to maintain national security and their country’s technological edge. Quantum computers could be exponentially faster than today’s supercomputers for a number of applications including factoring large numbers used to encrypt communications. Some observers say the computers could be especially useful for advancing artificial intelligence and handling the deluge of data that is expected to accompany Internet of Things technologies.

The Institute asked IEEE Senior Member William Hurley, chair of the IEEE Standards Association Quantum Computing Working Group, about the reasons for the shortage and where the field is headed. Whurley, as he is known, is founder and CEO of Strangeworks, a quantum computing company in Austin, Texas, that is writing a software subscription service where developers can run quantum experiments on a number of simulators, emulators, and one of several quantum computers. Strangeworks received US $4 million in seed funding in June. This Q&A has been edited and condensed.

What is causing the shortage?

The reason is a lack of foresight by people in academia and industry. We’ve known about quantum computing since 1981 and its potential to change the world, even more so than artificial intelligence. There’s a famous quote from MIT from the 1970s where it said that in three to eight years there would be a computer that had the intelligence of a human being. We still don’t have that, but it didn’t stop people from exploring AI, investing in startups, or teaching about it in schools, did it?

Unlike AI, we didn’t talk about quantum computing, nor did we teach it or write books on how it will revolutionize the world—it didn’t get that love. And I can’t put my finger on why, but it could be because of the quantum physics, which is complicated by nature and requires a lot of heavy math, or that it involves another branch of science altogether.

 We have ignored its potential as a technology. And now that the dawn is upon us, everybody is kind of freaking out. Who will work on the computers? Who will program them? How are we going to use them? We should have been thinking about this for the last 20 years, and definitely for the last five.

We’re just now seeing universities coming up with core curriculums.

What is the responsibility of industry?

When a company claims it’s lacking a workforce, what it’s really saying is that it lacks workers for its particular type of quantum computer. My argument is that even if there were hundreds of quantum computing scientists available for hire, you couldn’t possibly train them on every variety of computer.

By the time you train a workforce large enough to do the things we need done now, the technology will have already advanced. This field is changing so fast, I don’t even know how you would train someone, other than on the basics of quantum and some of the computer science behind it.

What areas will quantum computing revolutionize?

First, there will be tremendous advancements in areas like chemistry, materials science, and drug discovery. And then there will be advances in computational power, with the potential to make huge, existing problems that we aren’t able to solve now—like climate change, cancer, and street traffic—all things of the past.

But what excites me most are all the things we haven’t even dreamed of yet. Once you have this tool, people will start experimenting across different industries. That’s why I’m involved in this—I think there is a ton of opportunity that I can’t even imagine. It’s like when the iPhone was created. Did we ever imagine it would displace so many industries?

Tell us more about your company.

I founded Strangeworks to democratize quantum computing, humanize it, and make it so that software developers can do quantum computing. Right now, you have to be a physicist to use a quantum computer. We’re lowering the barrier to entry by writing software that extracts some of that physics to take advantage of the millions of people who are software developers. Eventually, you won’t know you’re using a quantum computer—you’ll just be processing an algorithm.

Strangeworks also launched Quantum Computing Stack Exchange, the largest question-and-answer site in the world for engineers, scientists, programmers, and computing professionals. We started in March with zero people and now have 4,000 developers.

What you’ll be seeing is this shift—and it might be somewhat of a rough shift at first—from physicists to computer scientists. Some physicists will scoff at this idea, while others will love it.

What is the salary range for quantum computer experts, and where can one get training?

Some researchers are making hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those working for large companies can easily make six figures. We’re in the early days, similar to when Web developers were making US $200,000 a year.

There are dozens of architectures to pick from in quantum computing, so you’ll probably have to specialize in one area. The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M have great classes, for example. MIT offers several online courses as well.

In this transitional time, there will be this person—this unicorn called a quantum computing scientist—who is a quantum physicist who also understands software development and computer science. And it will be these scientists who help improve the field and bring it into the world of computer programmers, like me and the rest of the Strangeworks team.

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