Chicago Quantum Summit draws experts from industry, government, and academia

The rapidly developing field of quantum technology shows great potential, particularly in the areas of computing, secure communication, and optical sensors. The quantum computers of the future will be capable of processing information exponentially faster than today’s most powerful machines. Quantum sensors will yield new imaging technologies able to detect and image single molecules with potential impacts ranging from medicine to the environment.

Quantum science and engineering are not solely a concern of private industry or academia. The implications for national security, the economy, and secure communications are not lost on the US government. Just this September, the White House held a summit on quantum information science and released a strategic report in which the field was ranked as a research priority for the United States.

With the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Chicago has emerged as a center for cutting-edge quantum research. These institutions, along with new core partner University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, make up the Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE). The CQE, based in the Institute for Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago (IME), brought together leaders from academia, industry, and government on November 8-9 to discuss the power of quantum technology at the Chicago Quantum Summit.

Notable speakers at the event included Dario Gil, chief operating officer of AI and IBM Q at IBM Research; Hartmut Neven, director of engineering for AI and quantum at Google; Jeff Henshaw, group program manager for Microsoft’s Quantum Architecture and Computation Group; Steve Binkley, deputy director for science programs in the Office of Science at the US Department of Energy; and France Cordova, director of the National Science Foundation.

The quantum revolution takes shape

University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer kicked off the Chicago Quantum Summit Thursday morning. “We are on the cusp of a very important technological revolution,” he remarked as he welcomed attendees, citing the impact on science, technology, economic development, and national security. And with the stakes being so high, Zimmer said we can’t afford to fall behind. “You do not want to be in a position where you have a typewriter and the other guy has a digital computer.”

Thursday’s program featured lectures and panels covering investments in quantum science and technology, the need for quantum education to fuel the quantum revolution, and collaboration plans between government agencies, companies, and universities.

Dario Gil of IBM opened the morning keynotes. “We have this sense of history in the making, and it’s been a long time coming,” he said. As quantum science continues to progress, we have entered a new stage Gil calls “the quantum-ready phase, where we are getting the world trained and educated.” And in the 2020s, we have the potential to enter a “quantum-advantage phase” when quantum technology can be used for scientific and commercial advantage.

For France Cordova, director of the National Science Foundation, there is a good reason for renewed excitement. “We’re at a point where we can start using quantum science to change the lives of Americans for the better,” she said. Cordova went on to highlight everything from the rise of quantum biology, to the need for workforce training and investment partnerships. “Let’s work together on the next quantum leap,” she said.

Hartmut Neven discussed the broad applications of quantum science during his talk. For him, the most exciting area is quantum AI, which he called “the most creative system we can build under the laws of physics.” Neven is engineering director at the Google Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab. He also cited the pressing need to use scientific and technological advancements to address climate change.

“With any emerging field, there are always challenges,” remarked Steve Binkley of the Department of Energy. Quantum information has great potential in the areas of national security, economic competitiveness, and the frontiers of science, he said. But first, the United States needs stable funding, cutting-edge facilities, and workforce preparation. “There is not today an adequate workforce of professionals that can deal with all of this,” Binkley said, adding that addressing this challenge is critical for the United States to be a leader moving forward.

An evening poster session and a public panel discussion called “Quantum Engineering: The Next Technological Space Race” followed the day’s events. On the panel, Neven and Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering David Awschalom discussed quantum technology’s progress, its potential, and how Chicago has emerged as a leader for future advances in the field.

Awschalom, a leading quantum scientist and director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange, spearheaded the organization of the Chicago Quantum Summit. “It’s an extraordinary time to be engaged in quantum science and engineering, when discoveries are moving from our laboratories to technologies,” he said. “Bringing government and industrial leaders together to share their visions for the future will help shape our activities and motivate our students to advance the field.”

Pushing quantum education forward

On Friday, November 9, the focus shifted to quantum education, featuring a keynote presentation by Linda S. Sapochak, division director of materials research at the National Science Foundation. Conference programming also featured a panel on industry and national labs, as well as a student poster session and networking.

Quantum education is essential now more than ever. A lack of quantum engineers threatens to slow progress, and there are only a handful of schools to educate people in the field. The Institute for Molecular Engineering is one of the few institutions in the country to offer an advanced degree in quantum science and engineering. It also offers an innovative program with Harvard University that pairs students with two mentors—one from academia and one from industry—to train a new generation of quantum engineers.

“Quantum education is central to IME’s mission,” said Matthew Tirrell, dean and founding Pritzker director of IME. “Tomorrow’s breakthroughs in quantum technology will not be possible without teaching today’s students the crucial foundations of this emerging field of study.”