The inaugural symposium of the Virginia Tech Center for Quantum Information Science and Engineering was not a poetry slam — but the language used to describe the pioneering quantum research taking place across the university veered at times into verse:

Spin is entangled with flying photons / turning around infinitely fast / described by a curve in six dimensions / moving blindly through barren plateaus of parameter states / kinks equal infinite curvature / is this the quantum speed limit?

Such language was used by researchers to describe the current state and future possibilities of quantum research during the symposium on the Blacksburg campus last month.

“Together we are exploring how quantum physics can be channeled into developing new technologies and applied in new ways,” said Sophia Economou, the T. Marshall Hahn Chair in Physics in the Virginia Tech College of Science who directs the center. 

This wealth of quantum expertise and interest at Virginia Tech was evident by the broad range of departments and initiatives represented at the symposium, which also included a lively poster session where several of the center's Ph.D. students and postdoctoral candidates showcased their work.

Administratively housed within the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, the Virginia Tech Center for Quantum Information Science and Engineering collaborates with groups such as the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative’s Southwest Virginia node, the Innovation Campus, and the Corporate Research Center, all of which are investing in quantum research and infrastructure.

New quantum paradigm

The past few decades of scientific exploration have revealed new insights into the behavior of physics at the quantum level, including phenomena that allow quantum technology to behave in fundamentally different ways than the technology in use today.

“Exploiting quantum behaviors could allow us to significantly cut back on the number of computational steps needed to solve certain problems,” said Economou. “Besides enabling quantum computers, progress is being made on devices that could be capable of solving outstanding problems in physics, chemistry, and beyond that are intractable with even the most powerful supercomputers.”

Like cybersecurity or artificial intelligence, quantum science is a stand-alone discipline as well as a lens through which other disciplines pass to be changed or transformed entirely. For engineers and scientists, this bewitching possibility could mean leapfrogging years of research – and they need each other to do it.

“The stereotype is: Science asks why and engineering asks how,” said Economou. “That’s never really been true of course, but quantum science and technology call for a completely new paradigm.”

The best approach, said Economou, is collaborative.

“One of the exciting things about quantum at this time is that it underpins a lot of different fields, which means experts in those fields can pivot into quantum,” said Wayne Scales, the J. Byron Maupin Professor of Engineering in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a member of the Virginia Tech quantum community. “This opens new educational and career pathways for students and new research avenues for faculty members.”

The emerging field of quantum science and engineering promises meaningful changes in almost every discipline — perhaps even poetry.

At the symposium

The following researchers presented at the symposium:

  • Ayush Asthana, postdoctoral researcher, Virginia Tech Department of Chemistry

    Asthana spoke about his work on the foundations of quantum computing applications aimed at advancing molecular sciences. His group is exploring the possibility of using a quantum computer to side-step the exponential scaling associated with simulating complicated molecular systems.

  •  Ed Barnes, professor, Virginia Tech Department of Physics, Virginia Tech Center for Quantum Information Science and Engineering

    Control is relevant to all areas of quantum information science. Barnes discussed how the four main pillars of quantum technologies rely on stable, high-quality quantum bits (qubits), which are the basic units of quantum information. Barnes and his research group are working to improve control and reduce noise in quantum systems.

  • Paul Cazeaux, assistant professor, Virginia Tech Department of Mathematics

    Stacked layers of 2D materials, such as graphene, exhibit unusual properties that may be useful in certain applications. Cazeaux provided a high-level tour of a few of the possible advantages of using these structures, which include alleviating noise and improving conductivity in quantum computers.

  • Gretchen Matthews, professor, Virginia Tech Department of Mathematics,  Commonwealth Cyber Initiative in Southwest Virginia

    Quantum algorithms break existing public-key cryptosystems that protect our digital transactions. Matthews related the work she is doing on code-based cryptographic schemes to protect today's computers from cyberattacks via a large-scale quantum computer.

  •  Jaime Sikora, assistant professor, Virginia Tech Department of Computer Science

    Quantum state discrimination is a fundamental task in quantum information, but is it possible to distinguish which state a qubit is not in? Sikora talked about this new twist on an old problem, and how it might reach the same results but be easier to solve.

  • Eva Takou, Ph.D. student, Virginia Tech Department of Physics

    A quantum network is a series of quantum processors connected through fibers and switches. Takou covered some of the biggest challenges and potential solutions associated with large-scale quantum networks, including transferring quantum information between remote processors, fiber loss, and secure communications.

  •  Ada Warren, Ph.D. student, Virginia Tech Department of Physics

    Quantum simulators could answer big questions about model systems, shedding light on hard problems in the real world. But even storing moderately-sized quantum states is infeasible with today's hardware. Warren discussed the work being done to make the simulations themselves quantum mechanical.
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