It’s been nearly four years since the Pacific Northwest’s leaders in quantum computing gathered in Seattle for the first Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit, and since then the scientific hype around quantum computing has gotten even bigger. What’s next for the Nexus? The star-studded second peak.
Amazon Web Services and Boeing are joining this week-long meeting at the University of Washington, with nearly 300 representatives from academia, business and government signed up to attend. Some of the companies appearing at the second summit — such as Seattle-based startup Moonbeam Exchange — didn’t even exist when the first summit was held in March 2019.
Over the past four years, the University of Warsaw has received approximately $45 million in federal funds to support research in the field of quantum computing. Quantum computing has received new support from Congress and the Biden administration. Two cloud computing powerhouses from the Pacific Northwest, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, have deployed hybrid quantum platforms. And just last week, Maryland-based company IonQ announced it was setting up a quantum computing research and manufacturing facility in Bothell, a Seattle suburb.
Microsoft, UW, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory began work on the Northwest Quantum Nexus in 2019. IonQ, Washington State University, and the University of Oregon’s Center for Optical, Molecular, and Quantum Sciences joined the team a few years later. Now, the addition of Amazon and Boeing brings the two regional tech giants together.
Amazon adds quantum to the cloud
Sebastian Hassinger, chief specialist of the AWS quantum platform Amazon Braket, said his team needed no persuasion to join the public-private consortium, even though it was co-founded by their Microsoft rivals. He said supervisors at AWS just needed “a little” persuasion.
“With classical technologies, there is a short period of time where pre-competitive open science can exist … but it turns into a race for market very quickly,” said Hassinger. “In the quantum case, we are looking at, as everyone knows, an extended period of time that is pre-competitive open science. There is a lot of fundamental work to be done that requires the wider academic community and public-private partnership interaction.”
Hassinger said AWS added quantum computing to its cloud portfolio because so many customers were asking about the technology’s potential. Amazon Braket is intended to serve as a testing ground for applications, but that’s not AWS’s only commitment to the quantum realm. AWS has established research centers in collaboration with computer scientists from Caltech and Harvard, as well as a network to build links with quantum endeavors.
Quantum computing takes a different approach than classical computing. Rather than dealing with sharply defined ones and zeros, quantum processors are designed to manipulate small particles that can represent multiple values until the result is read. This is the power of the quantum – and also the challenge.
“It’s not going to be a quick dunk,” Hassinger said. “When the first quantum computer can do something that’s really useful for anything – pharma or fintech, it won’t be something like, ‘OK, plug in and go.’
AWS is gearing up to handle these applications—whether discovering new drugs, developing new high-performance materials, or building better batteries. And that’s why AWS joins the Northwest Quantum Nexus. “Every region in the country and every country in the world owes itself to making this kind of effort,” Hassinger said.
Boeing takes off towards quantum frontiers
One wonders what America’s biggest aerospace company hopes to get out of quantum computing. “There are no quantum planes yet,” Ben Koltenbah, a technical associate at Boeing who specializes in applied physics and quantum technology, joked during the summit presentation.
But Marna Kagele, a technical specialist who leads Boeing’s research team on quantum applications, said the field holds great potential.
“We have a lot of products beyond commercial aircraft,” she said. “We have defense aircraft, we have space vehicles, underwater vehicles. … We have all kinds of complicated operations. We design new materials for all these products. And everyone could benefit from quantum technology.”
Boeing’s Disruptive Computing & Networks division serves as the company’s nexus for quantum research and development.
One project is calling for the use of quantum sensor technology in new types of optical clocks for ultra-precise timekeeping and GPS-level navigation. Another project aims to use quantum computing tools to learn more about how advanced materials interact with the environment.
“Everyone who makes vehicles has a vehicle that interacts with the environment around them, and those environments are challenging,” explained Kagele. “Even vehicles that are standing in the sun – UV radiation is really harsh on a vehicle. So you can imagine with salts you get a lot of corrosion. Department of Defense [Department of Defense] estimates they spend $20 billion a year on corrosion.”
Quantum computing can create better models of corrosion and suggest ways to reduce damage.
System optimization is one of the best points in quantum computing, and this ability could help Boeing find better ways to build carbon composite wings for its planes. “When we design these wings, we use composite layers. You can imagine that the composite layer is like a piece of fabric and you layer several of these pieces of material on top of each other in different ways to get different structural properties of the wing,” Kagele said. “With this process, you can do all the optimization to figure out how we can do it in the best way to get the desired properties and optimize our overall design.”
Boeing is also considering how to use quantum tools to optimize its own networks and streamline the process of designing and testing cryogenic microelectronics. “We’ve had a lot of success in this area,” said Kagele.
Northwest Quantum Nexus is not the only public-private partnership in which Boeing is a partner: already in 2019, Boeing joined the Chicago Quantum Exchange. But Kagele said she enjoyed being part of the quantum club where Boeing was born.
“We’re very excited to be part of this network, share more with you in the future, connect with all of you, and move forward together on this quantum journey,” she said.
Stay tuned for more coverage from the Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit later this week.