Why education must take a quantum leap

Quantum computing; A man takes a photo of a model of the IBM Q System One quantum computer during the 2020 CES in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. January 7, 2020. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

To truly embrace the full potential of quantum computing, quantum education and workforce development will be crucial. Image: REUTERS/Steve Marcus

Alessandro Curioni
Vice President Europe and Africa and Director, IBM Research Europe
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  • Quantum computing could have benefits across industries including pharmaceuticals, renewable energy development, finance and manufacturing.
  • To fully embrace this technology, however, we need to focus on quantum education and workforce development.
  • While some programmes are being rolled out to students and a handful of workforces, more effort is needed to achieve the “quantum advantage”.

The 13-year-old daughter of a friend visiting my workplace — the IBM Research lab in Zurich — seemed puzzled. She knew I worked in a research lab and I that work with computers, but the computers she knows don’t typically resemble the chandelier-like structure that hung from the ceiling in front of us.

Yet, it is a computer – a quantum computer. And while someone in their early teens right now can be excused for not knowing what a quantum computer is, I would very much like that to change.

Have you read?

Quantum computing technology is rapidly maturing and we are on the brink of a technological revolution. Quantum computers work with qubits instead of the much more familiar binary digits, or bits. And while the bits in our current electronics can only have the value of either a 0 or a 1, a qubit can be both at once.

Thanks to this property, among others, quantum computers can perform faster and more precise computations than classical computers. This means they should be particularly well-suited to tasks relying on probabilities and optimization, such as creating a new complex molecule to develop a material with specific properties. There can be a myriad of different arrangements of atoms to form a molecule, and it's incredibly difficult to find the correct one. A quantum computer can quickly sift through all the possibilities to zero in on the most likely candidates.

Accelerating towards the future

The ability to create remarkably fast and accurate molecular simulations makes quantum computers a crucial next-gen tool to accelerate the discovery of new materials - anything from new drugs to solar panels to polymers. In fact, within a few years, these machines should be able to achieve the so-called “quantum advantage”, that is, become better than traditional computers at a specific, practical task.

But the question is, once they reach this important threshold, will the world be ready for these machines? Will companies know how a quantum computer could help them? Will university graduates in computer science be able to create a quantum algorithm? And will the necessary infrastructure exist to support hundreds, or even thousands, of these new machines?

"We need to make the world quantum-ready today by focusing on education and workforce development."

Alessandro Curioni, IBM

If we were to reach a quantum advantage a few years from now, the answer to all those questions would be “no”. We are still only at the dawn of our quantum journey. By the time the entire world starts relying on these machines, people won’t have to know quantum programming at all. They will simply choose the right algorithm from a quantum app library, and it will work its quantum magic in the background.

But that’s the future. To get there, we need to make the world quantum-ready today by focusing on education and workforce development.

High school quantum and beyond

Kids today should learn about quantum computers as part of their high school education. Before they choose their career paths, young people should learn what this emerging technology will be able to do across industries including material discovery, drug development, finance, space exploration and even manufacturing of the next smartphone.

Beyond high school, quantum computing education should be much more diverse than it is today. To ensure that we have trained enough talent to create new quantum algorithms and to continue to improve the software and hardware, we need to offer quantum computing courses to a much wider range of undergraduates and to those pursuing apprenticeships and other shorter degrees and certificates. We also need to encourage businesses and organisations today to start getting more employees quantum-ready.

There are already early efforts to both educate students and the existing workforce, but there should be more. Globally, not many universities offer quantum programming courses, for example. This education gap could seriously impact the development of a quantum-ready workforce.


Getting an education

The US government has launched an initiative to get high school pupils interested in quantum information science and quantum computing. Dubbed the National Q-12 Education Partnership, the effort unites 15 quantum-driving leaders in industry and academia. The initiative is supported by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Science Foundation (NSF). The latter has already pledged nearly $1 million for various quantum information science (QIS) education efforts, including the Q2Work programme to get QIS resources into classrooms.

Although there are only a small number of physical quantum computers in the world — including IBM systems in Tokyo and Germany, and soon in Canada and at the Cleveland Clinic in the US — they are all accessible through the cloud. This means anyone from academia or industry, anywhere in the world can access a quantum computer to learn the basics of quantum programming.

At IBM, for instance, there are several quantum-focused education programmes that include access to quantum computers, teaching support, summer schools and hackathons. This includes Qiskit, Qubit by Qubit’s Introduction to Quantum Computing in partnership with The Coding School, and the Quantum Educators programme, which gives school teachers and students access to IBM quantum systems through the cloud.

Such efforts are important. Schools and universities worldwide must tackle the quantum education gap together, setting the next generation of talent on a quantum course from their teenage years.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve digital intelligence in children?

Building a quantum-ready workforce

When it comes to educating adults, only a handful of companies are currently investing in developing an understanding of quantum technologies. Considering that quantum computers can give businesses an edge, many more should follow suit — be it a pharma giant looking for new drugs or a renewable energy company trying to create more efficient materials for solar panels.

There are many possibilities where quantum computers should be able to help, especially when it comes to finding the best option among a myriad of possibilities — think billions upon billions of configurations for a new molecule.

This is the future, but today’s research should get us there remarkably soon. For the world to truly embrace the full potential of quantum computing, we need to focus on quantum education and workforce development. And we need to do it now.

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