michelle simmons australian of the year

Professor Michelle Simmons is one of the world’s leading experts in the emerging and complex field of quantum computing. She says it is essential for directors to consider its potential impact, especially on companies in sectors wrangling large and growing data collections.

“Because it is transformational, if you don’t engage until it’s built, people that got in early will be using it ahead of you,” says Simmons. The advantage early adoption might confer could be hard for laggards to match.

The first commercial quantum system was sold (to Lockheed) by Canadian company D-Wave Systems in 2011 for US$10 million. While its performance met with mixed reviews, it was a bridge to the future. Billions of dollars are now being spent worldwide in a quantum “arms race” to build computers that can tackle computing challenges associated with climate change, advanced drug development, autonomous transport, cyber security and almost any form of systems optimisation.

The latter has huge implications. Logistics business UPS estimates that if it could shorten, by a 1.6km a day, the distance each of its drivers travelled it could save $US50m a year.

“This is a whole new form of computing. Every aspect is different, so the hardware and how you program it is different. The types of calculations you can do are very specific,” she says.

“The danger is that people will think it can replace classical computing — it won’t, it’s going to augment it — and it will choose particular problems with lots of variables where it will have an impact.”

What’s it All About?

The arrival of quantum computing has the potential to change pretty much everything. Banks, telecommunications companies, logistics businesses, and pharmaceutical and chemical companies are already exploring how quantum may impact their sector as well as developing skills and strategies to ensure they do not fall behind in the race to exploit what is computing’s next big thing.

Problems that were once too hard for conventional computers to crack will be tackled; current techniques for data encryption once considered impenetrable will be rendered vulnerable; and early adopters of quantum computing stand to save significant amounts of money and time by optimising operations to a degree never possible previously.

There are more than 50 quantum algorithms under development, which will steer how quantum computing will be deployed. These include an algorithm for prime factorisation of numbers (currently the basis for high-level encryption, which is why current data security models may be at risk) and an algorithm that allows rapid search of unordered data.

While these new algorithms may render today’s encryption techniques vulnerable — they do hold the promise of truly uncrackable data protection. They herald the possibility of faster, better drug development; new materials; smarter artificial intelligence and autonomous machines; and more detailed climate-change models — thanks to the computer’s ability to process various “what if” scenarios far faster than a classical computer.

While commercial systems are yet to emerge, there are now quantum simulators allowing developers to envisage how to develop software code for quantum computers and the problems they might be able to tackle.

The gnarly problem with quantum computing is that it’s hard to understand and hard to create — and will probably be hard to deploy. However, dealing with the hard stuff is what excites Simmons. She criticised the dumbing down of Australia’s science education in her Australia Day address. Noting that, “technology at the forefront of human endeavour is hard, but that’s what makes it worth it,” she went on to lament the trend to “feminise” the hard sciences at school by requiring students to write essays rather than learn and apply formulae, saying it has led to university first-years feeling undercooked in their physics grounding.

However, there’s nothing undercooked about Simmons. She leads the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) where she is a Scientia Professor of Physics and a non-executive director of Silicon Quantum Computing — a spin-off company launched in 2017 that is working to build a quantum computer.

Simmons has played a key role in securing funding for quantum research at UNSW. The federal government has pledged $25m, the state government $8.7m, UNSW $25m, the Commonwealth Bank $14m and Telstra $10m to fund a 10-qubit prototype silicon quantum integrated circuit to be delivered by 2022.

Internationally, the amounts of money being invested in quantum computing research are eye-watering (see breakout opposite). Given that global opportunity, why did Simmons, already a highly respected Cambridge researcher, up sticks, buy a one-way ticket and move across the world to Sydney in 1999?

Because she was one of the first scientists to understand what quantum computing promised, and because Australia and UNSW were willing to give her a go. Cambridge, she felt, wasn’t the place to build an experimental computer. Australia’s “give it a go” approach made more sense.

“With Australia, we got in very early with a large research team. It was a special research centre with 50–70 people. I was looking for somewhere highly collaborative, with the infrastructure to build [a quantum computer] and the chutzpah to do it. I came here because Australia is a great place culturally, with people and infrastructure that give it a competitive edge. We’re close to Asia, with phenomenal research facilities, and I’d love to see Australia build industries here in the high-tech space.”

“In our field we are ahead. If you’re looking at the results, as a young person, this is where you want to be.” Michelle Simmons MAICD

Key to the sustained success of the UNSW team over almost 20 years is that Simmons has insisted on setting rigorous milestones, which the team has consistently achieved. There are now around 220 people involved in the quantum efforts at UNSW and Silicon Quantum Computing — all attracted and retained by strong results and the opportunity to work with a world-class team.

“In our field, we are ahead. If you’re looking at the results, as a young person, this is where you want to be,” she says.

In July, Simmons was admitted to the Royal Society in London in recognition for her contribution to the field of quantum computing and her pioneering work in atomic electronics.

Quantum Leaps

News from the frontier of the science.

The University of Sydney signed a multi-year partnership with Microsoft in 2017, creating Station Q Sydney at the $150m Sydney Nanoscience Hub. It is one of the tech giant’s worldwide network of quantum computing laboratories.

Station Q California, leads Microsoft’s international effort to develop a stable, scalable quantum computer that can ultimately be delivered from the Azure cloud.

In July, Q-Ctrl , a quantum startup also based at the Nanoscience Hub, and a member of IBM’s Q Network, secured venture capital backing (Horizons Ventures, DCVC, Sequoia China) to build scalable quantum computers.

The NSW Quantum Computing Fund earmarked $500,000 to fund the Sydney Quantum Academy focused on postgraduate training and research in quantum. It’s led by the University of Sydney, Macquarie University, UNSW and UTS.

University of Melbourne researchers this year set a record in terms of being able to simulate 60-qubit performance on a classical computer.

IBM is working with the University of Melbourne, JP Morgan Chase, Daimler AG, Samsung, JSR Corporation, Barclays, Hitachi Metals, Honda, Nagase, Keio University, Oak Ridge National Lab and Oxford University as part of its Q Network exploring potential quantum applications.

Bristlecone is Google ’s experimental quantum chip, which it previewed this year and hopes will be a foundational building block for a commercial quantum computer.

Intel has been working with Netherlands partner QuTech and has demonstrated a 17-qubit prototype.

China is investing heavily in quantum. Its US$10b National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences in Hefei, Anhui Province, is slated to open in 2020.

The European Union has committed €1b to its Quantum Technology Flagship Quantum project, while the UK has created a set of quantum hubs.

Earlier this year, the US government set aside US$105m for quantum initiatives, which it now identifies as a high priority.