It’s been almost four years since Pacific Northwest leaders in the field of quantum computing gathered in Seattle for the first Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit, and since then, the scientific buzz over quantum has only gotten buzzier. So what’s next for the Nexus? A star-studded second summit.
Amazon Web Services and Boeing are joining this week’s gathering at the University of Washington, and nearly 300 academic, business and government representatives have signed up to attend. Some of the companies showing up at the second summit — such as the Seattle startup Moonbeam Exchange — didn’t even exist when the first summit took place in March 2019.
Over the past four years, UW has received about $45 million in federal funding to support research into quantum information science. Quantum computing has gotten fresh boosts from Congress and the Biden administration. The Pacific Northwest’s two cloud computing powerhouses, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, have both rolled out hybrid quantum platforms. And just last week, Maryland-based IonQ announced that it’s setting up a research and manufacturing facility for quantum computers in Bothell, a Seattle suburb.
Microsoft, UW and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory got the ball rolling for the Northwest Quantum Nexus in 2019. IonQ, Washington State University and the University of Oregon’s Center for Optical, Molecular and Quantum Science joined the team a couple of years later. Now the addition of Amazon and Boeing brings two of the region’s tech giants into the fold.
Amazon adds quantum to the cloud
Sebastian Hassinger, principal specialist for AWS’ Amazon Braket quantum platform, said his team didn’t need any convincing to join the private-public consortium, even though it was co-founded by their rivals at Microsoft. The higher-ups at AWS just needed “a bit” of convincing, he said.
“With classical technologies, there’s a short period of time that there might be some pre-competitive open science … but it very quickly turns into a race to the market,” Hassinger said. “In quantum, we’re looking at, as everybody knows, an extended period of time that’s pre-competitive open science. There’s lots of fundamental work to be done that requires the broader academic community and public-private partnership kinds of interactions.”
Hassinger said AWS added quantum computing to its cloud portfolio because so many of its customers were asking about the technology’s potential. Amazon Braket is meant to serve as a proving ground for applications, but it’s not AWS’ only involvement in the quantum realm. AWS has set up research centers in cooperation with computer scientists at Caltech and Harvard, as well as a network to build up ties with quantum ventures.
Quantum computing takes an approach that’s different from classical computing. Instead of dealing with sharply defined ones and zeroes, quantum processors are designed to manipulate tiny particles that can represent multiple values until the result is read out. That’s the power of quantum — and also the challenge.
“It’s not going to be a slam-dunk,” Hassinger said. “When the first quantum computer can do something that’s truly useful to whatever — pharma, or fintech, it’s not going to be like, ‘OK, plug it in and go.’”
AWS is getting ready to support those applications — whether they’re for discovering new drugs, or for developing new high-performance materials, or for building better batteries. And that’s why AWS is joining the Northwest Quantum Nexus. “Every region in the country, and every country in the world, owes it to itself to make this sort of effort,” Hassinger said.
Boeing takes off for quantum frontiers
You might wonder what America’s biggest aerospace company hopes to get out of quantum computing. “No quantum airplanes yet,” Ben Koltenbah, an associate technical fellow at Boeing who specializes in applied physics and quantum technology, joked during a summit presentation.
But Marna Kagele, a technical fellow who’s a leader of Boeing’s quantum applications research team, said the field offers lots of potential.
“We have a lot of products beyond just commercial aircraft,” she said. “We have defense aircraft, we have space vehicles, underwater vehicles. … We have all kinds of complicated operations. We’re designing new materials for all of those products. And all of those could benefit from quantum technology.”
Boeing’s Disruptive Computing & Networks unit serves as the company’s nexus for quantum research and development.
One project calls for using quantum sensor technology in new types of optical clocks for ultra-precise time measurement and GPS-level navigation. Another project aims to use quantum computing tools to learn more about how advanced materials interact with the environment.
“Anyone who’s making vehicles has their vehicle interacting with the environment around it, and those environments are harsh,” Kagele explained. “Even vehicles that are out in the sun — UV radiation is really harsh on a vehicle. Then you can imagine with salts, you’re getting a lot of corrosion. The DoD [Department of Defense] estimates that they spend $20 billion a year on corrosion.”
Quantum computing could produce better models for how corrosion happens — and suggest ways to reduce the damage.
System optimization is one of the sweet spots for quantum computation, and that capability could help Boeing figure out better ways to build the carbon composite wings for its airplanes. “When we design these wings, we’re using composite plies. You can imagine a composite ply is like a piece of fabric, and you’re layering a bunch of these pieces of fabric together in different ways to get different structural properties in your wing,” Kagele said. “There’s a whole optimization that can be done with this process to figure out how we can do that in the best way to get the properties we want and optimize our overall design.”
Boeing is also looking into how to use quantum tools to optimize its own networks, and to streamline the process of designing and testing cryogenic microelectronics. “We’ve had a lot of success in that area,” Kagele said.
The Northwest Quantum Nexus isn’t the only public-private partnership that counts Boeing as a partner: Way back in 2019, Boeing joined the Chicago Quantum Exchange. But Kagele said she’s glad to be part of the quantum club in the place where Boeing was born.
“We’re just really excited to be members of this network, to share more with you in the future, and to connect with all of you and move forward on this quantum journey together,” she said.
Stay tuned for further reports from this week’s Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit.