Riding the Quantum Wave

A new master’s program takes computing to the next level.

Illustration of computer mother board circuits

Yuuji/istock

The computers that we know — and mostly love — do what they do so well because they predictably perform their duties at lightning speed. But in many arenas of research and technology, classical computers will not be able to crack the next-level enigmas researchers are confronting in chemistry, artificial intelligence, medicine, and other fields.

To answer those questions, physicists and computer scientists are developing a class of computers that exploit the mysteries of quantum mechanics, a theory that traffics in probabilities rather than certainties. If they live up to the hype, quantum computers will be able to harness the strange behaviors that occur at the smallest scale of the universe to solve in minutes problems that would take a classical computer decades, says Shimon Kolkowitz, a UW–Madison assistant professor of physics.

Through its Wisconsin Quantum Institute, the university has been exploring the field for almost two decades. This past fall, the campus debuted a master’s program in quantum computing.

The one-year master’s program offers students expertise in the growing field at a time when the market for scientists competent in quantum computing is extremely tight. The New York Times and Wired both reported in 2019 on the difficulty quantum computing firms are having finding qualified prospects.

The UW master’s program is the first of its kind in the nation and only the second in the world, says its director, Robert Joynt. “We decided to put this together when it became clear that there was going to be a lot of interest from the commercial sector in quantum computing,” he says. “There’s a huge ramp-up in activity at places like Google, Intel, Microsoft, and Northrop Grumman. No one else had anything like this, so it was a natural thing to do, and the master’s program seemed like the best option, as students can spend a year here, get a good education in quantum computing, and be very marketable.”

The 30-credit degree program capitalizes on the UW’s deep foundation of fundamental research. “We are truly lucky to have quantum computing experts in three different subareas of quantum computing,” says Sridhara Dasu, professor and chairperson of the Department of Physics. “Given our expertise, we thought we had a unique ability to train students in a professional-level master’s program.”

Published in the Spring 2020 issue

Tags: Computer Science, Faculty, Science, Teaching and learning, technology

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