Australia in quantum race to win it: Simmons

Staff reporter

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Australian quantum physicist, professor Michelle Simmons
“It could … be Australians who control the invention and the industrialisation this time around”

Quantum computing can produce “unimaginable” opportunities for the world in medicine, energy and just about every other field, and Australia “has emerged with unique potential … not just to play the game but to lead it”, according to 2018 Australian of the Year, professor Michelle Simmons.

Delivering an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Boyer Lecture, Simmons said the discovery of the transistor in the 1940s spawned the semiconductor, computing and software industries.

“While these are all global industries, each had its genesis in America, and I think there’s little doubt as to why,” she said.

“In the early years, it was the Americans who invented both the transistor and the integrated circuit, and it was the Americans who controlled the early industrialisation of these technologies.

“Everything else followed.

“We don’t know yet which implementation will ultimately prove the most effective for quantum computing, but if it turns out that our atomically engineered devices are the winners, then it could …  be Australians who control the invention and the industrialisation this time around.”

From penicillin in the 1940s to the bionic ear in the 1970s and wireless local area network (WLAN), or wi-fi, technology in the 1990s, Australian scientists do have a track record of significantly changing the world.

Simmons, a quantum physicist, is director of Australia’s Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology and founder of Silicon Quantum Computing, which at the forefront of developing a silicon-based quantum computer. She is credited with pioneering technologies to build electronic devices in silicon at atomic scale, including the world’s smallest transistor, the narrowest conducting wires, 3D atomic electronics and the first two qubit gate using atom-based qubits in silicon.

“We’ve since gone on, steadily but surely, to exploit this technology to demonstrate all the key components of a quantum computer,” Simmons said.

“In conjunction with our spin-out company Silicon Quantum Computing, we’ve created quantum bits where information is encoded in a single electron on a single phosphorus atom; we’ve entangled quantum bits to form what is known as a two-qubit gate; we’ve gained exquisite control of a single electron spin so we can both initialise and read out the state of our qubits; we’ve developed the capacity to individually address two quantum bits with extraordinary accuracy even though they are less than 10 nanometres apart; and, most recently, we’ve engineered an integrated circuit where placed phosphorus atoms with such precision that they were used to simulate the quantum behaviours of electrons in an organic molecule.

“Our goal now is to produce a 100-qubit quantum processor by 2028. Will we get there? I believe we will.”

Simmons said a quantum computer could produce a similar transformation as the transistor that was “not so far off in humanity’s future”.

“One thing we know is that whoever gets there first, a quantum computer is worth striving for,” she said.

“Whereas the transistor emerged as a novel form of hardware looking for its applications, in the quantum field there are huge numbers of software engineers and algorithm developers already working on quantum problems, even before the hardware has been built.

“Already more than 60 algorithms have been dreamed up that could be run on quantum computers to solve problems in areas like logistics, search optimisation, machine learning, portfolio optimisation, financial market analysis, catalyst design, drug design, aircraft design, supply chain management, and cryptography to name a few.

“We already have a surprisingly large set of quantum applications on the table and ready to go, simply awaiting the invention of the right hardware.”


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