HomeCareersQuantum Engineering: why Universities are training engineers in the emerging industry

Quantum Engineering: why Universities are training engineers in the emerging industry

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By Sophia Chen
The first year of university is always an opportunity to explore, but William Papantoniou really took the plunge. From the start of his studies in 2021 at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, he signed up for the university’s latest offering: an undergraduate degree in quantum engineering.

Now a third-year student, Papantoniou chose the programme because he wanted to learn more about quantum computers and the physics that makes them run. He first heard of the devices in a programming class during secondary school. “It was presented as the future of computing,” he says. “They described how quantum computing makes complex problems simpler.”

The programme prepares students to enter the emerging quantum-technology industry, which has begun to develop devices that use individual atoms, electrons, photons and other components exhibiting quantum properties. These distinctive properties allow quantum computers to execute types of algorithm that are not easily accessed by conventional computers.

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Quantum technology includes magnetic sensors and atomic clocks, as well as quantum computers, the development of which some specialists project will take at least a decade to be commercially useful. Proponents tout these devices as a technological paradigm shift, in which quantum mechanics enables extremely precise measurements and a fresh way for computers to crunch numbers.

William Papantoniou explores quantum devices in a practical class as part of his degree.Credit: William Papantoniou/The UNSW Quantum Engineering Society

Many industries are betting that they will benefit from the anticipated quantum-computing revolution. Pharmaceutical companies and electric-vehicle manufacturers have begun to explore the use of quantum computers in chemistry simulations for drug discovery or battery development. Compared with state-of-the-art supercomputers, quantum computers are thought to more efficiently and accurately simulate molecules, which are inherently quantum mechanical in nature.

From software developers to biologists and chemists, users are now investigating whether quantum technology can bolster their fields. But there is still lively debate about how the technology will pan out, says physicist Olivia Lanes, a researcher at IBM in Yorktown Heights, New York. “A lot of people don’t want to enter the industry until they see the technology is robust, but can we make it robust without them?”

Pipeline-building programmes
The UNSW’s undergraduate degree begins to fill a void in quantum education outside PhD programmes. The study of quantum mechanics has fallen largely under basic research since its discovery in the early twentieth century, falling in the purview of graduate studies. When quantum technologies began to be commercialized in the 2010s, the industry predominantly hired researchers with physics PhDs.

But in the past decade, governments including those in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, China and the European Union have collectively pledged billions of dollars to develop the quantum-technology industry. That’s aside from the commercial investment by technology companies such as Google, Microsoft, IBM and smaller start-ups. As the industry grows, experts have already started to bemoan a lack of qualified job candidates, and the shortfall looks likely to expand.

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For example, one estimate suggests that Australia’s quantum-technology industry could provide 19,400 jobs by 2045 (see go.nature.com/3ubxvac), yet a 2016 survey tallied only about 5,000 PhD physicists in the entire country (see go.nature.com/46rgpuu). With a physics graduate degree often taking five years or longer, “we simply cannot produce PhDs fast enough to satisfy the needs of this booming industry”, says physicist Andrea Morello, who helped to start the UNSW’s undergraduate programme in quantum engineering. Instead, the industry will predominantly need engineers with undergraduate training in relevant quantum topics, such as how the hardware components work and how to write relevant software. The evolution of the quantum industry parallels that of the computer-science industry over the past 50 years. Jobs in computing in the United States grew by more than tenfold between 1970 and 2014, according to the US Census Bureau. In the early 1970s, many universities established and expanded their computer-science undergraduate programmes in anticipation.

The quantum-tech industry will need workers with various educational backgrounds to benefit society. “A technology can’t succeed if the only people who know how to use it are PhDs,” says Lanes.

In response to this demand, some universities are starting quantum-training programmes at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels. In 2019, Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany, introduced an undergraduate quantum-engineering degree similar to the UNSW’s and launched a master’s programme a year later. Bachelor’s students at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg can opt for quantum and information science as a secondary specialization, which was introduced in 2022. “Pretty much every week, I’ll learn about a new programme somewhere,” says quantum experimentalist Abraham Asfaw, who leads education and outreach efforts for Google’s quantum team in Santa Barbara, California.

Undergraduate degree programmes aim to train engineers who work directly with quantum devices and require a relatively deep understanding of quantum mechanics. The industry also needs engineers to work with conventional technology, such as the cryogenics systems that keep quantum computers cold enough to operate, or the optical fibres that link multiple quantum devices. These engineers could perhaps learn the necessary quantum mechanics in an undergraduate course or two that are incorporated into a conventional engineering degree or vocational programme, says Asfaw.

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Morello and his colleagues built the UNSW’s quantum-engineering programme on the framework of a conventional electrical-engineering degree. Students take largely the same course as do non-quantum engineers, but with extra, quantum-specific classes. Morello says they designed the programme so that its graduates could still choose to work as conventional electrical engineers. “It’s really important to choose a degree that gives you a solid basis while providing you options,” says Morello.

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New spin on curricula
UNSW’s quantum courses originate from master’s classes that Morello and his colleagues deliver. These have required academics to rethink how they teach quantum mechanics. The conventional approach comes from a theoretical physics perspective, which centres on understanding the behaviour of idealized quantum objects, such as a single confined particle. “In traditional quantum mechanics courses, you [might] spend a day talking about applications, but it’s not the focus of the course,” says physicist Lex Kemper, who is developing an undergraduate quantum engineering course at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

For example, undergraduate physics students typically learn about quantized energy levels, in which quantum objects can lose or gain energy only in discrete amounts, or ‘quanta’, through physicist Niels Bohr’s quantum model of hydrogen, the simplest atom. Bohr’s model depicts hydrogen as a positively charged nucleus with orbiting negatively charged electrons, and the atom can lose or gain a quantum of energy by emitting or absorbing a photon, a particle of light. Instead, Morello uses a real-world example in his teaching — a material called a quantum dot, which is used in some LEDs and in some television screens. “I can now teach quantum mechanics in a way that is far more engaging than the way I was taught quantum mechanics when I was an undergrad in the 1990s,” he says.

Morello also teaches the mathematics behind quantum mechanics in a more computer-friendly way. His students learn to solve problems using matrices that they can represent using code written for the Python programming language, rather than conventional differential equations on paper.

His colleagues at the UNSW are also developing laboratory courses to give students hands-on experience with the hardware in quantum technologies. For example, they designed a teaching lab to convey the fundamental concept of quantum spin, a property of electrons and some other quantum particles, using commercially available synthetic diamonds known as nitrogen vacancy centres (V. K. Sewani et al. Preprint at https://arxiv.org/abs/2004.02643; 2020). Students can use magnets and a laser to observe and measure effects resulting from the diamond’s quantum spin.

During his second trimester, Papantoniou started the Quantum Engineering Student Society. “It’s a difficult degree. There’s a lot of physics, a lot of maths and a lot of engineering, all of it combined together,” he says. “I realized straight away that there would be a need for study groups and social events to bring us together.” The group invites people working at quantum-technology companies to give talks, and organizes tours of academic labs.

Asfaw thinks of these academic programmes as “experiments”. The quantum-technology community still needs to work out how to evaluate their success, and how various programmes can share their experiences, says Asfaw, who has helped to organize the quantum-education community. In 2020, he worked with a group of academics to identify the key concepts needed to prepare students for entering the quantum industry. These include the idea of a quantum bit, or qubit, which is the fundamental unit of information; and of a quantum state, which is a mathematical representation of a quantum object. In 2021, Asfaw worked with academics and quantum-industry specialists to publish an undergraduate curriculum in quantum engineering (A. Asfaw et al. Preprint at https://arxiv.org/abs/2108.01311; 2021).

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Quantum-computing companies are helping to develop quantum education directly. The industry’s overall objectives are to build quantum computers and work out how to use them, says Asfaw. It will require a large and diverse workforce to achieve those objectives, so it is in the companies’ interests to help to train that workforce.

Companies are offering teaching resources for undergraduate educators. Kemper has logged into IBM’s small prototype quantum computers through the cloud to teach his undergraduates the basics. Both IBM’s Qiskit and Google’s Cirq are open-source software packages that anyone can use and build on. For those who have left university, contributing to this software offers a path into a quantum-computing-related job, if they’re willing to put in the time. Abby Mitchell, who works for IBM’s quantum team in Yorktown Heights and who studied arts and sciences as an undergraduate, learnt quantum computing on the job by writing and debugging code for Qiskit. “I managed to transfer from my old job at IBM doing web development into a full-time member of the Qiskit community team,” she says.

It’s still unclear how quantum technology will bring commercial value. In many ways, it is a solution looking for a problem. Quantum communications, such as creating and delivering encryption keys encoded in single photons, is theoretically more secure than current cryptography techniques. But these technologies have delivered mixed results in practice, and require buy-in from institutions such as banks and governments. Existing quantum computers still make too many errors to be able to execute commercially valuable algorithms, and researchers have not worked out whether they can do anything useful with these adolescent machines. “It’s a chicken-and-egg problem” in some ways, says Lanes.

But Papantoniou sees the uncertain future of quantum technologies as an opportunity. Even if quantum computing doesn’t become commercially successful in the next few years, he says he can use the skills in short-term technologies, such as quantum sensing.

He has two more years before he graduates with two bachelor’s degrees, in quantum engineering and computer science. He plans to enter the quantum-technology industry after graduation, and is particularly interested in the development of algorithms for quantum computers. “I have to do a lot of explaining to my parents [about] what I study,” says Papantoniou. “At this point, nobody really knows what a quantum engineer is. But in ten years’ time, they will.”

Nature 623, 653-655 (2023)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-023-03511-7

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-03511-7

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