John Martinis is maybe best known as being a leader of Google’s team that developed the first quantum computer to vastly outperform a classical computer at a specific task, usually referred to as quantum supremacy.
The excitement of Google’s 2019 announcement that a calculation performed on a quantum computer far exceeded the performance of a classical computer — even a classical supercomputer — jolted not just the just budding quantum computing industry, but science in general. Many people had expected quantum supremacy to be years, if not decades away.
But, for Martinis, a professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, his mission goes beyond setting quantum computing records. He is interested in building quantum computers that can actually help people. And, while the terms “practical” and “quantum computer” may not often appear in the same sentence, Martinis said that the practical approach to quantum computers may be a key for the success of the industry. And that this practical approach may tap the massive potential of quantum computers to deliver real-world solutions to the most vexing problems facing science and society.
“When I do basic research, it’s very good for me to know that there’s an application or a device or a system to build at the end. It’s been kind of a natural process for me to go from very basic questions to really think about, well what do we need to know to actually get something to work?”
“I would say I’m kind of practically minded,” said Martinis. “When I do basic research, it’s very good for me to know that there’s an application or a device or a system to build at the end. It’s been kind of a natural process for me to go from very basic questions to really think about, well what do we need to know to actually get something to work? That’s been very natural for me, because it’s the way I think. I think that’s why we’ve been pretty successful in doing this, because it kind of meshes with the way I am.”
Martinis added that quantum computers, in fact, have many practical applications. One practical use for quantum computers could be in helping researchers better understand chemistry, which could unleash new advances in everything from medicine to materials science.
“What I think about is using it for quantum chemistry — which is in fact Richard Feynman’s original proposal for a quantum computer — where you map whatever the physics is of electrons interacting in a molecule via the atoms,” said Martinis. “You map that into a quantum computer and, then, since that’s a classically hard problem because of quantum mechanics, and you use the power of the quantum computer to solve the problem.”
He sees the potential for quantum computers to also help with research into sustainable energy technology, such as more efficient batteries
“Better batteries could be a real game changer for the world economy,” he said, adding “Building a machine that helps you understand those problems better and come up with better materials is a great long-term vision.”
Other places where quantum computers could find practical uses are in helping to solve various optimization problems.
“The classic example is a traveling salesman, but you could think about aeroplane routing and resource routing,” Martinis said. “This is where if you can find even a five or 10% better solution, that’s worth tremendous amounts of funding and money businesses will save. That’s really interesting for people to look at. That’s more speculative, but people are pretty optimistic they’ll be able to find something with a powerful enough quantum computer.”
Martinis added that progress is being made — we’re getting there.
“We know how many qubits we need,” he said. “We know what the performance of the device is. We kind of know the initial algorithms. You really have a definite proposal there.”
“My hope and dream is that if we build a quantum computer to do that, then we can actually start solving these practical quantum chemistry and quantum materials problems. We kind of know it should work.”
He added that this goal — creating a quantum computer that someone can use — is what continues to drive him.
“My hope and dream is that if we build a quantum computer to do that, then we can actually start solving these practical quantum chemistry and quantum materials problems. We kind of know it should work,” Martinis said. “We have enough theoretical knowledge to do that, and we just have to build a machine big enough. As an experimentalist, that’s a lot of motivation to say, ‘Okay, if we build something, people will find uses for it.’”
For Martinis, preparing for “quantum ethics” may start by recognizing that there’s nothing especially “quantum” about ethics. For the most part, the ethical groundwork has already been provided for quantum by the introduction of current computing technologies — such as the internet, artificial intelligence and super computers — it’s just the work of ethicists to put these strategies into context for the quantum era.
“I think that the ethical challenges, for example, are kind of the normal ethical challenges you have with computing technology,” Martinis said. “You could go specifically to the use of super computers, not everyone can use a super computer. Not everyone can necessarily use a large data center, or at least have the money to do so. Then you have ethical concerns about artificial intelligence and the like. I think all of those concerns probably could be mapped to a quantum computer, so that should be included in all that.”
Martinis said that, although he is focused on building quantum computers, he appreciates the role that ethicists are taking in the discussion about the future of quantum computing. He also says one thing he is doing is helping to educate people who might be in places where quantum devices will have the biggest impact. Encryption is a hot button issue right now for many organizations, for example.
“Obviously, it’s good that people will be thinking about it (ethics), as they do the same with regular computers,” said Martinis. “With a quantum computer, you also have this idea that you might be able to factor large numbers, which is the classical basically impossibility that we know of right now, is the basis of encryption and RSA encryption. In fact, that example got people interested in the beginning. I’ve thought about that, and actually I’ve done minor things to help that.”
“Maybe I’m being a little bit hopeful, but I believe that kind of power might be more accessible than you might think. A small company with a good idea might be able to make a big impact.”
He said he has also gone to conferences to explain the quantum computer to people who are interested in understanding quantum’s threats to encryption.
Martinis is optimistic that quantum computing will eventually be accessible to more and more people. He’s glad to see colleagues in the field preparing tutorials and online educational modules to attract students from all over the world. He also thinks quantum technology has the potential to be commercialized by a range of businesses, not just big technology firms.
“Maybe I’m being a little bit hopeful, but I believe that kind of power might be more accessible than you might think,” he said. “A small company with a good idea might be able to make a big impact.”