Mark Jackson, senior quantum evangelist at Quantinuum is interviewed by Yuval Boger. Mark and Yuval talk about optimizing compilers, quantum error correction news, whether customers prefer shrink-wrapped quantum software, and much more.

Transcript

Yuval Boger: Hello, Mark, and thanks for joining me today.

Mark Jackson: Hi, Yuval. It’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Yuval: So who are you, and what do you do?

Mark: So I am the senior Quantum Evangelist at Quantinuum, and Quantinuum is the recent merger between what was Cambridge Quantum, which developed quantum software, and Honeywell Quantum Solutions, which developed quantum hardware. And so as an evangelist at the company, my role is to do a lot of the public-facing activities, getting people excited about quantum computing and getting them to understand how they can benefit from it.

Yuval: And I know you come from the CQC, from the Cambridge Quantum Computing side-

Mark: That’s correct. Yeah, I actually just had my five-year anniversary at the company.

Yuval: Congratulations! Tell me a little bit about the CQC products, if you could.

Mark: Sure. So CQC, although, of course, we’re one company, we are Quantinuum, so we develop products in every area of quantum software, so this includes a software development kit, which is now open-source, and we call this TKET. There’s also an open-source tool called Lambeq, which is computational linguistics and natural language processing. And then on the commercial-facing side we have chemistry, and this includes a computational chemistry package that we call InQuanto, this includes machine learning, optimization, and then finally, cybersecurity. And so pretty much every area of these different applications in quantum, we have a team of experts.

Yuval: When you interact with a company, say a pharmaceutical company, not a company whose main business is quantum, but rather that wants to take advantage of quantum computing, do you feel that they are looking to write their own algorithms, or they just want to find a shrink-wrapped software package they could plug in a molecule, and get the information they need?

Mark: That’s a really good question, and I especially like that you used pharmaceutical as an example here because personally, that’s actually the application that I’m most excited about, is how quantum will affect medicine. So right now, it takes about 10 years and a billion dollars for a pharmaceutical company to bring a drug to market, and that’s because they can use a computer in the very preliminary stages to try to guess, generally, how a drug might behave with our biology, but after that, they have to just do clinical trials, they have to try a lot of potential drugs, try it on people, see what the effects are, hope that there’s a generally good effect and that the side effects aren’t too bad for the general population. And so, of course, this takes a lot of time and money, and it’s very risky for the people involved, of course.

And so ideally, a pharmaceutical company could use quantum to quickly hone in on the most promising medicines, and then only the very final stages, would they have to do the clinical trials, after a lot of the preliminary work has been done. In regard to your question, do I think that they would want to be quantum experts themselves, or would they want to just plug and play? I think both, actually. I think there are some larger pharmaceutical companies who would want to be experts, and they would have in-house teams to do this type of thing, and there are others that would be fine with just kind of using quantum software as a service, and were already starting to see some of these types of models emerge, so I think both are important.

Yuval: I had the pleasure of interviewing a couple of pharma-related quantum companies, and they talk about “quantum advantage, and how you are going to be able to do things that you couldn’t do classically.” You mentioned ten years, if that could be shortened in quantum, that’s very valuable to humanity and very valuable to these companies. How soon do you think that turns into reality?

Mark: There are indications that we will see commercial applications in as soon as three to five years. And of course, people have different opinions, and that’s not a guarantee, but there is reason to think this, based on the current trajectory of progress. So the metric right now that’s being used for the power of quantum computer is called the quantum volume, and it’s a complicated formula, I can’t easily express it, but it’s a rough estimate of the power of a quantum computer, and we, our company, Quantinuum, has increased the quantum volume by a factor of 10 every year, for the past several years, and we think that we can continue with that for the next several years. And so based on that, we think that in the next three to five years, we will start to see commercial applications.

If you were to ask me what would those be, the first commercial applications, I would think either in chemistry, so pharmaceuticals as we just talked about would be an example, because, in chemistry, you see this exponential speed up, compared to classical processes. And the other application soon I think would be financial machine learning. And the reason for this is because in finance, when you have these trading algorithms, you don’t need to be correct 100% of the time, even if you have just a small increase in accuracy, that’s very valuable, and so if we could use quantum machine learning, and in particular the Quantum Monte Carlo algorithm, which, actually, our research team showed that there is this quadratic advantage that people had believed that there should be, then we should start to see advantages in the not too distant future.

Yuval: You mentioned Lambeq, and now Monte Carlo simulation, if I understand correctly, these software packages are written on top of TKET, your optimizing compiler, could you tell me a little bit about TKET?

Mark: Certainly, yes. All of our software is built to take advantage of TKET, and so what TKET is, it’s a quantum software development kit, which allows you to take your quantum circuit, your quantum program, and most efficiently run it on any platform, either hardware or simulator. And so there’s two components to this, so the first component is just taking your program, the circuit, it looks for ways to simplify it, but keeping it mathematically identical. So a quantum program is really just a very sophisticated set of operations manipulating the qubits, and so TKET looks for patterns where it can get exactly the same end result, but in a simpler way, we use less operations to achieve that result. And so it has a very sophisticated set of optimization routines that it goes through, and so once it does that, just on the circuit, then it finds the most efficient way to execute it on that hardware platform that you’ve chosen.

Mark: And the reason that it’s different on each platform is because, first, qubits can be connected differently. So on the super-conducting platforms, for example, the qubits are physically locked in, and they only connect to their neighboring qubits. The second thing is that the gates which are native to that platform are different. So every platform, they have the operations which are kind of built into that, and these aren’t necessarily the operations that you would use in your circuit of course, so some sort of translation often needs to be done. And third, there’s kind of advanced features which are starting to pop up, like mid-circuit measurement, which some platforms including ours can do. And so TKET is aware of this, it has a backend file for each platform, and so based on that information, it will most efficiently execute your circuit on that platform, and it will do all of this, translation and the routing, moving the information between the qubits, it will do all that for you, you don’t need to do anything by hand.

And so we have developed TKET since the beginning, about eight years ago, and it was so valuable for us to do this, in our software development, that about a year ago, we made it open-source. So not only is it free, and anyone can use it however they wish, but every line of code is now available. So you can expect exactly how we do things, if you have some clever idea for how to improve it, then by all means, please get in touch and submit your idea. If you have a hardware platform, then you can write your own backend extension, so that people can run software on your platform. So that’s a quick summary of what TKET is.

Yuval: You mentioned connectivity for TKET, how about noise? Different computers might have different noise models based on different technologies. Does TKET look at noise and optimize to get the best fidelity of the circuit?

Mark: Absolutely, and I’m glad you mentioned that. So yes, in the backend extension file, you can input the characteristics of different qubits on the platform, and so TKET will automatically try to use the best qubits and avoid the worst ones, increasing the performance. So yes, that’s exactly right.

Yuval: And is that true just for qubits, or maybe some gates are noisier than others, or maybe there are some other optimizations you can do?

Mark: Yes, so you can finesse all of these different optimization parameters as you wish.

Yuval: How does it feel to work in a company that does both hardware and software? Is that a plus for customers, or is that a negative?

Mark: It’s definitely a plus, in fact, we are the largest quantum computing company in the world now, pure quantum that is. And a big advantage is that we can do everything in-house, and so when a company approaches us and says they want to work on a project with us, we have the scientific expertise to design the algorithm and write the application, and then test it using our own hardware, so this isn’t some extra thing that needs to be negotiated, or an extra fee tagged on or anything, we can do everything in-house, and then of course, scientifically, it’s great that we have the hardware experts and the software experts all working on the same team, and they can communicate.

Yuval: You’ve been in the quantum industry for well, at least five years, I believe, and you’ve seen it grow, what do you know today about the quantum industry that you didn’t know or didn’t realize six months ago, or 12 months ago?

Mark: It’s going faster than I thought, to be honest. One example of this is, just a few weeks ago, Quantinuum announced a big breakthrough relating to quantum error correction, and just to quickly give the context for this, so qubits are physical objects, there are different ways to build them, but they’re physical objects, and so they don’t always give the correct answer, there’s a lot of sources of error. And if an error happens, then, of course, that kind of spoils the result of the circuit, that gives you the wrong answer, and so you want to avoid this. Now, this happens with normal computers too, of course, with transistors, these are physical objects, and so once in a while, they might give the wrong answer.

But with normal computers, error correction is a very simple process, you simply triplicate every bit, so instead of one bit, you have three, so in the unlikely event that one bit fails, you just take the majority, you take two out of three, and disregard the third one if it’s doing something different. Now, the reason you can’t do that simplistically with a quantum computer is that quantum physics has all these funny rules about no copying quantum data, and you can’t even measure a qubit without changing its state, of course. And so quantum error correction is a very subtle process, fortunately, someone did figure out how to do this quite some time ago, it was Peter Shor, the same Shor as Shor’s algorithm, and he gave the first example of quantum error correction, and we now know of several ways to do it, but the basic idea is that you smear the information of one qubit over several qubits, and then you very cleverly indirectly test if there’s an error that has popped up, and if so, then you correct it.

And so we’ve known mathematically how to do this for some time, the trouble is that this quantum error correction process, the smearing process, and then the correcting process, this takes operations, of course, and you’re introducing more qubits into the scene. And so if there’s a relatively high chance that a qubit will fail, you’ve actually made the process worse, it’s actually more likely something will go wrong, because you have all these operations you’re doing now, and there’s more qubits, there’s more potential for something to go wrong.

And so you actually have to start with a pretty low error rate to begin with for this quantum error correction process to help, otherwise it actually hurts you. So getting back to what I mentioned, just a few weeks ago, we announced the first breakthrough point, where we were able to do this quantum error correction in a way that helped, and didn’t hurt. And this is a huge milestone, obviously, a lot of work has to be done, we want to keep going, so that it really helps us, but this is a very significant milestone for the industry in general. And if no one had ever reached this milestone, there wouldn’t be any hope of having practical applications, and so it’s really amazing to see this kind of historic achievement done just recently.

Yuval: So you’re basically saying, progress is faster than you imagined, and as a result, perhaps the time to quantum advantage, or at least to true quantum usefulness, has become shorter?

Mark: Absolutely, yes. And I think the industry is seeing that. If you look at all of these metrics of the investment that’s going into it, the number of quantum companies that are being created now, with the number of projects that are being done, all of these show this hockey stick type behavior, where it was very slow for a long time, and then just in the past few years, it’s exploded. And when I talk to companies, and they ask about quantum, and they are kind of curious about this, and I tell them, “Well, I think we’re only a few years away from having commercial applications.” Sometimes they respond, “Okay, well, that’s good. I’ll come back and talk to you in a few years.” And the problem with that is that it takes time to do these things, it takes time to develop software, and it takes time to build up this quantum muscle, if you will.

You have to hire the teams, get them to understand, not just quantum computing, but how it relates to your particular industry, and you can’t do this overnight, it takes a few years to do this. And so the companies that are going to most benefit from quantum computing have already started. Whoever is listening to this, if they’re in a position to get into this, it’s not too late, of course, I would encourage them to get into it, but the idea that you can just overnight flip a switch, and suddenly become quantum ready is not true, it does take time to do this.

Yuval: As an evangelist, how do you walk the line between exposing what the future could look like, and avoiding hype? On one hand, you see articles that quantum computing is going to solve all the world’s problems, and on the other, “Oh, it’s a bubble, it’s hype, it’s just going to crash and burn.” How do you walk that line?

Mark: That’s a very good question, and in fact, I’d say that about 99% of the people I speak with outside of our industry have a misunderstanding about quantum, and it’s opposite misunderstanding, it’s actually the two that you just mentioned. About half the people I speak with, they don’t think quantum actually exists, they sort of think it’s science fiction, and we’ve kind of made this up or something, and then the other half think, “Oh yeah, quantum is magic. It means that you just take your existing software, you run on quantum computer, it’s a million times faster, and we can do that tomorrow.” And neither of those are true. And it’s good that I have a physics background, my background is actually in supestring theory and cosmology for 15 years, this is what I researched.

So I have a bit of technical background about what quantum is, and the reality is that quantum computing absolutely does exist, there are many quantum computers in the world, we have a lot of quantum software that’s been developed now, there are many companies, there are many startups, there are many academics that are developing quantum software. We can do interesting things already, nothing is life-altering, but as I said, I think we will start to see commercial advantages and applications in just a few years.

But quantum is only for very specific applications, by no means is it a general speedup, where you just take your existing software, and you run on a quantum computer. The logic behind quantum software is completely different. Quantum physics works in a very non-intuitive way, so you have to start from scratch to develop these algorithms. We have no general formula for how to write quantum algorithms, we know of a few quantum algorithms which show promise, but there’s no general formula for developing this, and we’re still figuring out what the applications might be. It’s entirely possible that next week some very smart young person thinks of some killer app that no one has conceived of yet. And so, yes, what you asked is a very good question, and that’s a large part of my role as an evangelist, is to get people excited about quantum computing, but also manage their expectations about what it is and what it’s not, and so that’s a large part of my job.

Yuval: So we get closer to the end of our conversation today, I’m wondering, if you had a magic wand, and you could control what the industry is doing, what would you like the industry to be doing that it’s not doing today?

Mark: Nothing comes to me off the top of my head. I will tell you what I am proud of that the industry is doing already, and that there’s a lot of emphasis towards open-source software development. So I already talked about our TKET software development kit, I earlier mentioned Lambeq, which is a computational linguistics and natural language processing toolkit, which we’ve made open-source. There’s a lot of other tools like IBM’s Qiskit. There’s a non-profit called the Unitary Fund, which is dedicated to open-source software development. And so I’m very happy to see, from a lot of different groups, both commercial and academic, people coming together from different angles and working on this.

Yuval: Mark, how can people get in touch with you to learn more about your work?

Mark: So my email is mark.jackson@quantinuum.com, but I’m also available on LinkedIn, of course, and through our company website.

Yuval: Thank you so much for joining me today.

Mark: Absolutely. Thank you, Yuval. It’s always a pleasure chatting with you.

Yuval Boger is an executive working at the intersection of quantum technology and business. Known as the “Superposition Guy” as well as the original “Qubit Guy,” he can be reached on LinkedIn or at this email.

October 30, 2022