Quantum leap for computer engineering

Andrea Morello, manager of UNSW’s quantum spin control program. “There’s more jobs than people.” Picture: Chris Pavlich

Technology courses are getting a little bit spooky, as a looming computing revolution ushers a jobs explosion for engineers with the right mix of skills.

Quantum mechanics, once a fringe discipline disparaged even by Einstein, is finding its way into mainstream engineering degrees.

University of NSW electrical engineer Andrea Morello said a frenzy of investment in quantum technologies, spurred by a global race to build a quantum computer, had fostered a jobs boom for quantum-enabled engineers.

Around the world, about $10 billion in investments from China, Japan and US-based information technology giants have created openings for perhaps 20,000 specialists. Locally, opportunities are opening up at universities, corporations and consultancies.

In July, Microsoft and the University of Sydney announced a multi-year partnership to move quantum machines from research into real-world engineering. In April, the Commonwealth Bank revealed it had developed a quantum computer “simulator” to give Australians “a head start on the massive step change in computing power promised by quantum processing”.

Last month the UNSW launched Silicon Quantum Computing — described as Australia’s first quantum computing company — to scale up its silicon-based research. The move fol­lowed an $83 million research deal involving the university, the state and federal governments, Commonwealth Bank and Telstra.

Professor Morello, who manages UNSW’s “quantum spin control” program, said the company was now hiring staff. “There are more jobs than people, not just in Australia but worldwide,” he said.

He said companies usually had to make do with conventional electrical or microwave engineers, training them on the job in quantum science.

“Or they’ll find a quantum physicist and try and teach them microwave engineering and electronic design.

“There’s only a handful of people with the full range of skills, and those people are very valued on the market.”

Professor Morello has written a unit called Fundamentals of Quantum Engineering for his third- year electrical engineering students and will follow it with Quantum Devices and Computers in the fourth year.

The newly introduced subjects come in the wake of Quantum Devices, which Professor Morello has taught for nine years, and the popular Quantum Communications course offered by UNSW colleague Rob Maloney.

Sydney said its investment in quantum science included a focus on education and skills training. Deputy vice-chancellor Pip Pattison said research postgraduate students already gained “world-class” skills in quantum engineering, and it was “now in a position to scale up our offering”.

“We expect to make quantum engineering part of our formal curriculum offering in the near future,” she said. From next year the university will offer undergraduate coursework leading to a major in nanoscience technology, including units in quantum and computational physics.

Australian research centres have released a plethora of quantum computing papers over the past week. Yesterday, Australian National University researchers revealed that they had identified suitable materials to form the basis of a “quantum internet”.

Last Thursday, a paper co-written by a Sydney researcher moved quantum computers based on the Majorana fermion — a quasiparticle that is also the antiparticle of itself — one step closer to reality. The previous day in the same journal, UNSW researchers had outlined a new approach to creating quantum bits in silicon.

Professor Morello said silicon was in the “sweet spot” as the race to build quantum computers reached its pointy end. Silicon-based technology is “a trillion-dollar industry which knows how to make billions of transistors in a commercially viable way”, he said. “We are readapting the technology for quantum computation.”

Rivalry with Sydney was healthy. “Each of us wants to be the first to make a quantum computer that changes the world, but we’re not going to go far unless we help each other out. In the popular culture you get this idea of the nerdy guy in the loneliness of his room who figures out how the universe works. That may have been the case 100 years ago, but it’s definitely not any more.”