Transcript: Canada at the Cutting Edge of Innovation: The Power of Quantum Information
[The CSPS logo appears on screen.]
[Nipun Vats appears in a video chat panel.]
Nipun Vats, Science and Economic Development Canada: Hello everyone and welcome to the Canada School of Public Service. My name is Nipun Vats and I'm the Assistant Deputy Minister of the Science and Research Sector for Innovation Science and Economic Development, Canada, and I'll be the moderator for today's event.
[I'm very pleased to be here with you and welcome everyone who has joined us for today's event.].
Before we go any further, I'd like to acknowledge that I'm joining you today from Ottawa, which means that I'm situated on the traditional unceded territory of the Anishinaabe people. [00:00:41 As part of this virtual event, let's take some time to acknowledge that we are all working in different places and therefore in different traditional Indigenous territories.
I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on this. ].
While participating in this virtual event, let us all recognize that we all work in different places and that we are therefore all working in a different traditional indigenous territory.
[Today's event is the fifth part of the "Canada at the Cutting Edge of Innovation" series, offered in partnership with CIFAR, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, which gives public servants the opportunity to learn from leading experts about key issues facing science and humanity today.]
We have a really fascinating event plan for you today on the topic of quantum science. A field that takes what we've learned about light and matter... the quantum properties of light and matter over the last a hundred years or so and couples it with technological advances that mean that we're now able to harness what we've learned and realize some amazing applications. And the applications of this technology stretch far beyond those of today's computers. From things like cryptography, and code breaking, to simulations and materials, and chemicals to machine learning. There are a range of applications that we know of today, and there'll be many more in the future.
Joining us today to help educate on the topic of quantum information and on the international race that is currently underway to build the first large scale quantum computer is Stephanie Simmons. Stephanie holds many titles. She is the founder and chief quantum officer of the Vancouver based quantum company, Photonic Incorporated. She's also an associate professor and Canada research chair in physics at Simon Fraser University and a fellow in CIFAR's Quantum Information Science Program. She's also someone who's very passionate about the field and is an outstanding Canadian leader and innovator. So, I'd like to welcome Stephanie and thank her for being here today.
[Stephanie joins in another chat panel.]
Before I turn it over to her though, I just wanted to mention a few housekeeping things. We have a great event planned and we want to make sure that everyone has the best possible experience. And so, to optimize your viewing, we recommend that you disconnect from your VPN or use a personal device, if possible. And if you're experiencing technical issues, it's recommended that you relaunch your webcast link that was sent to you via email. Now for the next 20 minutes or so, Stephanie's going to walk us through a presentation. And after that, I'll be leading a bit of a conversation and audience Q&A with her. So, audience members are invited to submit questions throughout the event using the 'Collaborate video' interface on which you're viewing this event. To do so, please go to the top right corner of your screen and click the raise hand button and enter your question. And the inbox, we monitor throughout the event.
[The majority of today's event will be held in English; however, it is possible to access simultaneous interpretation services in French by following the instructions provided in the reminder email. The email contains a teleconference number that will allow you to listen to the event in the language of your choice.].
With that housekeeping out of the way, I will now pass the mic over to Stephanie Simmons. Over to you.
Stephanie Simmons, Founder and Chief Quantum Officer, Photonic Inc: Thank you. Thank you so much. I'm really looking forward to this and thank you very much for the invitation and the very, very warm welcome.
[Stephanie shares a slideshow, filling the majority of the screen. A slide reads "The international race for a quantum computer."]
I do have some slides that will be a bit of a backdrop to this conversation. And maybe I'll just open with it is a space race right now. You've probably been aware, or you see it more and more in the news and that's because people are starting to wake up to the reality that quantum technologies bring what they're going to be bringing to the world, but it's only just a glimmer of the future right now. And over the course of the next couple of minutes, I'll to try and show you where we're at and where we're going, but it's a wild ride right now. And I would say that in terms of the audience here, the public interaction with quantum technologies is going to be remote for a little while.
Some of the early demonstration work will be on- yeah, there'll be specific sensors. There'll be specific elements in computing structures. And the first, I imagine, there'll be a lot of work on chemical development, but that will be in the remit of kind of special teams around the world where it will actually soak into public, and this is mainly just to get you your attention. But what is going to hit the public awareness, I think, is, my bet, is that it'll be the case that the world stops trusting the internet in maybe about 10 years. It'll be like kind of a moment where like, "Oh, we can't trust the internet." And that'll be a bit of a shock. And again, it's not guaranteed to happen, but that's my prediction, for what it's worth. And I'll lead into it and what the surround of that is, but that's to- his is coming. And it's very rare that you can actually make solid predictions of the future.
But when you think about technological advances, you don't necessarily know the shape of them, but there has been a trend over human history that allows us to be confident in at least some of the predictions that we make around technologies. And you can look at this across human history and how there's been this accelerating pace of change, but it's really been around commercializing various branches of physics.
[A graph shows technological advances over time. It starts as a gentle slope, but rises steeply after the steam engine in 1698, curving up to an almost straight line. Arrows point to key discoveries like space flight and the internet, labelling their corresponding physics.]
So, if you go and take a look at some of the major shifts in terms of power and technology over the human history, you can map a lot of them back to specific branches of physics that went commercial, right? Back down to the earliest branches of physics, optics, and thermodynamics. And really, when you start to see that commercialization process of a branch of physics, right, where it goes from physics to engineering, it takes a long time for that to play out.
We're talking about Facebook and AI and the rest, but really, that is one of the most recent consequences of the transistor, the semiconductor physics going mainstream, right? It's the Silicon that we all rely on to have super computers in our pockets and have all of this capability, communications as well as computing, right? It takes decades to play out and the first glimmers of that technology aren't always known. So, we're going to list off a few, but let it just be known that once semiconductor physics, when people started taking a look at a transistor, the picture there was that it was going to be useful for hearing aids, right? They weren't predicting Facebook and AI. So, it'll take a long time and what we know now won't be the way that it goes forward, but we know that it's going to be transformational.
And when you see these things, it usually is the case that people overestimate the short term and underestimate the long term. This is coming. It's coming. There's no way it and it's fun. So, what is quantum computing? There's a lot of quantum technologies, but I'm going to focus on the juicy stuff 'cause this is a short conversation, and for me, at least, that's quantum computing, quantum information. The big difference in the laws of physics that allow for this, because ultimately, information is physical and should use all the physical laws are available. And if you restrict yourself to non quantum physics, classical physics stuff, you have this picture where a bit, a zero is either one or zero, a bit is one of these two digital outcomes. The digital revolution has given rise to a lot.
Quantum mechanics has a different way of holding onto information. When you're not looking at it, it actually can be in super position of zero or one at the same time. And so, here, I'm going to give you a bit of a crutch in terms of... Because we don't want to go through the math, but you can imagine, instead of just black or white, it could be any colour, any tone, right? And so, you can imagine the way that they combine is really where you get the power, but even the element itself is just inherently different. And this leads to one of the discussions we'll get later on. It's not a blue computer. It's not taking a current computer and putting it, just enfold. It's a very different technology and we're using the word, 'computer' because it's the closest thing that we've seen so far, but it's completely different technology. You're not going to take regular programmers and just move them to quantum. It's a very different way of processing and storing information.
[A new slide shows two diamond-shaped tiles put together to form a tilted rectangle. The top tile is labelled "classical." In it, two points on a line are labelled with binary code, and a black dot moves along the line. The bottom tile is labelled "today's code" and shows only the dot moving.]
The way you get this power from computing is that the information scales differently. And this is the same reason why some chemistry challenges can't be simulated well on a computer, on a today's computer, because it just scales exponentially more than a classical computer can handle. So, I'm going to give you a bit of a, again, a visual for what this means, but if you were to take a look at all of the information that could be encoded in eight quantum bits, you can compare it to what eight classical bits can hold onto, because a bit is just a really bad cubit, really. It's less, right? So, one classical bit can't be as big as a cubit in terms of what it can hold. So, if you were to think about that, this dot here is representing a given state of those eight bits.
So, if you imagine an algorithm, what you're doing in a computer is you're actually switching, you're flipping those bits around. You're moving them around. And so, an algorithm can be to take... you're changing the zeros to ones and you're moving around on this line, but that's all you get. You get one black dot on that line. If you were to try and compare it to quantum mechanics, quantum mechanics allows for a lot more when you're not looking at it.
[A new tile appears labelled "quantum – D-wave." It features a complex chain graphic phasing in and out.]
And one of them, one of the early computers that were using classical or using quantum effects is a Canadian company called D-Wave. Now, what they were using is part of this rest of this space, let's say. So, they were using quantum effects. It wasn't universal. So, you couldn't do arbitrary things. You can't do arbitrary things on it, but you still can use part of that space to do computation and then arrive at a conclusion ideally faster.
[Another tile appears under the quantum D-wave tile, titled "Universal/photonic." In the tile, a psychedelic graphic flashes in multiple colours.]
Now, what we're trying to do at Photonic and at SFU is the full shebang. So, here, you have every colour of the rainbow. Technically, you could produce these kinds of states. Just think of the information you can hold onto that compared to eight bits, right? The scaling is really where you get this power. I think it's something like 30 cubits and you can encode the human genome. And if you had 300 cubits, you would take more bits, classical bits, than there are atoms in the universe to encode it. Exponential scaling's a big deal. And so, harnessing these resources for computational gain, it's just a different beast. All right. So, there's a laundry list of applications that are known, but again, we're not going to be able to predict the future and its consequences completely, because a lot of the stuff will be iterative with the future generations that will work with it. But chemistry simulations are the ones that get me up in the morning on this.
It's about the ability to actually accurately simulate chemicals, which are quantum mechanical objects. And they just completely go outside the scope of what can be done with a classical processor. And so, you really have the opportunity to do battery and material design and unlock a lot of opportunities, if we knew how to properly engineer chemistry, chemical interactions at scale. Right now, we're using a lot of very successful heuristics, but getting it really scaling with the problem, I think, is going to be a fantastic win. The next one is going to be... I think the quantum internet is a big one and this is where you might be able to breathe a sigh of relief, because this allows for un-hackable communications, which sounds crazy, but it's relying upon a physical principle, not a computational principle, but a physical principle. That means you can't copy quantum information.
So, there's all kinds of beautiful things around authentication and lots of games that can be played by using the laws of physics. It's not relying upon the fact that something's hard to compute. This turns to the next point about the internet and why we're using RSA. RSA is the one of the handshake algorithms we use to ensure cryptography, to ensure secure communications between nodes. And this goes all the way up and down into our whole society. That is weak to quantum attack. About a while ago, about 10 years ago or so, they proposed a different algorithm that should be robust to quantum attack, and then a few years later, there was a quantum algorithm that came out that could hack it. And so, this is just inherent to an algorithm that relies upon something being difficult to compute.
It's hard to prove that something can't be computed. It's a kind of a complexity thing, but anyway, the nice thing about the quantum internet is that there is this physical, un-hackable thing that we could deploy as well as there's a lot of work, active work, working on trying to come up with computational encryption algorithms to secure everything that we have going forward, because there will come a day when RSA falls down because quantum computers can basically read it.
So, it's going to be a fun transition. It's going to be interesting one, but we can prepare now. And so, that's one of the messages I have to the audience here. It's also important to recognize what quantum computers cannot do. You may have heard that you can teleport quantum information. That is true. You can't teleport matter or people, at least not that we're aware of. And when you can teleport information, which is just fantastic, it's Quantum 101.
I teach it in second week of lectures, because it's actually really easy to see how it works in the math, but it can't allow for communication faster than the speed of light. So, there's a lot of fun physics on this. So, it's not going to help you stream Netflix faster necessarily. What else can't it do? It is not the same thing, as I said earlier, it's not the same thing as a classical computer just on steroids, as it were. It fundamentally attacks different things. For example, one of the things that's quite bad at is division. Straight up division that you get with your pocket calculator or your phone now, right? It's actually really inefficient to do that on a quantum computer. And so, there will be a distribution of computational challenges, some that go towards a quantum solution, but there's no way that classical computing's going anywhere, right?
It's actually essential to even operate the quantum computer is to have really strong backend classical support. So, it's kind of a co-processor in the way that you think about accelerators, but it opens up simulation tests that just can't be done any other way. And I would equate it to something like the airplane versus a horse drawn carriage. You can iterate on the horse drawn carriage and come up with a car, but you're not going to nec- you have to move a completely different realm of thinking if you're trying to solve completely different problems. The airplane, it just solves different problems. It's different things that you can't do any other way.
[A new slide shows Justin Trudeau and a chart titled "Quantum tech funding surges in 2021." It shows yearly funding in the millions, notably 411 million in 2020 and 921 million in 2021.]
Now to Canada. Right, so, Canada has a- you might not know this, but we are a powerhouse in quantum. It was actually lovely to have the prime minister speak to this a few years go, and it was indicative in the community at the time that we really are a quantum powerhouse, partly because we had some fantastic support in the early years on quantum. And some just geniuses that were happened to be in... that happened to be in Canada. So, the early quantum communication, the quantum internet protocols, those are partly Canadian invention from Quebec. IQC, I single out as just being an absolute global pillar when it comes to quantum computing education and moving the field forward. They were one of the early pioneers and one of the, really, the global epicentre when I got into this game ages ago. It's actually the home of QEYSSat, one of the people working at IQC is the one of the world leading satellite quantum key distribution experts in the world. I would say the only other country that is rivals or surpasses that effort is from China.
So, just really powerhouse. And the quantum startup space, I mentioned D-Wave earlier. They got started so early. One cubit's also really- we've had this kind of ecosystem growing, partly to do with the fact that we are just a better educated population per capita, right? We really do rank quite highly on that. And because we've been educating people for 20 years in this space, you have a lot of people that are now able to take that entrepreneurial next step. And from a macro economic perspective, there is investment like crazy and quantum right now. And a lot of the heavy hitters, although not all of them, it's changing, right? But a lot of the startup heavy hitters are Canadian. There's some major players that are from Canada on that space. So, this chart here is showing you the kind of investment. That one's actually out of date. The 2021 closing number was 2.2 billion for investment into the technologies.
And you might ask why now, right? So, if this is something that has been bubbling under the surface for 20 years, that's how it goes. It does go through this commercial boom period, and I'll tell you why next. So, what really has caught the attention of a lot of people is this notion of supremacy or advantage. I hate both of the terms, but they are used, so I'll use them here. And the idea is that when you start getting to this small dozen number of cubit schemes, you are able to compute things that can't be done classically on any reasonable timescale. So, the major event that happened in this space was in 2019, West Coast Google demonstration, where they did basically a useless task, but it was something that no classical supercomputer could do. That was the assertion made at the time. Essentially, it was challenged, but basically, the take home point is true.
It rivals what you could do with the best supercomputer, and if it's not 53 cubits, it'll be 56 cubits, right? So, that was a major milestone. China followed up the year after with a different demonstration doing the same sort of thing. Saying that they were able to demonstrate a computational task, which again, commercially useless, but better than you could do with a supercomputer. And that was kind of like a, "Hello, world" moment for the space and everybody suddenly got a lot... very interested. Now, why haven't you seen anything since?
[A slide is titled "The Quantum Error Correction Challenge." It shows a graph. The vertical axis is labelled "Limiting error rate" and counts down in magnitudes from 104. The horizontal axis is labelled "Number of Qubits" and counts up in magnitudes of 10 from 100 to 108. An arrow curves down and to the right. It's labelled "Google research direction" and points to "useful error corrected QC." A dotted line sits at the 102 point of the vertical axis, denoting the error correction threshold.]
In terms of the space race for quantum computers, there's two major space races going on, I would say. One is the near-term application space and that's where a lot of the current start-ups are thinking, but not all of them. And then there's the far, more further term error correction space.
And so, when we talk about simulated chemistry and cracking RSA and doing all these logistics and Monte Carlo games, there's really foundational algorithms that go on every industry. Most of those have been only worked out on pen and paper because we don't have these processors really at scale yet. We're talking about a hundred cubits max right now. And all of the algorithms that have been developed have been in this error-corrected regime where you need buckets of cubits. Now, I could contest certain parts of this figure, but the figure overall, this graph overall is indicative of kind of where the space is. And there's a question like, "Can you make use of these noisy cubits?" And so, you may hear the term NSK. A lot of people are playing at that. And then there's also other firms that are more and more shifting towards this error correction game, where you are able to rely upon the cubits. They don't fall over.
Part of the challenge when you have quantum information is that it has these beautiful superposition states, but if you have something measuring it accidentally, which could just be a disruption in the environment, they decohere. So, I could get into all the nitty gritty details, but mainly, I wanted to communicate why we don't see it percolating now. Why you don't have it on the front page of the finding financial times yet is because there's still work to be done in the... using this technology. And until you can get below this threshold and at the scale, it's unclear where the commercial value is going to be, but it doesn't stop people from hunting. These are more powerful processors than can be done any other way, so we're learning a lot as we go.
[A new slide is titled "Quantum computing: hardware," and lists pros and cons of various technologies like quantum dots, neutral atoms and linear optics, as wells as companies involved in them.]
Now, to just try and give one slide about what I'm up to and what we are up to, no real technology stuff here other than just say, this is a very well-trodden path when it comes to tech transfer, right? So, you get this over and over again. You get this picture where there's about 20 years in academia. And then there's this moment where there's mass proliferation of start-ups and commercialization and there's many options on the table. Following that, there's a dominant design which emerges and there's a mass consolidation event. And then you end up slowly converging towards four or five winning firms. So, if you were to assume that this follows a similar trajectory, we're in that stage where there are many options and new options all the time, and it's frothy and exciting and everything's changing every week, and it's amazing. And what I would say is that our technology, like many other people working on it, we're not-
Sorry. There's lots of old technologies that have been developed. Our technology is a newer technology. So, you could take a look at this. I didn't make this. I have differing opinions than what's presented here, but there's a laundry list of different approaches. And this person or this team published this, so I can at least cite them rather than come up with just my own opinions on it. And there have been many, many more companies than when this was published, because I said this explosion of investment and start-ups. What's different about us, if anything, I would say is, if I were to try and characterize it, we are both of these two blue boxes that I drew.
[Two blue boxes circle rows. The first reads: "Technology: solid-state spins. Best argument for: small footprint. Best argument against: heterogeneous, hard to scale. Companies involved: Turing, CQC2T." The second reads: "Technology: Linear optics. Best argument for: Scalable fabrication. Best argument against: lack of key components (single photon sources.) Companies involved: PsiCorp, Xanadu."]
So, yeah. So, we're working on spins and Silicon that emit light. We're the only ones, as far as I'm aware, that are doing this. And it kind of solves one best argument against with the pro of the other one, right? So, we are working on spins. They're very, very long lived. I've won awards for it. They can print them, they're in silicon. That's great. They're easier to scale because they talk to each other using the photons that they emit. So, photons are particles of light, right? Now, that leads to de-linear optics. You can have photons printed; fibre optics printed into the silicon. So, not only is silicon the best semiconductor for electrical processing, which is why we have computers on silicon, it's actually the best material for optical processing as well. So, the fact that it's lacking key components, single photon sources, it's actually our spins, our photon sources. So, that's as technical as it gets, because I don't imagine that there'll be much... I'm trying to work the audience here, but happy to take questions, but let me just say that we think very strongly that we're onto something very special and you'll hear more from us over the coming little while.
And so, just maybe to conclude, I would say that if I'm speaking to the government, as it were, there's a lot that Canada has to offer here. And we have to have a hard look at ourselves and think about how we can improve our systems. We are the country of the Avro Arrow. We are the country of the CANDU reactor. And we're actually the country where the first patent for the transistor was filed. And I'm not sure if everybody knows that, but it was filed 20 years before Bell Labs got going into it. And yet, we're not the Silicon Valley for classical computing, right? We generate, we are so fantastic at generating TRL one to three. We are just absolutely fantastic at coming up with new ideas doing fantastic world class research. Really unparalleled.
And if anything, just taking that next step, I think, would be really fantastic because we can win at this. We absolutely can. And yeah, it's going to be fun. It's a lot of fun. I'm in it for the long ride. So, I'll leave it there. The team is fabulous. There's just nothing I can say more strongly about how fantastic Canada has been in supporting the research needed to make this- take this forward. So, I'm really happy to take questions and I really do thank you for your interest and for showing up. So, with that, thank you.
[The screen-share ends, and the two panelists fill the screen.]
Nipun Vats: Great. Thanks Stephanie. That was great. Before we get into a bit of a chat, I'd just like to remind people that we want to hear your questions. So, please do submit those by clicking the raise your hand button in the top-right corner of your screen and we'd be happy to... I'm sure we would be happy to get into some of the details, as she said, but I'm sure... I've spoken with her a number of times before about quantum technology and so, she's also quite visionary and constructively outspoken about what needs to happen in Canada as well. So, we'll be happy to go into those as well. Maybe while we're waiting for some questions to come in, I would just start by just flagging for those who are not aware on the line that, as you said, Stephanie, there has been a long and patient investment in quantum research in the country has certainly paid off in terms of the talent that's been generated, in terms of the generation of ideas.
And in the last budget, there was also a commitment. So, building on about a billion dollars of investment over the last 10 or 11 years federally in terms of research, there was a commitment in the last budget of another 360 million dollars to develop a national quantum strategy. And it's focused, at a very high level, it's focused on talent, commercialization and research, and to try and bring Canada's strengths together in a more effective way. You kind of hinted at the fact that we're very good at the idea generation stage of things, but not so good at taking those ideas and seizing the benefits for Canada to kind of be- to sort of own the podium with respect to an area of real disruptive potential for the future, not only in Canada, but internationally. So, I'd be curious about what you think Canada needs to do to really make this happen at this stage in the development of quantum technologies, and with the ecosystem that we have.
Stephanie Simmons: Yeah. No, thank you. And I really appreciate you asking my opinion on it, I guess. We don't have to invent anything new. We'd have to take a look at what other countries do very well. We don't need to necessarily invent this. We can take a look at really well seasoned systems that exist in other places. And the one thing that would come back to is something- I think we really could do something like a DARPA programme. Something where you're able to- the government goes in futures contracts or grants in a kind of hands-off way where it's around a certain prize objective, right? So, the way that it's been working, because I've been privy to the funding schemes for quantum across the whole planet, and the way that it works is usually, different teams can compete to try and meet a milestone.
So, you don't need to necessarily pick the winners, but the actual milestone. You're measured against whether or not you meet the milestone and then you get some kind of prize. And so, if that could be done where it's actually directed to commercial outfits, in addition to just research outfits, that go a long way, because research is very good at doing one thing perfectly, but really, we have to think about how to scale now. And scale as a commercial endeavour where you're trying to... Anyway, that would be the one tip. The other thing I would say is just from a, on the research side only, wearing my professor hat, there's a very big difference between how we fund postdocs here, versus... So, I could get very specific, if you want, but there's just an army of postdocs on all of the major efforts, quantum efforts, globally, and it's just hard to source resources.
We have fantastic resources for equipment in Canada and even just the discovery programs are just phenomenal and the CIFAR program and all the rest of it, but postdocs are the kind of... They're the most magical scientists out there, because they are the most maximally useful. They're the most likely to go and start a company. They know what they're talking about. They could go into academia, but they're just the best, and they would be the most industrious on this front. So, I would highly recommend, yeah, amping up the postdoc game, personally.
Nipun Vats: Let's see if we have some questions coming in. Okay. So, here's one that talks about... that relates to your concerns about encryption and the risk there. So, the question says, "The first superpower corporation, or individual that will have a quantum computer could theoretically..." I guess, a quantum computer fall tolerant, large scale quantum computer. "... could theoretically cripple encryption with dire consequences. Do you have thoughts about what the solution is to this risk?"
Stephanie Simmons: Yeah, I think part of it is communicating and mobilizing around quantum safe, as well as quantum communications. I think quantum safe is you can't... we can't imagine deploying quantum cryptography everywhere it needs to be by the time a quantum computer's going to be up and running. And it's going to happen sooner than you think and it's going to feel very sudden. So, we need to seriously invest in post quantum cryptography. And we need to also, for the critical systems, invest in true quantum networks. We're talking about quantum telcos. We need to be thinking about milestones and prizes on distributing quantum entanglement across Canada as quickly as we can, because there will be critical resources where, yeah, you can't trust RSA. And there will be a time where even if you can imagine a post quantum reality where there's a cryptographic technique that stands at least up to some scrutiny, it won't stand up to 50 years of scrutiny through classical attack or quantum attack, but it throws something. We need to may make sure that we at least plug all the gaps.
We've had a recent experience with global affairs and the hack. And information security more broadly is going to be an extra challenging task where you don't even know where all the edges are, right? We already think we do and we're already getting attacked, right? So, we do need to invest in that very defensively. And also, yeah, it would be great if Canada was the home of that winning horse, because then we could collectively be in control of it, right? And make it known to the world that we have this technology. We're not going to use it to break RSA, but you have your warning. Get mobilized, right? Get in front of it.
Nipun Vats: Right. And just so... For the audience, you mentioned quantum safe and you mentioned quantum, truly sort of quantum networks.
Stephanie Simmons: Yeah.
Nipun Vats: So, this is the idea of using classical algorithms for encryption that would be immune to attack by a quantum computer, if you will. Right? [crosstalk]. Sorry, go ahead.
Stephanie Simmons: Sorry to interrupt. The problem is that they... The standards were set a while ago where it was believed that such an algorithm had been identified. And then only a few years later, it fell. So, I would say we can't- I don't know how the trust is going to look. This is a public trust thing. This isn't even a technical thing, because those, whatever the new post quantum algorithms are, they won't have been battle tested for 50 years. So, there will be questions. Even if they do "look" to be good against quantum, it's going to be unclear if they actually hold up to scrutiny. So, yeah, I think we need a layered approach, because we rely on information distribution too much now. It's kind of a bit... Sorry, I didn't want this to be the case, but I'm just in it for the other stuff. But it is true, and we should take the opportunity to think about secure networks from the ground up, right? Anyway. Yeah.
Nipun Vats: Yeah. And that just speaks to people in government who are thinking about data security and about privacy and protection of information. And we don't necessarily think about it in those terms, but what you're pointing to is the fact that there will come a time when all of the sort of short-term protections that we are thinking about putting in place may no longer be the way to think about the problem. And we should get ahead of that is essentially what [crosstalk ].
Stephanie Simmons: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And the other thing, I'm not a post quantum person, but I do see the val... I don't want our field to come across as the bad guys in this space, right? I'd rather be defended. And I would say that there's also something else, is that there's information in the wild that's already collected now in the view that in 10 years time, it's going to be de-encrypted. Right? So, there's really no reason not to layer on lots of layers of protection, as it were, from an information security perspective, including hopefully, the truly un-hackable one, right? We have a provably un-hackable one, which will be a limited resource, but we have it. And we have some of the world's best experts in this exact area, because we're half invented it ourselves. Right? Not me, but. So, we have a really strong legacy there that we can leverage, and I think there should be really targeted, yeah, prize investments in that direction. That would be my take.
Nipun Vats: So, here's another question that's actually a very good one that we often struggle with in jobs like mine, where you're trying to explain to the public or to ministers or people who aren't necessarily so initiated what the relevance of these technologies is. And so, the question is very simple. It's, "How would quantum computing impact or change the life of the average Canadian?" Because as you said, it's not as though everyone's going to have a quantum CPU on their desk and it's going to sort of do different kinds of things. So, how would you actually just say to an average Canadian, assuming there is such a thing, how this is going to actually impact their daily life at some point?
Stephanie Simmons: Yeah. So, I tried to allude to the data information one. I don't want this to be a too negative. There's a lot of ways in which algorithms have helped everything we do, right? Just the ability to even have a real time conversation like this is to do with a lot of algorithmic development. And so, yeah. Information will be held in a very secure way. We'll have authentication. Anyway, there's lots of stuff there. Sensors will come in, but it'll basically be through the improvement of... I think, frankly, material development and drug development will be the first one. That's where we're going to start to see- be able to do, say, toxicology studies in silico. How phenomenal would that be, right? Where you can actually really de-risk the three-phase trial aspect way in advance by having a true simulation of what's going on. Think about battery development properly, right?
We're using a lot of heuristics and iterative tests because we can't simulate at that scale. So, drugs are another one. Batteries are another one. In terms of logistics, logistics affects everything that we do. It's why we can have a delivery arrive on our doorstep and- It matters the way life's um... So, there's these kinds of iterative things that'll feed into... You'll see it. Basically, there'll be a giant hype cycle. In the same way that how does AI affect everybody's today? It does. It changes the way things are recommended to you and how you interact with various service providers, but you're not yourself typically waking up in the morning and training a neural net. Some of us are, but not everybody. So, it'll become about through the second order effects because they're very foundational technologies. Eventually, they'll be boring. Eventually, it'll be something that you don't talk about, right? It'll just be something that makes everything more helpful. That's the vision.
Nipun Vats: So, there's a question here on talent, which is also an interesting one. The question itself says, "What do you think we could do to make sure our best PhD students don't seek opportunities south of the border?" But I think it's a more general point where if you visit any of the centres of quantum technology around the world, at least in my case, the first thing they'll say is, "We love Canada because they train the best people. And then we try and scoop them up." And so, this is not unique to quantum, but it is a particular case in quantum where the global pool of talent is so limited. So, do you have any thoughts on how we could retain more of that quantum expertise here at home?
Stephanie Simmons: Yeah, postdocs. Sorry. There's some specific tweaks I would make to the Mitacs Program, which is where a lot of postdoc support comes from. I would say have an entrepreneurial stream for Mitacs as a specific recommendation, but really, just rebalance the way that funding works for postdocs, because there are no postdoctoral. Proportionally to the number of absolutely world class trained PhD students, there just aren't post-doc spots in Canada for them. So, there's nothing wrong with going overseas. I would say though, the thing that Canada can do most is just keeping a fantastic place to live. And if we can make the company successful, people will want to work for those companies here, right? That's why I came back to Canada. That's why I started the company in Vancouver. We can recruit to Vancouver. It's Canada's big shot at a good standard of living and yeah, it has phenomenal talent locally. So, just keep being awesome at that and then try to make those companies successful through those mid TRL level prize or grant investments. And yeah, the postdoc thing, just to round it all back.
Nipun Vats: Here's another one which talks about the international context. So, the question says, "Steph, thank you for a wonderful presentation. You speak quite a bit to winning the space race in Canada taking a lead in the quantum industry. However, how important would you say international collaboration is to propelling the field forward? Are opportunities for collaboration growing globally, or would you say the opportunity for global teamwork is narrowing as countries become more tentative to share information so they might win this space race?"
Stephanie Simmons: Yeah. It's a really interesting dynamic. It's a very interesting dynamic. So, there's definitely still this mass proliferation of start-ups and where you have everybody building off each other, and that's where it's in the really research side. As soon as it goes through the acquisition phase, there's going to be a giant tightening, I imagine. There's going to be export controls. It's going to be a bit messy. So, I would love for it to be as open as it could be, but things are already shifting. They're already shifting to being more... People are more nervous about IP, people are more nervous about our own security, right? And being scooped. And it's starting to go from being that really open, supportive blue-sky stuff to being more commercial, more directed and more competitive, and that's to be expected. In terms of international, if you were... I'm of the opinion that we have the winning horse and that we're going to win the whole thing, so, that's not surprising for me. I'll just say that. I think we are. However, if you don't believe me and you don't think that's the case, then yeah. There's a lot of room for iterative development, because all of the different platforms out there really could benefit from a lot of iterative development. We're working on this technology because there exists skeletons in all those other closets that do- would benefit from having lots of collaborative development. And yeah, that was a bit of a nebulous answer, but there's... You could go either way on that one.
Nipun Vats: Yeah. One thing that is discussed a fair bit across countries that are... across governments of countries that are involved heavily in quantum technologies is collaborating so that there's some compatibility in our technologies, so that you're dealing with trusted partners internationally, so that you have access to markets, right? It's still kind of early days, but people do talk about the role of governments and kind of making sure that as security concerns become greater, you mentioned export controls and other things, that we are doing so in a conscious way, so that we're not denying kind of market access to our great companies internationally. So, that's certainly-
Stephanie Simmons: It'll be a balance. It'll be a balance. With any kind of technology this powerful, it's going to absolutely be a balance just to be strict. And yeah, standards are another one, to your point, right? Setting up the right standards so that we're not boxing ourselves in by not being at that table. Yeah. It's a big geopolitical game to be played. It's a big game.
Nipun Vats: Yeah. Let me see here. There's a question here.
So, this is kind of a... It's a hard question to get your head around, but I think someone is trying to understand the distinction between qubits and sort of a classical bit. I'll read the question first, but it might require a little bit of interpretation. It says, "With zeros and ones, we string them together to mean different things in the real world. These mappings form a standard. For example, there are things like ASCII characters." And so, they're asking, "Is there a similar kind of standard being developed in quantum computing to represent things in the world as well? And if so, what would those standards look like?" So, I guess it's kind of like how much of this is about modelling kind of the physical reality of things and how much of it is representative? Sort of manage information. Yeah.
Stephanie Simmons: Yeah. No, it's a fantastic question and it actually extends into, if I'm interpreting it correctly, it extends into a whole bunch of stuff around the quantum stack more broadly. So, I would say when we're talking about the goal of demonstrating millions of cubits doing large algorithms, those algorithms are known, but they're completely up for reinvention all the time. People working on them, improving them, re-mapping, there's a lot of work to be done on the algorithms to make the total resources needed to execute them fewer and fewer. This is really back to the transistor days where you have to kind of co-optimize every bit of the resource, because you don't have extra resources yet. You're really about squeezing all the power you can out of everything you can. And therefore, those mappings are algorithm dependent. Everything's a bit of a wild west situation.
There's some standards that are starting to emerge on some of the languages, but again, everything's kind of up for grabs. It really is this kind of wild free for all where people are trying to first demonstrate value and then standards come later. And that's what's going to happen. Once a dominant design emerges, it will form the basis for a lot of standards to come forward, but it's still really up in the air what that looks like in the community. That's yet to be emerged. So, yeah, people are trying to set those standards, but again, I think it's going to be open to flux given that there's so many wild changes that we expect over the next couple years.
Nipun Vats: Right. And this idea of the, just to add onto it, you just said this idea of the stack, it's basically, you have the machine, but then you have the way that machine communicates with the end user and all of the kind of software that sits between the device and the end user. And we kind of take that for granted with classical computers, because it's been done over so much time, but it's maybe just to point out that Canada actually has a lot of strength in various aspects of that stack as well. And so, one of the things...
There are a lot of inter multinational companies that are trying to kind of own the stack, if you will. And part of the benefit of having so many great quantum computing companies in Canada is that it creates a diversity of technology, but also allows for Canadian companies that are working on those other layers to actually be kind of innovating and avoid locking into something prematurely. So, I think that's kind of an interesting strength of Canada as well, because it's not just... It's about hardware, but it's all the other pieces that make this go. That's pretty cool too.
Stephanie Simmons: Sorry. I lost you.
Nipun Vats: No, that's okay. So, there's a question here. This is a classic question for advanced technologies in Canada. "What do you think Canada needs to do to grow its quantum industry to higher TR levels rather than being purchased by larger companies such as Google and IBM after reaching a certain size?"
Stephanie Simmons: Yeah, absolutely. We're trying. I really do think that kind of tech translation stage is something that we can look to other world-class, small-scale countries and see what they've done and try and adopt some of those techniques. I come back to I think the DARPA programme is a really big one, but it also speaks to a kind of goodwill that exists within Canada. So, for example, Canada has invested in me. I came back to Canada specifically to try and make it work here. And really, it's also a good hiring strategy. That's where the talent is. This is a talent play. This will be a talent play. And to your point earlier about global reach, these will be global companies. These companies will form part of that backbone. It's about just being brave enough to say no to low level acquisition numbers and having the vision of the future and actually driving it to conclusion.
But part of that is, yeah, making it happen, because at some point, if you can make it work here, then you do. But if you're offered something that you can't say no to, then it's a challenge. So, it's about making sure that there is enough support here to make it work for the companies here. And that's why I come back to these kinds of prize programmes, these kinds of futures contracts, procurement solutions. It's pre-revenue. All of this is pre-revenue. We're talking about owning a completely new future direction, but yeah, investing in the backbones that we know that we are going to need. We're going to need a quantum telco, right? We're going to need it, and so, let's just invest in it.
Nipun Vats: Right. So, here's a question that might be hard to answer. So, someone here said, and I'm actually very happy to see a question like this, "Wow. I have a steep learning curve ahead of me to learn more about quantum as a policy advisor. What resources can you recommend? What's the best way for someone, from your perspective, to learn about quantum technologies as somebody who's not an expert, but wants to know about it because they want to make sure that they're well informed as a citizen, but also in terms of contributing to public policy development?"
Stephanie Simmons: Yeah. What I would say is that there has been an absolutely enormous investment in education. And again, not just in Canada, although Canada's been absolutely leading the way on a lot of this work, there's also a lot of resources that are out there that, yeah, are talking to the policy side of things through the U.S. right now, I would say. They went through a major change where they realized about five years ago, "Oh my goodness. We need to catch up to Canada." Maybe ten years, but it was a major shift where the epicentre of the world was Canada in terms of education and the rest. And now there's been a lot of work on the economic development consortium for quantum in the states. There's also a lot of fantastic work happening in Europe on a policy front here. Yeah. There's a lot of content out there. It's a completely different map than it was about five years ago. So, I can't name specific resources, although you're happy to reach out it to me and I can dig those up, but there's just so many now that... Yeah. It's a good place to be.
Nipun Vats: And I think there are actually some communities of practice in government that are starting to wrap their heads around this as well, in terms of how we need to be thinking about it. So, maybe I could offer to connect people to those communities as well if they wanted to reach out to the organizers and learn more about these things. I didn't mention this, Stephanie knows this, but many years ago, I was a quantum researcher.
Stephanie Simmons: I know. I love your- I read your thesis.
Nipun Vats: And so, it's just fascinating to see how things have evolved. And it's actually really cool for someone like me to be in a job like this now after spending most of my career in non-science related jobs. So, I only say that because I'd be happy to help people learn more, short of giving them lectures on 20-year-old, outdated concepts. But let's see here. Here's an interesting question, "Do you see the next 10 to 20 years as analogous to Apple versus PC versus Android, i.e., a number of dominant technologies or a future more like VHS versus Beta, where one dominant technology for quantum computing will emerge?"
Stephanie Simmons: Mm. Yeah. It's a timing question. I think there will be... There's a lot of momentum on hardware. The switching cost between quantum hardware is incredibly high. So, I think some of the better invested, older technologies will take a long time to kind of say, "Okay, fine. We're going to give it up." I don't think it'll be a Beta Max VHS. You might end up having specific use cases breakthrough into the commercial realm tailored around one technology. It could be that maybe [indistinct 00:51:08] really cracks the financial algorithm and then they just become the workhorse for finance for their thing, right? Or maybe there's a Monte Carlo solution through... I don't know. You can imagine maybe that kind of circumstance, but it's not going to be static. So, whatever I answer will just reflect a snapshot in time. I think the broader pattern of having a dominant design that emerges, I think that will come.
I don't know how long it'll take to get there, but I think it will come because yeah, standards do form over time. Things do prove to be more useful than others. And at some point, one technology does win out, but it's not- my read of this right now is that once somebody cracks it, properly cracks it, it's going to be such a game changer compared to the competition that it won't have a... There won't be two closely tied companies. I think it'll just be one thing that dominates and wins, but that's, again, this is me projecting and kind of my guess at it. It's a weak projection. I wouldn't be surprised if it breaks the other way for a short time.
Nipun Vats: Right. Let's see here. There's a question here which asks what are potential government applications of quantum? And this is maybe something where we should also just mention that you are focusing on quantum computing.
Stephanie Simmons: Yeah.
Nipun Vats: When we talk about quantum technologies, it's a much bigger basket of things.
Stephanie Simmons: Completely.
Nipun Vats: And so, I think we've talked about some of the potential applications of quantum computing, but I don't know if you have any more sort of broader comments on quantum technologies in government or quantum computing and government applications?
Stephanie Simmons: So, I would say anything that requires- anything that's a computational challenge right now from a scaling perspective, you should at least ask the question as to whether or not there exists a quantum algorithm that could help it out. And so, you get a lot of logistics stuff. Monte Carlo is kind of everywhere in terms of how things are simulated. [indistinct], matrix manipulation. It's very broad. These are very foundational things, but it will be a co-processor sense where instead of it running on a classical, on a supercomputer on AWS, you'd send the job to some quantum data centre somewhere. You asked about more broad applications. Yeah. So, there's a lot of things that you just can't do. If you use quantum physics, you can do stuff that you can't use classical physics.
So, sensing is one of them. There's some things that are just inherently more sensitive and you can extract things that way. There's been some push towards imaging, quantum imaging. You can do things there. So, there's a lot of defence applications on that kind of thing, which yeah, no, we didn't get into. And yeah, those are the broad categories, but again, I feel like this is very much like transistor 101 level where we've picked out a few things. Remember we have not built one of these yet, right? So, there's a lot that we're going to learn when you have a generation that is brought up playing with them. That's really where you're going to get it. People that break it and put it back together and figure it all out. And it'll take a generation to really see all that, because again, when they projected hearing aids with the first transistor, they were not thinking about Facebook. They're not.
Nipun Vats: Yeah. I'm just looking at the other questions here. There's a question here about how... I guess it's a question of how you get your hands dirty a little bit in terms of learning about quantum algorithms and things. They're asking if there are any open-source initiatives in the area of quantum computing that people can get involved in. I know there are some things for their smaller scale systems, even IBM will give you access to play with their computer. In Vancouver, there's a Quantum Algorithms Institute and I don't know if they're actually providing some open access as well, but maybe you could speak to some of these things too.
Stephanie Simmons: Yeah. So, I was mentioning that there's an error correction mode and then a near term. A lot of companies are trying to work on that near term mode. You can get access to a lot of hardware that way. So, yeah, IBM's one of them, but there's... Basically, you can go to Microsoft or Amazon Web Services. They both have basically front ends for various hardware providers. These are all small-scale systems, but they're still- if you want to start playing with small scale system. I would say really what it is, it's about- if you take a look at classic computing and you try and model it that way, there's going to be a massive shortage of people that know how to program these things. Just ridiculous shortage of people. And it'll end up being in the way that IBM was in the early days, they have kind of dominance over the people that know how to programme these things, and then they offer the services on top of that as a consulting basis, or they work with the external providers to kind of deliver on a particular algorithm. And it'll be that way for a while, until there's a mass prolif- or more talent development on the algorithm level, but again, until we have standards. Right now, it's a co-design challenge. So, right now, yeah, there's lots of people you can get engaged. There's lots of open-source work on near term stuff, for sure, but I would say that everything is subject to revision, because it's so early in terms of standards and expectations. But the concepts of what is a qubit, what is super position, what are these things, what are the kind of algorithms that exist, those things are known. And so, yeah. Throw yourself into it. There's lots out there.
Nipun Vats: Yeah. So, if people want to get involved, they certainly can. There's lots of fun stuff to learn there, for sure. So, I'm mindful of time. We've got just a few minutes left and so, I'd just like to say thank you, Stephanie, for an excellent presentation and some great questions from the audience as well. So, I'm hopeful that people found that interesting and useful, and we'll seek out more information and think about how to integrate some of this into their day jobs as well. So, we want to thank our series partner as well, CIFAR, for helping the school, bring these unique and educational events to our audience.
[0And finally, thank you to our public service learners who registered for and attended today's event. I hope that you found it as interesting as I did.].
[Upcoming CSPS 2022 events appear on screen. They read: "AI is Here Series: What's all this talk about bias, fairness and transparency, February 14th, A new Approach to Harnessing the Potential of Quantum Computing, February 16th," and "Data Conference 2022: Driving Data Value and Insights for All Canadians, February 23rd-24th."]
It's been great to have this conversation today. So, your feedback is very important to us and to the school. And so, I'd invite you to complete the electronic evaluation that you're going to receive and the thank you email from the Canada School in the coming days. And if you've enjoyed today's event, I guess, up on screen, are some upcoming events, which could be of interest. I see there's one on AI. I think the next one in this series is a new approach to harnessing the... Oh, sorry. I'm not sure if this is an... This is an NRC, sorry, presentation on a new approach to harnessing the potential of quantum computing. So, there you go. This'll whet your appetite, and you've got another one that you could go to. And then, there are some other events that are being shown there. So, registration details can be found as well in the thank you email, or you can check out the Canada School website. So, thanks again, Stephanie, and thank you all for being there and enjoy the rest of your day and your week and stay safe. Take care, everyone.
Stephanie Simmons: Thank you. Thank you.
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