Schrodinger’s cat is alive

“Yet things might have gone far otherwise and far worse. When you think of the Battle of Pelennor, do not forget the battles in Dale and the valor of Durin’s Folk. Think of what might have been. Dragon-fire and savage swords in Eriador, night in Rivendell. There might be no Queen in Gondor. We might now hope to return from the victory here to ruin and ash. But that has been averted — because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of spring in Bree. A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle-earth.”

— Gandalf to Frodo and Gimli in The Lord of the Rings.

Backstory

At that time I was going through one of the leanest phases of my grad student life. I could not see the big picture of my research, and was very unsure about my post-graduation career plans. Add to that the stress that comes from being an international student during a global pandemic. Will I have to go back without completing my degree? Will there be a teaching assistant position for me in fall if enrollment is low? What will the job market be like when I graduate in a little over a year’s time. I was lost, not sure where I was or where I could go. And here comes my friend, with similar things on his mind. During our discussion Arun mentioned that he had had a chat with someone from the quantum computation industry, and was pondering if that was a possible career path for him. Given our very similar tastes in physics, I figured this might be something that I would like to do too. I started searching what sort of jobs were available in that industry, what sort of research people were doing. I found only a handful of company working on this topic, but the research was very interesting. The catch was that I did not know any quantum computation. But I know quantum, and some computation. How hard would it be to learn their intersection? I put on my traveling salesman hat and started hopping from one quantum city to another, trying to figure out which city would be the suitable starting point of this journey. Turns out there are a lot of cities, but it just so happened that one of these was the newly incorporated Qiskit Global Summer School, about to allow visitors in a couple weeks’ time. Aha! I had found the shortest route for my traveling salesman problem. I filled in and submitted the application form with haste, but careful not to make any mistakes, lest I not get selected. And now it was time to wait. I got David Mermin’s Quantum Computer Science, and went through Coding with Qiskit playlist as a sort of early prep.

Meeting the party

The first lecture was on the basics of quantum computation by Elisa Bäumer. Teaching a class of 20 can be terrifying, but Elisa taught a class of 4000! And she did it really well. Next we learned phase kickback, and the Deutsch-Josza algorithm, my first quantum algorithm. The simplicity and the novelty of the algorithm was just beautiful. Then came quantum Fourier transformation, quantum phase estimation, and the poster-child of quantum algorithms, Shor’s algorithm, taught by fan-favorite Abe Asfaw. And to round of the week we had an excellent lecture on quantum error correction by the Wrangler of qubits, James Wootton. Along the way we also had lab exercises where we got to try out Qiskit, and implement the quantum algorithms ourselves. I learned a lot by doing the labs. Personally I would have preferred the labs to be more interactive, but given the scale of the school it was difficult. Discord helped. A lot.

The second week started with, what was essentially a six-hour masterclass on teaching physics by Zlatko Minev. Zlatko discussed everything from Newton’s laws to circuit quantum electrodynamics. The concepts were not new to me, but his lectures helped me see how closely they were related to each other. These were followed by lectures on quantum chemistry simulations by Antonio Mezzacapo and Abhinav Kandala. For me the lectures by Antonio and Abhinav were probably of the most practical importance. Mapping fermionic Hamiltonians to qubits, and using quantum variational eigensolvers to get the ground state, is something that I can readily use in my nuclear physics research.

The best was saved for the last day. The panel discussion on careers in quantum computing was very illuminating. Quantum computing stalwarts Jay Gambetta, John Preskill, Monika Schleier-Smith, Marina Radulaski, Steve Girvin, K. Birgitta Whaley discussed their experience in the field and had some excellent advice for budding quantum computing enthusiasts. I personally found these two comments by John Preskill and Jay Gambetta to be the most helpful.

The adventure begins

- Learn more. Quantum computation is still a nascent field, and there are a lot of directions one can go. A broad understanding of the field will be very helpful.
- Practice more. Qiskit has made it really simple to implement quantum circuits and algorithms. The learning process is greatly augmented by practicing. And practical limitations and ways to circumvent them will become apparent only if you actually implement what you have read.
- Contribute to the community. This can be by teaching others (which brings clarity to your own understanding of the concepts), contributing to the codebase of open source quantum computing frameworks, like Qiskit. Or even by making Qiskit tutorials.
- Network, and collaborate. Talk to the people, reach out to experts. This will help you to get a big picture of where the field is going, and how you can contribute. Humans are social beings, and being part of an active community is integral for effective learning.

I do not expect the adventure to be easy, but I think it will be a lot of fun, like the best adventures are.

Gears and supplies

- Qiskit Textbook: Learn by doing.
- Qiskit Tutorials: More advanced tutorials. You can contribute too.
- Quantum computation course by Umesh Vazirani: You will find problem sets,
project ideas, and reference materials.
- How to start your first quantum computing project: Precisely what the name
says.
- Awesome Quantum Games: If games are your jam.
- Uncertain Systems: If you wanna solve puzzles instead.
- IndiQ and Indi Quantum Community: Quantum computing communities you can be a part of.
- Qiskit Advocates Program: Get your foot in the door.

Acknowledgments

PhD candidate @IowaStateU in #physics | #Toastmaster | Taming dragons on Sundays. https://soham.dev