Published: Nov. 27, 2018 By

Almost every area of our society will eventually be touched by quantum physics, now or in the not too distant future. 

For engineers and physicists, the changes will be perceptible and measurable in research and workforce development. For the broader society, changes will come in smaller packages at first in the form of increased computing power and better artificial intelligence. With both aspects comes ethical and social questions that spread out from the STEM fields and must be answered. Taken together, these shifts will be transformative and usher in a new age not unlike the bronze or industrial in scope and impact.

Depiction of an atom for quantum theory

The College of Engineering and Applied Science is part of a new campus wide initiative called the Quantum Explorations in Science & Technology seed grant program. This multi-disciplinary, multi-group effort is offering funding to spark scientific and technological quantum-related breakthroughs in the Rocky Mountain region.

A new campus wide initiative - the Quantum Explorations in Science & Technology seed grant program - aims to put CU Boulder at the center of that shift. This multi-disciplinary, multi-group effort is offering funding to spark scientific and technological quantum-related breakthroughs in the Rocky Mountain region. A second key goal is to increase competitiveness for current and future funding opportunities within the National Quantum Initiative Act and other federal solicitations.

Funding and researchers for the project will come from the College of Engineering and Applied Science, CU Boulder’s Research and Innovation Office, the College of Arts and Sciences, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and JILA.

Assistant Adjunct Professor Aaron Holder is part of the push in engineering. Based in the Chemical and Biological Engineering Department, he has a joint appointment with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. He talked about what quantum could enable now and, in the future, why it is important to address these questions today and why CU Boulder is well positioned in the field going forward.

Portrait of Aaron Holder with white background

Assistant Adjunct Professor Aaron Holder

Question: Why is quantum a buzzword in America and the world right now? Did something change recently?
Answer: I would argue quantum has been a buzzword, and justifiably so, since it was first employed to describe nature at its smallest many years ago. It has proven to be an incredibly predictive theory and tested with astonishing precision while catalyzing our advancement throughout the last century.  However, there are certain tangible aspects now, in the area of quantum computing for example, that could empower us to do many things that will impact everyone in the end. 

Quantum will allow us to perform complex algorithms and computations that we cannot solve on classical computers right now (or in the foreseeable future), so things like simulating the world around us could be done much faster and efficiently, and with much more accuracy. That means improvements to everyday life through better health care, weather predictions, and traffic engineering for example. There is also cryptography - If you are using quantum logic you can encode more information in smaller signal, allowing for more data to be manipulated and sent faster in a more secure way. You could also use that power to decrypt information, meaning our current codes and passwords for personal use on up to things like the security of an electric grid or financial networks may not be secure to someone with quantum tech. 

Q: This is new that cryptography is a large part of this right? That is the reason there is a lot of government funding going into these projects?
A: Right, although the concepts of quantum logic and quantum cryptography can be traced back nearly a century ago to the pioneering mathematician John von Neumann, the ability to readily implement and exploit these theories in real world devices is only now imminent. That is where you get a geo-political concern, because it matters who gets quantum first in that regard. It’s similar to a nuclear capability, there isn’t a tangible problem until someone actually develops it beyond the theory, and for which purpose. We can see quantum cryptography on the horizon and how it could be used for well- and ill-intentioned purposes.

Q: Are there other aspects like that?

A: As this quantum revolution is happening, there is also a data science revolution running at the same time. That includes things like machine learning and better artificial intelligence which will be propelled by quantum. So if you get quantum, AI is just going to get more powerful. As that happens, it teaches us to look at data in ways we can’t right now. That may seem abstract, but all of your personal online experience is already influenced by AI, from shopping to web searches. AI is also used for things like assessing risk or allocation of assets and liabilities (loans, insurance, health care protocols, etc.) as well. With all of that, there is an ethics component to the limits of AI-based decisions as well about who has access to AI and how it is deployed or integrated into society.

The biggest part you should be excited about, however, is what we don’t know. When Einstein was talking about special relativity and general relativity his ideas were foreign and abstract, but the consequences were revolutionary. For instance, anytime you use the global positioning system you are relying on those theories to accurately account for how gravity and motion induce differences in the fabric of time and space between your position on earth and the satellite swiftly travelling in orbit above. We did not foresee this importance of the theory 100 years ago, but we have since trained our systems engineers to be aware of relativity and to account for its consequences in their design, resulting in enormous benefit to our everyday lives. Quantum is going to give us a whole new plethora of technologies we can’t fully envision now and that is the most exciting part!

CU Boulder campus aerial view including engineering building,

Many groups across CU Boulder's campus will be involved in the Quantum Explorations in Science & Technology seed grant program.

Q: How is CU Boulder positioned in the global discussion around quantum and the research going forward?

A: The people at NIST, JILA and the Physics faculty are at the forefront of many of these quantum technologies – from the optical side of things to the ultra-cold work. There is incredible expertise in understanding the theory there, putting leading edge experiments into practice and the reputation and leadership is outstanding. Engineering has a great opportunity to interface between those groups and be a leader as well, especially through integrating quantum into their preeminent applied science and workforce development activities.

Q: That is a big need going forward – developing people who can work with, understand and develop around these technologies?

A: Right. We recognize that industry and government is investing in this and we need to train a workforce that can deal with quantum technologies, even if it is just through a classical engineering sense – our engineers need to be made quantum-aware so that they can interface. All of that development needs to happen because our nation and globe will need that expertise and it isn’t widely available right now.

Q: You said something similar before, how do you mean?

A: Quantum touches everything, from our aerospace engineers trying to see things in deep space, to our electrical engineers trying to control fidelity and the physics department thinking about exploiting things on the atomistic scale. Crossing out of STEM and into social impact, there are ethical and legal questions about what the enhanced computing power will allow. It will also touch things like drug discovery where we need to simulate how a drug interacts with a cell – a process that a quantum computer can help us with but is almost intractable now. We need people who can help with the research and development of those tools and also interact with them once they are developed.

Q: How does your research fit into quantum overall? 

A: If you look back through history, in every new age there is a materials discovery component that goes with that as well. From the Bronze age to the transistor age we are in now. So what is the next material that enables the quantum age? That is the question that I am looking to answer.

My research is about building things atom-by-atom, interface-by-interface or material-by-material to turn these types of phenomena on and then control them. A lot of my work is in the materials, discovery and design area. We want to create or discover new materials that have these properties in a way that we can control them. So that could be as simple as asking “is there a material that doesn’t exist that we can create?” and then using computationally accelerated methods to find that space, predict its properties and guide the synthesis. It could also be knowing how to arrange materials - “is there a way we can think about how to architecture them together to control a phenomena? If I take two materials, can I get something drastically different than the sum of their parts?”

Q: What will the people who are studying quantum in 20 years think of the work we are doing now?

A: The paradigm of science would suggest that the basic science we do now will strongly influence our thinking over the next 20 years, just as we are working to solve problems identified more than 20 years ago and building upon that science. That perpetual progression and self-correcting nature of science is something that we all benefit from and should continue to support and invest heavily in. However, the development of quantum technologies would dramatically disrupt and accelerate that paradigm for the better, unlocking new understanding and empowering us with revolutionary capabilities. It is possible those working on quantum 20 years from now could be standing on the other side of the precipice thanks to the work we are doing, perhaps thinking about what an exciting time in science it must have been for us as we transcend a buzzword into their reality. That is the future I hope to participate in, and one that CU is strongly positioned to lead us towards.