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Winter 2024

Students taking PHYS 344 with Prof. Erica Carlson were able to use a quantum computer last fall.
Students taking PHYS 344 with Prof. Erica Carlson were able to use a quantum computer last fall. Carlson is able to bring this technology, which very few people have been able to access, to sophomores in her Introduction to Quantum Science class thanks to a Department of Defense Grant funding Purdue’s IQ-PARC project. Pictured left to right: Akshith Karri, Thomas Slamecka, Prof. Erica Carlson, Casey Ward, and Esha Varkekar.

Boilermakers granted rare opportunity for hands-on experience with a quantum computer

Written by Cheryl Pierce

Quantum computing is expected to be the next giant leap in computer technology. These high-tech computers draw from physics and mathematics to use the properties of quantum physics to perform computations with amazing speed. These computers exist, but so far, very few people have been able to use or interact with them. They are so new that only a few even exist.

Thanks to a grant from the US Department of Defense, Purdue University students are now listed among the few people who will have hands-on experience with a quantum computer. The grant established the Innovation in Quantum Pedagogy, Application and its Relation to Culture (IQ-PARC) project, which not only gave funding, but awarded time on a quantum computer.

IQ-PARC seeks to address the gap in quantum education and workforce development. It not only develops educational materials accessible to learners with different backgrounds and levels but also provide free access to a diverse set of quantum hardware for learners to interact with through Azure Quantum.

Prof. Erica Carlson, 150th Anniversary Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Purdue University and host of The Quantum Age, is a co-founder of IQ-PARC. She is giving sophomore Physics majors this hands-on experience in Introduction to Quantum Science (PHYS 344).

“The day that I announced to the students that their last homework set would be programming on actual quantum computers, I also said I would need some beta testers, because I needed to be sure the signup instructions I gave the class were clear and correct before I deployed it to the entire class of 83 students,” says Carlson. “Several hands shot up immediately. ‘Okay, the first 5 people to email me will be our quantum computing beta testers.’  Several students emailed right away. A few students approached me after class to ask when they would be given access to the quantum computers - could it be as early as tomorrow? (This was a Friday.)”

One of the eager Boilermakers is undergraduate Casey Ward. They are a second-year physics and mathematics major. As a budding physics theoretician, they are especially interested in what role quantum mechanics would play in gravitational theory.

“My experience working with quantum algorithms in comparison to classical ones was quite interesting,” says Ward. “Computer science has a lot of mathematics tied into its foundations so to be able to work with a branch of computing where you are constantly seeing linear algebra and how it impacts how you write logic for different programs is fascinating. Linear algebra is such a far-reaching field in mathematics and is one of the foundations of what we do in non-quantum physics and becomes even more important in quantum mechanics. From Dr. Carlson's class we learned how the power of quantum mechanical effects can truly cause a drastic change in how we look at everyday processes. From how atomic clocks can help with more precise GPS signals to how quantum mechanics' stochastic nature can result in the ability to write algorithms that can solve problems much quicker than classical computers, such as prime number factorization (finding two prime numbers that multiply together to make a different number), through the use of quantum superposition of different possible outcome states of the problem.”

How exactly does it work out that students can use a quantum computer?  There isn’t one physically at Purdue, so students are able to essentially remote in. Carlson recommended that students train using Microsoft’s Azure Quantum's copilot. Carlson says that the students view a split screen with the quantum computing equivalent of “Hello World” on the left, and the Azure Quantum Copilot on the right.

“Think of it like ChatGPT for quantum computing, only they've been careful to train it really well,” she explains. “I found it to be an excellent resource for anyone wanting to learn how to get started coding quantum computers. You can ask the copilot what the code example means, and you can even ask it to write new code for you.  It can convert the code into standard quantum circuit language... Being a physicist, I was keen to ask it to translate Q# code into Pauli matrix language, and to my delight, it does this very well!”

Mahdi Hosseini, professor at Northwestern University, is the director of IQ-PARC. He says that the team tapped a student organization, the Quantum Game Club, which IQ-PARC helped launch, along with Microsoft to curate assignments compatible with cloud-based quantum processors on Microsoft Azure.

“By furnishing students with pre-written code and comprehensive instructions, we significantly reduced the barrier for engaging with quantum processors,” he explains. “As a result, students could execute algorithms, experiment with the code, and articulate their findings effectively. Our students accessed cutting-edge quantum hardware at no cost via the Azure platform, courtesy of DoD-NDEP support (grant #HQ0034-21-1-0014). This initiative facilitated hands-on exploration and learning opportunities in quantum computing.”

Students really understood the gravity of what they were able to do in this class. They understood that this is a rare opportunity and were excited to be able to use the newest technological breakthrough in computing.

“It was very exciting to be able to have the opportunity to work with something that at the time, I had only heard about in physics media,” says Ward. “It was so much fun being able to play around and see what would happen when I did different things within the program.”

Another student eager book time on the quantum computer is Rhea Pahuja. She is a Physics major minoring in Computer Science and is working toward an Applications of Data Science certificate. She was surprised to learn how much math and linear-algebra was involved in this process.

 “The idea that we’re playing with qubits and using these mathematical ‘gates’ to manipulate them is so cool,” she says. “The fact that the entire computer functions on the properties of some electrons and these impossible probabilities that only exist in quantum mechanics, and we’re using these complicated computers and coding on them blows my mind.

As a Purdue Data Mine student, she had similar experiences using Jupyter notebook to access a supercomputer.  She found the processes similar and using the quantum computer felt familiar.

“Because of this detached way of coding, I don’t think I ever really realized the full magnitude of what we were doing- we were coding on a quantum computer,” she says. “In movies and media, the quantum is just one of those words they throw around to make something sound more ‘science-y’ and ‘high-tech,’ so understanding the fact that we are even learning quantum mechanics blew my mind. Even in the science world, quantum was always described as an exception- when discussing classical mechanics, sometimes a teacher or professor would say something like ‘this is always true- except for in quantum mechanics but you’ll learn about that later.’ It is now that later, which is so crazy.”

Pahuja came to this project hoping to figure out what is possible on quantum computers and what skills she would need to learn in order to understand the basics of usage. She sought to find similarities to other coding languages and logic.

“The huge calculation and power potential that quantum computers have, that they can even brute-force previously uncrackable encryptions... Even though at the beginning, quantum computers will only be available to governments and the rich, the potential of quantum computing is exciting and scary,” she says. “Similar to AI- you want to be in that field and see where it goes, but everyone also thinks of the ramifications of this technology growing, both good and bad. The quantum computer itself is so incomprehensible to me- quantum mechanics I still don’t fully get, and the fact that we’re using it somehow to create these powerful computers that rely on two states kind of existing at the same time when we can’t even really see or measure when they exist in that superposition state is a development I can’t believe we’re actually able to reach.”

Carlson credits Dongyang Li, graduate research assistant with Purdue University's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, for helping students gain access to the quantum computer.

“He is an administrator for our account on the quantum computers, and it was the heroic efforts of Dongyang that got all 83 of my students added into the quantum computing environment,” she says. “Dongyang even came to our class to help students who were having trouble with the sign-in process.”