Supported by funding secured by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, URI will add to its teaching and research capacity in quantum computing and gain access to IBM’s quantum systems
April 14, 2023
On World Quantum Day, April 14, the University of Rhode Island community gathered to celebrate a new quantum computing initiative, aimed at positioning URI students and the Rhode Island workforce at the forefront of the next great computing revolution.
The initiative includes a new research partnership with IBM that will provide URI faculty and students with access to IBM’s cutting-edge quantum computing systems. The initiative will bring new visiting faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students to URI in support of the University’s master’s degree and graduate certificate programs in quantum computing. Additional outreach and summer research opportunities for high school students will help to spark interest in the next generation of students.
The initiative is supported by a $1 million directed federal earmark secured by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, as well as funding from the URI College of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School of Oceanography.
“As Rhode Island’s flagship university, it’s incumbent upon us to be in a leadership position when it comes to the technologies that will shape the future of our state and nation,” said URI President Marc Parlange. “Through this initiative, we’re harnessing our faculty expertise in guiding the development of quantum technologies, while giving our students opportunities to hit the ground running with a technology that promises to reshape our world.”
“Quantum information science promises to be the next paradigm-shifting idea. It will enable unparalleled scientific advancement that paves the way for ground-breaking discoveries,” said Senator Reed. “I am proud to deliver $1 million for the new Quantum Computing Initiative here at Rhode Island’s flagship public research university. This initiative will help establish URI as a hub for quantum information science in the Northeast, helping the university expand its teaching capacity, bringing in experts to expand the university’s quantum degree programs, and training the next generation of students and researchers.”
Reed and Parlange helped to kick off a World Quantum Day symposium at URI featuring prominent speakers from the quantum computing world. Participants included URI alumni Christopher Savoie, co-founder and chief executive officer of Zapata Computing, and Adele Merritt, intelligence community chief information officer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Savoie earned his bachelor’s degree from URI and serves on the College of Arts and Sciences Advisory Council. Merritt earned her Ph.D. from URI in mathematics.
Other speakers included Christopher Lirakis, lead for quantum systems deployment at IBM; Charles Robinson, quantum computing public sector leader at IBM; Kurt Jacobs, deputy chief scientist at the Army Research Laboratory; Pedro Lopes, business developer at the computing firm QuEra; and Juan Rivera, senior engineer at Dell Computing.
Partnering with IBM
Quantum computing, which takes advantage of the fundamental laws governing the behavior of individual elementary particles, promises to revolutionize the way information is processed. Today’s computers process data by manipulating digital bits—units of information represented by zeros and ones. Quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, which can exist in a state of being a zero and a one simultaneously. By holding information in multiple states at once, quantum computers can perform calculations that even today’s largest supercomputers can’t handle.
“Quantum computers will be able to do calculations in minutes that would take classical computers centuries to perform,” said Leonard Kahn, chair of the URI Department of Physics. “That’s going to enable us to tackle problems that we simply cannot do today.”
The technology remains in its infancy, however. There are only a limited number of working quantum computers in the world today, and scientists are working to scale these systems up. Giving URI students and faculty access to IBM’s quantum systems will be a boon for student education and faculty research, Kahn says.
In 2021, URI launched a five-year program that graduates students with a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in quantum computing. This year, the University added an online graduate certificate program.
“Our students are going to graduate having actually worked on a quantum computer,” Kahn said. “That’s not something many programs can say right now, and it gives our students a tremendous advantage.”
First-hand access to quantum systems will also be useful for faculty like physics professors Vanita Srinivasa and Wenchao Ge, who are working on making quantum computers scalable and more robust. For other researchers on campus, this will be a chance to familiarize themselves with a technology that promises to revolutionize fields from business to environmental science.
“This isn’t just about computational speed,” said Paula Bontempi, dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography. “It’s about having the ability to model complex systems like Narragansett Bay, or the North Atlantic Ocean. If we want to understand the impacts of climate change, we have to take in all of the observational data that we collect and do the calculations that allow us to predict what the future ocean looks like. That’s where quantum computing comes into play.”
Access to the IBM system will also enable a new research partnership between URI and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. That project will support research into the use of quantum systems in the operation of autonomous underwater vehicles.
Educating the quantum workforce
The initiative will also help URI to expand its research and teaching capacity. The University plans to add four new visiting faculty, four postdoctoral researchers and four graduate teaching assistants in the coming years. The new faculty and students will help manage the expansion of URI’s quantum degree programs.
The expansion comes at a critical time, Kahn says.
“The capacity of quantum computers is doubling roughly every six months,” Kahn said. “That means that students who are in high school now are likely to be graduating from college when quantum computers begin to have wider applicability. Now is the time to start educating the workforce that will be using this technology.”
URI faculty will also work with a nonprofit group called Qubit by Qubit to provide outreach to high school students around Rhode Island. The outreach will include scholarships for high school students to participate in summer workshops and research internships with URI faculty on the Kingston Campus.
Jen Riley, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said that the initiative helps to bolster both the research and educational missions of the college.
“One of our goals in the College of Arts and Sciences is to prepare students not only for today’s job market, but also for jobs that are sure to exist in the future,” Riley said. “This initiative is an example of how we do that. We’re making sure our students already have experience with quantum systems the day they come online, and helps position URI as a leader in this emerging technology.”