Researchers at The University of New Mexico will participate in a $15 million, multi-university collaboration as part of a National Science Foundation program designed with the audacious goal of building the world’s first practical quantum computer.

Dubbed the Software-Tailored Architecture for Quantum co-design (STAQ) project, the effort seeks to demonstrate a quantum advantage over traditional computers within five years using ion trap technology. The program is the NSF’s largest quantum computing effort to date.

The project is the result of a NSF Ideas Lab—a week-long, free-form exchange among researchers from a wide range of fields that aims to spawn creative, collaborative proposals to address a given research challenge. The result of each Ideas Lab is interdisciplinary research that is high-risk, high-reward, cutting-edge and unlikely to be funded through traditional grant mechanisms.

This particular NSF Ideas Lab focused on the Practical Fully-Connected Quantum Computer challenge. STAQ will involve physicists, computer scientists and engineers from Duke University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University, University of California-Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Maryland and The University of New Mexico.

STAQ Project researchers
Team of STAQ-project researchers at Ideas Lab meeting at the Santa Fe Institute in Fall 2017. Front row (l. to r.): Hartmut Haeffner (University of California, Berkeley), Aram Harrow (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Kenneth Brown (Duke University). Back row l. to r.): Akimasa Miyake (University of New Mexico), Alexey Gorshkov (University of Maryland College Park), Jungsang Kim (Duke University), Peter Love (Tufts University), Christopher Monroe (University of Maryland College Park), and Frederic Chong (University of Chicago).

“Quantum computers will change everything about the technology we use and how we use it, and we are still taking the initial steps toward realizing this goal,” said NSF Director France Córdova. “Developing the first practical quantum computer would be a major milestone. By bringing together experts who have outlined a path to a practical quantum computer and supporting its development, NSF is working to take the quantum revolution from theory to reality.”

“There’s a really clear path to getting to two-to-three dozen ion trap qubits working together in a quantum computer,” said Kenneth Brown, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, chemistry, and physics at Duke, and leader of the new collaboration. “But it will take at least twice as many to solve a challenging calculation, and achieving that within five years is no cakewalk.”

"The first truly effective quantum computer will not emerge from one researcher working in a single discipline," echoed NSF Chief Operating Officer Fleming Crim. "Quantum computing requires experts from a range of fields, with individuals applying complementary insights to solve some of the most challenging problems in science and engineering. NSF's STAQ project uniquely addresses that need, providing a cutting-edge approach that promises to dramatically advance U.S. leadership in quantum computing."

The new collaboration will be working with trapped ions—atoms with electrons stripped away to give them a positive electric charge. That charge allows researchers to suspend ultra-cooled atoms using an electromagnetic field in an ultra-high vacuum, where precise lasers manipulate their quantum states to form qubits. Qubits are the quantum mechanical analogue of a traditional logical bit, which can be in a “0” or a “1” state, except a qubit can be in both positions at the same time. While researchers have proven able to build robust qubits, scaling them into large networks while detecting and correcting errors remains difficult. Many private companies including Google and IBM are also working to build their own versions of a quantum computer, but with different underlying technology.

“A new challenge is to develop a stack of software such as operating systems and compilers, in order to make the experimental hardware of ion qubits useful to real-world applications,” said Akimasa Miyake, associate professor of Physics and Astronomy, and faculty of Center for Quantum Information and Control (CQuIC) at UNM. “The STAQ project is an exciting opportunity for theoretical physicists who work on both fundamental and practical problems of quantum computing. It is also a great opportunity for our Center of Quantum Information and Control (CQuIC) to keep training the next generation of quantum information scientists through a cutting-edge project of quantum computing.”

The project’s integrated approach to develop a practical quantum computer relies on finding new algorithms based on optimization and scientific computing problems, improving quantum computer hardware, and developing software tools that optimize algorithm performance for the specific machine. 

The STAQ researchers will focus on four primary goals:

  • Develop a quantum computer with a sufficiently large number of quantum bits (qubits) to solve a challenging calculation.
  • Ensure that every qubit interacts with all other qubits in the system, critical for solving fundamental problems in physics.
  • Integrate software, algorithms, devices and systems engineering.
  • Involve equal input from experimentalists, theorists, engineers and computer scientists.

“This project ties together several groups that I have worked on projects with separately in the past,” said Brown. “It is also providing me the opportunity to work with other well-known researchers in the field who I’ve always wanted to collaborate with. Having everyone together under one umbrella is truly exciting.”

As a cross-disciplinary project, STAQ encourages convergence across research fields and aligns with The Quantum Leap: Leading the Next Quantum Revolution, one of NSF's 10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments. It is funded through NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Computer and Information Science and Engineering directorates. 

UNM has been a pioneer in Quantum Information Science for the last 25 years. Formed in 2009, the Center for Quantum Information and Control (CQuIC) is based at UNM with an extension at the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona. Researchers at the two institutions, along with partners at Sandia and Los Alamos National Labs, work together on both the theoretical aspects of quantum information and with the experimental part of the puzzle. CQuIC has won a multi-million-dollar five-year Focused Research Hub in Theoretical Physics (FRHTP) grant from NSF in 2016 (see the article in UNM Newsroom). The STAQ project will help to propel CQuIC to next level, preparing for a new National Quantum Initiative, now under consideration in congress.