‘We’re at the dawn’: One of Waterloo Region’s first quantum researchers says world-changing breakthroughs are near

WATERLOO REGION — As many job interview questions come up, Michele Mosca never forgot this one: “If you had $100 million to make a difference in physics, what would you do?

Howard Burton, founding executive director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, traveled the world to recruit the best physicists he could find. Burton worked for Mike Lazaridis, the co-founder and co-CEO of BlackBerry, who donated much of his personal fortune to found the institute.

On a trip to Oxford, Burton was told to seek out Michele Mosca, who had just completed a doctorate in quantum computer algorithms there.

Mosca had been recruited into the University of Waterloo’s Cryptography Group in 1998. The following year, Mosca founded the Quantum Computing Task Force at the university. In 2020, he and Burton sat down to talk about making a difference in physics with a tech billionaire who has your back.

Mosca urged Burton to create a quantum information group within the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics. It would complement the university’s working group that focused on hardware and applications.

It took a leap of faith.

“For most people it was a gamble, in a way,” Mosca said. “At the time, it looked pretty promising. A lot of people who supported him didn’t fully understand what we were trying to do.

No wonder: quantum computers harness the power and properties of tiny particles – atoms, electrons, neutrons, photons, etc. – to process information, and they offer enormous potential for performing complex calculations that thwart conventional computers.

Lazaridis went there. He believed that this next generation of supercomputers would trigger “the next industrial super cycle”.

After the creation of the Perimeter Institute, Lazaridis donated $100 million to establish the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. Perimeter Institute does theoretical physics and IQC does applied research.

Mosca was among the first three researchers of CIQwhich now has 30 professors in seven departments.

There are dozens of small quantum computers in the IQC labs. But after more than 20 years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars, a practical quantum computer with commercial applications remains elusive.

Researchers don’t know when the world’s first quantum computer will hit the market, although Mosca predicts it will happen within the next 15 years. There is no reason to be anything other than confident that a quantum breakthrough is on the way, he added.

“There’s still a long way to go,” Mosca said. “They are making tremendous progress.”

Correcting errors made by quantum computers in real time, as machines process information, is one of the biggest challenges facing researchers. Once that’s sorted out, researchers believe quantum computers will quickly outperform the most powerful computers in existence today.

“Everything is accelerating quickly towards these milestones,” Mosca said. “We are at the forefront.”

What bits and bytes are to computers today, qubits are to quantum computers. Researchers believe a 1,000-qubit quantum computer will be powerful enough to break the current gold standard of cryptography that secures online commerce. This is why quantum cryptography is one of the fastest growing areas in the quantum industry.

The continued quest for a quantum computer has spurred the creation of dozens of startups. Mosca co-founded Quantum Industry Canada, a consortium of over 40 startups and technology companies working in quantum computing, quantum sensors, communications, materials and cryptography.

Today, Lazaridis oversees Quantum Valley Investments, which has a stable of startups working on practical applications of the technology, such as quantum cryptography.

“We are well positioned to become market leaders, Mosca said.

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