New grants helping researchers from across UIUC learn about quantum computing

9/8/2022 9:58:53 AM Jenny Applequist

Bill Gates supposedly once said that “the computer was born to solve problems that did not exist before.” One could quibble over those words, but they point to a real phenomenon: every now and then, an innovation appears that opens up new realms of opportunity—much of which was literally unimaginable until the new capability emerged. The result may be an unfortunate lag time before people figure out how to benefit from the new technology. We’re a long way from having quantum computers that surpass classical computers, but NSF QLCI–HQAN director and physics professor Brian DeMarco is already thinking about how to provide people with an “easy on-ramp” that will help them start taking advantage of quantum computing as soon as it’s available.

For that reason, he introduced a grant program that will help UIUC researchers from any field of study get their feet wet, quantum-wise.

NSF QLCI-HQAN Director & Professor Brian DeMarco pictured
NSF QLCI-HQAN Director & Physics Professor Brian DeMarco pictured

DeMarco explains that we know little about what will prove to be the important applications in various domains. “People speculate about pharmaceuticals, or use cases in ag, or logistics,” he says. “But, we don’t really know. So... how do you find applications that are important?”

He thinks the solution is “to get the people who work in different areas to start thinking about and using this technology.”

Enter the new Illinois Quantum Applications Grant program. It’s meant to help UIUC researchers understand how quantum computers work, acquire basic quantum programming skills, and, most importantly, reflect on how quantum computers might tackle problems that today are difficult or impossible to solve—perhaps even problems no one would try to formulate if future quantum capabilities weren’t anticipated.

The first cohort of recipients includes Aleksei Aksimentiev (Physics); Angela Di Fulvio (NPRE); Weihao Ge (NCSA); Ramez Hajj (CEE); Prashant Jain (Chemistry); Jacob Kinsey, Robert Brunner, Samuel Chen, and Matias Carrasco Kind (Gies College of Business); Praveen Kumar (CEE); Mohith Manjunath (NCSA); Santiago Nunez-Corrales (NCSA); Zhen Peng (ECE); Mary Pietrowicz (ARI); and Yang Zhang (NPRE). Many of them have students participating as well.

Participants will take the “Quantum Computing for Everyone” edX course; receive at least $1,000 per team in Amazon AWS Braket computing credits, which can be used to run code on a 34-qubit simulator and real quantum computing hardware; access AWS Braket support and training; and attend events designed to spark discussion. Funding for the grants was provided by HQAN, Amazon, and IBM.

Mohith Manjunath, who analyzes the human genome for insights into disease, exemplifies the diverse grant recipients.

“One of the main research areas in genomics is to connect the human genome and the changes happening there to diseases or traits,” he explains. “Given the size of the human genome, it’s very computationally challenging to get a complete picture of disease mechanisms in a tractable timeframe. I feel quantum computing has the potential to accelerate genomics research and enable hospitals to gain insights quickly from patient data.”

Manjunath hadn’t seriously considered quantum, though, until he noticed this grant opportunity. “When I saw it’s for beginners... I thought, this is very nice to jump in, and at least try it out!” He says his goal is to gain enough knowledge to start applying quantum computing to relatively simple problems in genomics, and then dive deeper.

That’s exactly the kind of response DeMarco was hoping for.

“I’m a big believer in just trying things out and giving people a chance and seeing how they’re creative,” he says. “The idea is let’s just empower people, let them get familiar with it, get their hands on it. And then someone will come up with something. Or they won’t! But you know, they certainly won’t if they don’t try.”