In a world where technological progress is seemingly measured in increments as banal as upgrades to your cellphone’s processor, battery life and camera, simply broaching the topic of quantum computing sounds like, well, a bit of a leap. And it is.
It is no exaggeration to say that quantum computing has the potential to change not only the very paradigms of computing itself but also the world.
Unshackled from the binary, from bits-and-bytes, from this-or-that, quantum computing turns traditional computer logic inside out, allowing for scenarios where values can be either a one, a zero, both, or even somewhere in between.
This superposition is the advantage that a quantum qubit has over a regular computing bit, allowing for what is known in quantum-speak as entanglement with far more complex calculations than regular computers are capable of processing. The sheer power could entirely transform industries from biochemical engineering to finance to machine learning, material science, drug discovery, artificial intelligence, climate science, agriculture, national infrastructure, digital payments, and much more.
Something so complex, so academic, so theoretical, however, means that quantum computing has long remained in the purview of tech labs and scientists in white coats. But, with analysts now claiming the quantum-computing market is set to be worth some $9.1 billion (USD) annually by 2030, up from $111.6 million in 2018, the field is heating up and rapidly moving to mainstream commercial use.
This, of course, brings with it myriad career opportunities. But just how easy is it to work in quantum computing? Is there a demand for developers, and what scientific chops does one need? We had the experts weigh in on the state of quantum computing.
“Right now, the demand for quantum talent, primarily on the physics side of the house, is 100 percent outstripping supply,” says William Hurley, founder of quantum computing startup Strangeworks and author of “Quantum Computing for Babies.”
“If there aren’t more efforts to educate a wider audience on the topic, and we don’t have more programs in high schools and colleges around the world, then the current ‘talent drought’ will get much worse at the point where we need software developers at scale.”
Large companies such as IBM, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are not just hiring for a plethora of quantum computing roles but are actively offering courses and training to get promising talent up to speed.
“We just ran a summer school for over 4,000 people comprising a lecture series and labs, and we put out a ton of free resources because we’re committed to doing it,” said Jay Gambetta, a physicist who is co-leading an IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center team working to build a large-scale quantum computer.
Does one have to be a physicist, though? Like so many in quantum computing, the answer is yes, no, both, and something in between.
“A degree in physics wouldn’t hurt,” Hurley says. “At a minimum, you need an above-average grasp of the quantum mechanics behind these new computers. However, I see this changing dramatically over time.”
Hurley says this was similar to how one had to be an electrical engineer to program a computer in the early days of computing before abstraction layers, development libraries, open-source projects, and communities all helped to lower the barriers to entry.
“I think it depends on the level of stack you want to get in,” says Gambetta, noting that the closer one is in the development to the hardware, the more one needs to know about quantum physics. Gambetta says he recently hired a computer scientist “who did not even have a Ph.D.,” but whose skills had been a significant contribution to the team.
“I really see programming quantum computers as a team sport,” Hurley says. “It’s my opinion that you’ll need a diversity of talent to come up with the world-changing solutions that quantum promises. Yes, part of that talent will be software developers, but you’ll still need a physicist, perhaps a discrete mathematician, and obviously a subject-matter expert.”
Indeed, looking at the job postings within the quantum computing space shows a myriad of potential roles, ranging from researchers to designers to engineers, developers, and even user-experience experts. Also, quantum computing has evolved so that one can now access its raw power over the cloud, which means you don’t have to be a lab rat to harness it. It’s real, it’s practical, and it’s becoming readily available for those who know what to do with it.
“I think it’s important to build an ecosystem,” says Gambetta, adding that the burgeoning field required “a lot more developers.” Many major firms are offering developers a way to dip their toes into quantum through development environments, and are then building infrastructure around them, forming communities.
IBM itself has IBM Q, which offers students, researchers, and general science enthusiasts “hands-on access through a human-user interface to IBM’s experimental cloud-enabled quantum computing platform.” The interface lets users run algorithms and experiments, work with quantum bits (qubits), and explore tutorials and simulations around what might be possible with quantum computing.
Amazon has Braket, its newly launched quantum computing developer sandpit to help researchers and developers get started with the technology to accelerate research and discovery. Amazon says Braket “provides a development environment for developers to explore and build quantum algorithms, test them on quantum circuit simulators, and run them on different quantum hardware technologies.”
Microsoft is also set to announce Azure Quantum, its version of the above.
Although building quantum computers themselves is hard and highly technical, a knowledge of classical computers can help in many ways. For a start, classic computers are often used to model what we would want quantum computers to do (just throw in some linear algebra packages to help things along). Similarly, classical computers can be used to run statistical inference algorithms on data churned out of quantum computers, helping researchers figure out how to improve the systems. Finally, classical computers can be used to write and test programs and applications people want to run on quantum computers. Quantum programming languages, such as Q#, are emerging to do this.
Bottom line: The industry is still in its infancy, but as the industry grows and different layers of abstraction come into play, more opportunities requiring less specialized knowledge open up.
“The one thing I learned very early on was that you can’t just take a developer and make them a quantum developer overnight,” Hurley says. However, Hurley was quick to add that for developers interested in a quantum computing career, now was the best time to get involved in a technology that he and many others believe will dramatically impact every aspect of our existence.
“Start today, stick with it, and when the quantum revolution hits, you’ll be on the front lines.”
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