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How NC State is planning for the future of quantum computing

To accelerate the development of quantum computing, North Carolina State University and IBM are putting the technology in the hands of the the future workforce of the field — college students. New curriculum and research on quantum computing, enabled by IBM’s first university-based quantum computing hub in North America at NC State, is introducing students to the technology that experts say will shape computing in the coming years.

NC State’s Q Hub — formally known as one of IBM’s seven “IBM Q Network Hubs” — was launched at the university in last October as the company’s first quantum computing partnership with a North American university. The hub is primarily a cloud-based portal to IBM’s quantum computing network, open to any researcher or student inspired to set up a project with the next generation of computing.

Quantum computing technology is in its infancy, said Bob Sutor, IBM’s VP of quantum strategy, but the timeline of research suggests a breakthrough within five years, just as many of NC’s State’s current students will enter the workforce.

“This industry is about to explode, and there are only a few programs in the world that will graduate students who are prepared and knowledgeable about quantum computing,” said Dan Stancil, executive director of the IBM Q Hub at NC State. “There’s going to be a real shortage of talent over the next five to 10 years.”

Quantum computing uses qubits, which can hold multiple states simultaneously, rather than the discrete ones and zeros driving the logic of traditional computers, enabling exponentially faster processing speeds.

As part of the partnership between IBM and university, faculty members and researchers are granted access to IBM’s quantum computing network to work on any research or project they choose. For IBM, the benefit is simple — the more people researching and pushing the limits of quantum computing, the faster the technology develops.

“It decentralizes the approach to have local experts that can collaborate as necessary,” Sutor said. “It’s a way of spreading out over the world to have these high-tech centers that will advance quantum computing in just about every way you can think of.”

Several courses offered by the university incorporate the quantum hub and administrators say there are plans to add more. Stancil said students and faculty from a diverse range of disciplines could find uses for the technology, including chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science and engineering.

“At the lowest level, how you use the system and program the machine is very common across all of these areas,” Stancil said. “How you use the specific applications and programs beyond that may be more specialized. There is a significant, common foundation among how we use the computers that we can all share and interact with.”

Students not enrolled in a class using the quantum hub can independently apply to do research with a faculty member who does. Stancil said the university is also seriously discussing a minor in quantum computing, and considering a master’s degree, but new classes aren’t the only way to incorporate the technology. It can be added to courses that already teach traditional computing, he said.

IBM has also installed quantum hubs at Oxford University in England and institutions in Australia and Japan. Set in the tech-heavy Research Triangle Park in Raleigh, NC State is positioned to take advantage of corporate partnerships locally. The university boasts more than 70 corporate and government partnerships, including its deal with IBM. Stancil says Q Hub is a way to bring those partners together.

“We want to use them to be a focal point for building a university-wide community around quantum computing,” he said. “As we bring in industrial partners to work with us on quantum computing, it will also be a gathering place for interacting there.”

Editor’s correction: There are seven, not five, IBM Q Network Hubs.