A Quantum Leap into the Future

What is your first thought when you hear “quantum”? Inexplicable laws of nature? A technology for pioneering superfast computers? While quantum technology probably sounds very remote for non-scientists, many experts believe the field will eventually revolutionize our lives by enabling us to make smarter decisions in many different areas.

Opened in 2021, HKUST’s IAS Center for Quantum Technologies is consolidating and amplifying the University’s collective in-depth research into the huge possibilities opened up by this ground-breaking advance. Center Director and Department of Physics professor, Prof. ZENG Bei is leading a team of like-minded visionaries in taking the study of quantum technology to the next level.

From chess player to scientist

In 1997, Prof. Zeng, then a promising player with China’s national youth chess team, was astonished to read how an IBM supercomputer had defeated World Chess Champion, Garry KASPAROV. The massive upset not only marked a major milestone in the history of Artificial Intelligence (AI), but also a personal turning point for Prof. Zeng. Despite having been a passionate chess player since the age of eight, she decided to change her focus from the chessboard to the world of science.

“I quickly collected myself and channel the disappointment to an eagerness to learn how it was possible for a machine to perform such an extraordinary feat!” Prof. Zeng says.

Ultimately, the professor’s initial disappointment ended up being a blessing in disguise. In 1998, she was admitted to Beijing’s Tsinghua University and quickly found a new vocation in the form of Physics and Mathematics. After earning her BSc, Prof. Zeng began studying for a Master’s degree in Physics; eventually moving to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study for a PhD in the same subject.

It was around this time that the professor became interested in quantum mechanics, which, as she says, is essentially the study of the movement of sub-atomic materials such as protons, neutrons, and electrons. Prof. Zeng believes that describing and predicting the behaviour of such microscopic particles is crucial for science because it adds to humanity’s understanding of natural phenomena that defy the principles of classical mechanics.

“A detailed knowledge of quantum phenomena was essential for the development of the solid-state transistors, semiconductors, organic electronic materials, lasers, superconductors, atomic clocks, and sensitive detectors we now take for granted,” Prof. Zeng says. Tablets, smartphones, and medical imaging technology, for example, are all developed based on the understanding of the quantum nature of matter.

An imminent quantum era

Among many quantum technologies, quantum computing garners possibly the most attention from all walks of life.

“With scientists and engineers now building quantum computers whose exponential acceleration easily outpaces that of conventional alternatives, humanity now stands on the brink of an exciting new Quantum Era,” Prof. Zeng says.

When used to store information, traditional computing bits save data as binary strings of 0s or 1s. Quantum qubits, on the other hand, store combinations of binary digits and enable quantum computers work much faster than conventional systems. All of which means such computers can not only handle myriad data combinations but also simultaneously explore all possibilities while simulating chemical interactions and running forecasting models. The end result is vast potential for transforming healthcare, finance and other industries where a daunting number of variables and potential outcomes are possible.

“But building a large-scale quantum computer for such purposes would be hugely challenging,” Prof. Zeng admits. One major obstacle is how to effectively control large numbers of qubits whose states are susceptible to slight changes in temperature and magnetic field. Another involves how best to structure the complex error correction algorithms needed to ensure result reliability.

Fortunately, Prof. Zeng and her fellow members of the global quantum research community are already hard at work researching ways to break through such barriers. “What I find most appealing about quantum science is how it keeps me curious as there is always something new to learn,” she says. Ultimately, the professor believes her open-mindedness is what empowers her pursuit of a specialization as interdisciplinary as quantum science.

Advancing quantum mechanics on all fronts

Prof. Zeng joined HKUST in 2019 after a 10-year stint at the University of Guelph and University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) where she both researched and taught Quantum Computation and Information Theory. In 2021, her pioneering work in – and contributions to – the field of Quantum Information Science in areas such as error correction and fault-tolerance earned her the accolade of American Physical Society Fellowship.

In May that same year, she also took the helm of HKUST’s newly founded IAS Center for Quantum Technologies.

“The Center provides an ideal open platform where HKUST faculty members across multiple fields can exchange ideas when collaborating on quantum technologies,” the professor says excitedly. “We hope this will place HKUST at the frontier of quantum technology research, education, and entrepreneurship at the international level.”

Because quantum mechanics is such a diverse discipline, the Center welcomes faculty from backgrounds ranging from physics and chemistry to mathematics and from engineering to accounting. Research projects conducted by members of the Center have constantly accomplished breakthroughs and are recognized by large funding schemes administered by institutions such as the China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.   

Some of the Center’s most exciting upcoming projects include linking up with a leading bank to explore possible applications for quantum computing algorithms in financial services such as portfolio optimization and risk management. Its physics and engineering team members are also looking into the development of superconducting qubits.

We are now seeking funding to recruit top scientists and students to expand our quantum research horizons wider. We are also striving to support the Center’s outreach and STEM education activities,” Prof. Zeng says.

Prof. Zeng says the Center is equally enthusiastic in advocating a better understanding of quantum theories among secondary and university students. In addition to delivering a one-year training program on quantum computing for local secondary students, the Center also takes the lead in promoting user-friendly quantum computers for educational purpose.

As early as in 2018, Prof. Zeng co-founded SpinQ Technology, a Shenzhen-based quantum computing startup, to pioneer and commercialize a series of educational quantum computers. Prof. Zeng says building a quantum computer requires and applies technologies of quantum materials, devices, control, and algorithms — the fundamental blocks in quantum research — making it an ideal illustration of the Center’s research focus.

“How could students learn the principles of quantum computing without being able to see how it works?” Prof. Zeng asks. “While perfecting commercial quantum computers capable of solving important problems will take many years, building one for educational purposes is achievable.”

A portable and affordable quantum computer

Leveraging technological advances that underpin the capture of magnetic resonance images of the human body, Prof. Zeng and her teammates have thus developed three prototypes of portable, desktop-size quantum computers. Capable of running quantum algorithms at a level up to three qubits, the machines can be connected to computer screens and used to deepen students’ understanding by simulating real-time quantum computations.

“Recent advances in the development of permanent magnet technology means it is now possible to reduce such devices’ size and building costs,” Prof. Zeng adds. Named “Gemini-mini”, the latest model weighs only 14kgs and costs just a few thousand US dollars, making it an attractive choice for colleges and universities keen on moving into STEM education.

Requiring no special maintenance, the team’s portable quantum computers now being used to support teaching at educational institutions in Norway, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan.

While the computational power of these devices is not comparable to commercial models being developed by big tech companies such as IBM and Microsoft, Prof. Zeng believes low-cost portable alternatives will play a major role in education. In doing so, they will help school successive generations of students whose research will shape quantum technologies’ future.

Asked how far science is from creating quantum computers for all, Prof. Zeng broadly concurs with her fellow scientists’ optimism that popularization of such devices will occur in her lifetime.”

“Whatever scientifically should happen generally does happen,” the professor concludes with a smile.