Every University Should Have a Quantum Technologies Program

August 15, 2023
Every University Should Have a Quantum Technologies Program

By Marianna Bonanome, Head of Education Outreach

The key to unlocking the potential of quantum technologies lies in training a thriving quantum workforce. However, the present-day talent pool is nowhere near large enough to satisfy the needs of global companies that are interested in adopting quantum technologies by 2025. Of course it isn’t! In my experience, most of us “talent” found our way to quantum through sheer curiosity, stubbornness and luck, not thanks to any formal programs in quantum engineering, information science and technology. 

Back when I was at Polytechnic University (now NYU Tandon School of Engineering), my fellow physics students and I discovered that one of our professors, Vladimir Tsifrinovich, had co-authored a book that seemed to contain a special sort of magic. On the enigmatic cover was an image of a coffee cup, various circuits, and the number 15 in its factored form. The book was “Introduction to Quantum Computers,” and the first line read, “The field of quantum computation is rapidly evolving.” This was true in 1999 and is even truer today. The class immediately begged Professor Tsifrinovich to set aside the day’s lecture on statistical mechanics and guide us in understanding this major paradigm shift in computing. 

By Vladimir agreeing to go rogue (and off syllabus), he unknowingly changed the course of my life. A few years later I, a physicist reinvented as a mathematician, was working on my thesis. The 100-year-old algorithmic solutions to the problems I was trying to solve seemed to just beg for a fresh approach. Then I remembered that coffee cup book and realized there was a better approach, though I had learned it in a seemingly unrelated context. At that time, 2003, there were no clear paths for quantum disciplines, so I had no choice but to forge my own. My advisor, Gilbert Baumslag, counseled me to “go find a physicist!”. In doing so, I had the great fortune to be introduced to Mark Hillery. Mark also forged his own path in quantum, starting in quantum optics before becoming understandably enamored of quantum information and computing.

Through a combination of curiosity and happenstance, I was able to find my path. I could never have predicted where it would lead 20 years later. It is common knowledge amongst mathematicians that the research we do now will likely only be appreciated many decades (sometimes centuries) in the future. So no one was more surprised than me when the world seemed to take notice, seemingly all at once, of the huge potential impact of quantum processing. However, so far that revelation hasn’t translated into the proper quantum education ecosystem necessary to realize that potential. 

The current source of much in-demand quantum talent is scientists with PhDs in physics. That system just isn’t keeping pace. According to the American Institute of Physics, the number of physics PhDs has only grown by about 20% over the past 50 years! To fill the talent gap, we need to create a quantum education ecosystem through a combined effort by government, industry, and academia.

We need to upgrade existing university-level science and engineering programs to include the latest advances in quantum computing, sensing, optimization, and simulation. We also need to upskill current software engineers, scientists, and other professionals through certificate programs. But building a better talent pipeline is out of reach unless we include folks from all backgrounds and experiences. The field of quantum technology is growing so quickly, and the problems that come along with a lack of diversity are likely to get worse if we don’t address them immediately. 

All of this moved me to build bridges between my education team at SandboxAQ and my alma maters, CUNY and NYU. The response from faculty has been overwhelmingly positive. In a few short months, we have started a project to create a new photonics lab at City College and design and pilot AQ experiments for engineering students. We’ve organized and co-hosted a CUNY Quantum Networks Workshop with academic, corporate and government experts presenting to students, faculty and corporate partners. We’ve also run an NYU Educator Workshop, bringing together faculty leaders across multiple disciplines to design a minor degree program in quantum engineering – one of the first of its kind in the US. 

I’m humbled and honored to have the opportunity to help build the QIST programs that I wish I’d had as a student. This is only the beginning of our journey in New York as we work to grow quantum programs and loop in partners both near and far. 

Now is the time to take bold steps to invest in our quantum education ecosystem. Only through a combined, cross-sectoral effort can we close the quantum talent gap and ensure that the future of technology is in the hands of a diverse and highly skilled workforce. Join us in this challenge!

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