Quantum leap: how cutting-edge technologies are giving students industry experience
Since autumn 2020, Physics students at the University of Exeter have been working with real-life quantum computers, thanks to the IBM Quantum Educators Program. IBM is at the forefront of quantum computing systems, research and development and their involvement has helped provide free, live access to quantum computers and simulators in lectures.
Students can access and program the systems using different interfaces, from a simple drag-and-drop interface to dedicated Python packages. Anyone can run their own quantum code, straight from their phone or home computer. For students at the University of Exeter this is now the major tool for entering the world of quantum technologies.
Quantum technologies utilize microscale objects described by quantum theory to perform various tasks that are impossible classically. Quantum technologies are starting to be used in industry and have been identified by the UK government as a key technological area for investment and growth. Quantum computing is one of their most disruptive areas, as quantum computers can be used to perform some types of calculations more effectively than classical computers. This offers advantages for areas like machine learning, natural and material sciences, chemistry, and finance.
But much like classical computers in the early days, quantum computers require specific programming skills. Making quantum computers accessible to students is crucial in educating the next generation of scientists and professionals.
Undergraduate students from several departments have received hands-on experience with quantum protocols, mentored by Physics Lecturer Dr Oleksandr Kyriienko. They start exploring the concepts of entanglement, quantum communication, quantum games, benchmark quantum teleportation and develop superdense coding. Building on this theoretical basis, they are then able to programme quantum devices and study the influence of noise on the operation.
Learning through gamification
One way Exeter’s students learn about unique quantum properties is by playing the GHZ game, named after Greenberger–Horne–Zeilinger states where three parties are entangled. Entanglement is a special type of quantum correlation that allows performing operations impossible with purely classical description. The GHZ game shows that players sharing the quantum communication link can win in 100% cases when answering the questions from the referee, while in the classical case the probability to win is only 75%. This is based on the complexity theory, and helps students understand the difference between classical and quantum playing strategies.
BSc students looked at the power and hardware capabilities of modern quantum devices as a final year project. Peter Hetherington, a Physics and Mathematics student, was one of the students involved. He said:
The motivation for my project was understanding of quantum entanglement and its relation to cryptography. Having access to online quantum computing devices through IBM Quantum allowed me to apply what I had been studying to real devices in ways that I never thought possible. It opened the opportunity to present my final project on quantum entanglement in a practical way and visualise effects that for a long time were purely theoretical concepts. The project motivated me to search for postgraduate positions in quantum technologies, and I am excited about opportunities that appear.
Dr Oleksandr Kyriienko believes access to the IBM Educators Program makes quantum theory come alive. “Working in quantum computing from the theoretical side,” he said, “I find really it helpful to see the ideas implemented in hardware. This experience is invaluable for getting deep into the physics and creating something new. For me, even some ‘dry’ theoretical concepts become nearly palpable. I encourage students to follow the same steps and discover quantum technologies in practice.”
Dr Sieglinde Pfaendler, IBM Quantum Academic Partner Development Lead, said:
It is a real privilege and pleasure to enable students to learn live, in more interactive ways, through free access to real quantum computers. There is a growing need for a workforce with hands on experience of quantum computing. IBM Quantum has been providing access to real quantum hardware over the cloud since 2016. These became so popular that in the summer of 2020 we officially launched the IBM Quantum Educators Program and IBM Quantum Researchers Program to allow academics to book time on quantum computing systems exclusively reserved for them. These programs are designed for students and researchers to have an enjoyable and enriched learning and research experience. Dr Kyriienko was one of the early adopters of the program and has found many engaging ways to integrate quantum computers through both the Educators and Researchers Programs into his Quantum Technology courses, and his group’s research in Quantum optics.
Feedback from our students has shown there are huge benefits from using these technologies to provide real experience in the classroom. The University is passionate about teaching excellence and the employability of its students, and using cutting-edge technology in the classroom is one way of enabling them to go further.
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