Australia may be poised to win the international race to build a quantum computer, but without investment to scale-up and industrialise the technology, the long-term benefits could be lost offshore, says UNSW Scientia Professor Michelle Simmons.
Two weeks after winning the CSIRO Eureka Prize for Leadership in Science, Simmons is again in the spotlight, delivering a guest lecture at the Chief Executive Women’s 2015 annual dinner in Sydney.
As the Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology, Simmons has been instrumental in positioning Australia as the front-runner in the global race to build a quantum computer based in silicon.
Addressing more than 900 of the nation’s top female leaders from the public and private sectors, Simmons spoke about her passion for physics and the importance of science education in high schools.
She also warned that Australia is at risk of missing out on the long-term benefits of the world-leading research conducted in her Centre.
“We are at risk of all the technology we have developed, and the trained human capital, being transferred overseas with little long-term benefit to Australia. The significance of this work to Australia should not be underestimated.”
“Australia has established a unique approach [to developing a quantum computer] with a competitive edge that has been described by our US funding agencies as having a two to three year lead over the rest of the world,” says Simmons.
Despite leading the world, she says “there is no mechanism in Australia to scale-up what we have achieved and to translate it industrially".
“We are at risk of all the technology we have developed, and the trained human capital, being transferred overseas with little long-term benefit to Australia.
“The significance of this work to Australia should not be underestimated.”
Quantum computers are predicted to provide an extraordinary speed-up in computational power. For each quantum bit added to a circuit, the processing power doubles.
Instead of performing calculations one after the other like a conventional computer, these futuristic machines – which exploit the unusual quantum properties of single atoms, the fundamental constituents of all matter – work in parallel, calculating all possible outcomes at the same time.
They will be ideal for encrypting information and searching huge databases much faster than conventional computers, and for performing tasks beyond the capability of even the most powerful supercomputers, such as modelling complex biological molecules for drug development.
“It is predicted that 40% of all Australian industry will be impacted if we realise this technology.”
Simmons says an Australian-made prototype system using technologies patented by her team, where all functional components are manufactured and controlled on the atomic-scale, could be ready within five years.
The Commonwealth Bank of Australia recently invested $5 million into the project and Simmons says she is “negotiating contracts with several other computing, communications and aerospace industries both here and abroad”.
But the rest of the world is making giant strides, and putting up big money: the UK government recently put forward £270 million and the Dutch government €300 million to support quantum information research.
“Australia is a fantastic place to innovate,” says Simmons. “We attract the best young people from across the world and we undertake leading international science.
“Our challenge going forward is how to create the environment, opportunities and industries to keep them here.”
Simmons can speak from first-hand experience. She came to Australia back in 1999 for two reasons: the first, she says, “was academic freedom to pursue something ambitious and high risk", and the second "was Australia’s ‘can do’ attitude”.
In the mid-1990s, Simmons was working as an experimental quantum physicist at the University of Cambridge. She had mastered how to design, fabricate and measure electrical devices, which displayed strong quantum effects, and was looking for a new challenge: “to leapfrog the global IT industry and create devices at the atomic scale.”
When she was awarded an Australian Fellowship to come to UNSW, she withdrew applications for a fellowship to remain at Cambridge, and another for a faculty position at Stanford University in the US.
“The UK offered years surrounded by pessimistic academics, who would tell you a thousand reasons why your ideas would not work,” she says. “The US offered a highly competitive environment where you would have to fight both externally and internally for funds.
“Australia offered independent fellowships, ability to work on large projects with other academics and the ‘can do’ attitude to give it a go.”
Once in Australia, she set up a team that is still “unique internationally”.
“Our goal was to adapt the scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) developed by IBM not just to image atoms, but to manipulate them and to make a functional electronic device where the active component is a single atom.”
Critics, including senior scientists at IBM, believed there were at least eight insurmountable technical challenges.
“The consensus view within the scientific community was that the chances … were near impossible,” she says.
Simmons also had to combine two technologies in a way that had never been done before – the STM, which provides the ability to image and manipulate single atoms, and something known as molecular beam epitaxy, which provides the ability to grow a layer of material atom by atom.
“When I told the two independent system manufacturers in Germany about the idea, they said they would make a system to my design, but that there would be no guarantee that it would work. It was a $3.5 million risk.
“To my delight it worked a factor of six better than I had hoped. And over the past decade we have systematically solved all those eight challenges that were predicted to block our way.”
Her team has since developed the world’s first single atom transistor, as well as the narrowest conducting wires in silicon.
Simmons’ foray into physics began, in part, thanks to a chess match.
Simmons used to watch her father and brother playing intense games in her family’s living room in south-east London in the 1970s.
One day, the eight-year-old observer asked to play, eliciting a “somewhat dismissive and terse” response from her father, she recalls.
“A girl! Wanting to play chess. Well, he indulged me and did something that I believe changed the course of my life,” she says.
A surprise victory over her father, and several more over the coming months, saw Simmons take-up competitive chess at her father’s behest, ultimately becoming the London girls chess champion at 11.
Ultimately, it wasn’t her calling, but chess, she says, taught her to challenge herself and other people’s expectations, and to pursue something she truly loved.
That love ended up being physics: “I decided to pick the hardest thing that I could find that I enjoyed. Something that I could imagine I would always look forward to; would have to struggle to understand and would feel euphoric about when I had mastered it.”
She also credits an excellent physics teacher who challenged and encouraged her – and even lined up a phone conversation with a US astronaut, after he learned this was Simmons’ dream profession.
“The significance of having a passionate teacher, well versed in the subject they teach, cannot be underestimated,” she says. “Great teachers with high expectations challenge their students to be the best they can be.”
Simmons has exemplified that belief. She was named NSW Scientist of the Year in 2012, was awarded an ARC Laureate Fellowship in 2013, and in 2014 joined the likes of Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein as an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Science.
“For me, the next challenge is not just one of quantum physics, but of also finding a way to work with Australian government, and industries both here and abroad, to establish a high-tech quantum industry in Australia,” she says.
“To back its brightest and best and to ensure that Australian innovation stays here in Australia.
“It’s a challenge that I am up for. I fundamentally believe it is the right thing to do and now is the right time to do it.”
Based at UNSW, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology is an interdisciplinary, multi-institute centre with more than 180 researchers. In addition to Simmons, key staff members at UNSW include Scientia Professors Andrew Dzurak and Sven Rogge, and Associate Professor Andrea Morello. Read more in UNSW magazine – Uniken.
Watch Professor Simmons' TEDxSydney talk here.