CHICAGO — Think of a corn maze as a problem. Think of the people in the maze as traditional computers trying to solve the problem. They’re limited to attempting one route at a time.
But what if they could try all of the potential routes at the same time?
THE ‘QUANTUM LEAP’
That’s one way of thinking about the difference between our current computers and quantum computers.
The ones we use today process information using binary digits or “bits” that are either in the state of zero or one, handling one input, or one maze route, at a time.
A quantum computer processes more information faster, using quantum bits – or q-bits. The process is so fast and powerful because the data is in multiple states all at once.
“A little bit like spinning a coin on a table,” said Professor David Awschalom, a University of Chicago physicist and the director of Chicago Quantum Exchange. “Is it heads or is it tails? it’s a combination.”
Awschalom said it means instead of the single answer we might get from a classical computer, a quantum computer can try infinite answers to find the right way out of the maze, or the right way to solve any number of problems.
“So, it means you can address problems that are really unsolvable in today’s technology,” Awschalom said.
Now imagine if we could apply quantum mechanics, quantum technology, and quantum computing power to real-world problems.
We might find solutions to traffic congestion, identity theft, risk in investing, or detecting diseases like cancer in the earliest stages and then creating the pharmaceuticals to treat them.
There are many more possible applications, according to Awschalom.
“How do you transport energy efficiently across a country?,” he said. “How does a package delivery service know the fastest way to deliver packages across the nation? So many problems that are very complex are reachable with quantum computers.”
PRIORITY FOR PRITZKER
Quantum technology has the potential to shape the future. That’s why Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker is focused on making Chicago the quantum capital of the world.
PRITZKER: “It’s the next phase of technological development in the world, not just for the United States, this is a worldwide competition.”
WGN: “How is Chicago going to win this competition with the entire world?”
PRITZKER: “In order to make Chicago the hub of quantum development, you had to have the universities and laboratories willing to work together. The collaboration between them is vital and working with Purdue in Indiana, and University of Wisconsin in Madison, bringing all of that together and having Chicago as the center of that is vital for our future. That didn’t happen accidentally.”
WGN: “A phone call from the governor gets all the universities, gets the labs. You’re the guy who can pull it together.”
PRITZKER: “What I knew is that there are federal dollars, there are private dollars, there are foundation dollars that were available to a city, as state a locale that was making real investments and actually making progress in quantum mechanics and quantum computing. So if the state was willing to step forward with a major investment. We invested $200 million back in 2019, if the state was willing to do that, it would bring enormous attention and it would catalyze those other investments coming here.”
PUBLIC, PRIVATE INVESTMENT CREATE ‘QUANTUM ECOSYSTEM’
Illinois receives two of every $5 the federal government spends on quantum technology. It is home to four of the nation’s ten quantum centers, the most of any state.
“We are the chosen location for the United States government to put a significant amount of its dollars toward quantum development right here in Illinois.”
Private investment is also fueling Chicago’s quantum economy, according to Robin Ficke of World Business Chicago.
FICKE: “If you look at private investment, we’re number two, so we actually really are the epicenter for interest in quantum.”
LOWE: “What are the factors that are making Chicago a quantum technology capital?”
FICKE: “There are three things. First, we have a deep bench of talent coming out of universities. then when people leave the universities, we have a robust ecosystem that they can interact with and finally when they’re ready to launch their quantum sensing products or computing products, we have a robust and diverse industry base that they can interact with.”
PUBLIC, PRIVATE INVESTMENT CREATE ‘QUANTUM ECOSYSTEM’
One company on the cutting edge of Chicago’s economic present is in a building that symbolizes the city’s economic past – the Chicago Board of Trade.
At the offices of Infleqtion, 20 employees are building the software for quantum computers. Pranav Gokhale, the company’s vice president of quantum software, says he always thought he’d start a quantum tech company in Silicon Valley.
“But a couple of years into grad school I realized that this is where we’d want to build a company, this is where the talent was, this is where technology [was], and where the business development was,” Gokhale said.
Chicago is the leader in U.S.-based quantum investments. It ranks only behind California for the number of quantum start-up companies.
“Chicago is becoming the center of that industrial revolution for what quantum technology will bring,” Gokhale said.
The Infleqtion team was celebrating the launch of its new software product this fall.
TOP UNIVERSITIES PROVIDE THE QUANTUM WORKFORCE
Technology industry experts have said the key to any region’s success is the available workforce, and that is where Illinois shines, ranking second in the nation for producing Ph.D. graduates in quantum-related fields.
Swathi Chandrika, is working at a University of Chicago lab three stories underground. She and other doctoral students are fine-tuning experiments and building the devices that will connect to a 124-mile fiber-optic network running from the university’s campus on Chicago’s South Side to two federally funded labs in the suburbs: Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.
“We’ve built one of the first quantum links or quantum networks between this building, where you’re standing right now, downtown Hyde Park, and Argonne National Laboratories,” Awschalom said. “We’re extending it throughout the state right now, and the idea is can we use this as a testbed for companies to come, bring their technology, try it in the real-world network. There is weather in Chicago, there are big temperature changes, we use optical fibers to transmit quantum information and those change with temperature. Change with vibrations on the Eisenhower (Expressway), right? On the tollways? How does quantum information work in the real world? These are things on which we’re working together with industry to explore.”
DUALITY, CHICAGO QUANTUM EXCHANGE, WORLD BUSINESS CHICAGO CONNECT RESEACH TO BUSINESS
Building quantum connections is also a focus of World Business Chicago CEO Michael Fassnacht.
“Quantum will be ultimately the foundation in 10, 15, 20 years of how we live our lives and how we do business, because it will be the foundation of any computing activity that’s happening,” Fassnacht said. “The great thing about quantum is, if you do it right, you solve real problems that face mankind. It’s not building another dating app, like Silicon Valley likes to do.”
Quantum has become a buzzword in popular culture from the show ‘Quantum Leap’ to Marvel’s movie ‘Quantummania.’ It seems like a concept too big to grasp, but quantum fields explore the smallest particles in the universe. “Technology on the scale of microns and sub-microns even down to the nanometer, almost down to the atomic scale,” Awschalom said.
It’s at that level where those unusual rules of Quantum mechanics exist, the ones that allow for all those possibilities to ‘solve the maze,’ because data exists in two states at once, like the spinning coin.
LESSONS FROM THE PAST
For Pritzker, who is leading Illinois into the quantum future, it’s a story from the not-so-distant past that should guide the state’s next steps.
“I want to analogize it to something else that happened in Illinois, about 30 years ago,” Pritzker said. “That was the development of the browser for the internet.”
It was known as “Mosaic” – the first internet browser to incorporate graphics, text, and hypertext or “links” to other pages. It was the precursor to Netscape, Explorer, and Chrome. It was developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 1992.
But Mosaic didn’t stay in Illinois, and neither did other tech start-ups.
“Making sure we don’t lose out on this next great opportunity,” Pritzker said. “In Illinois, we lost out 30 years ago at the University of Illinois when the browser got up and left and went to Silicon Valley, when YouTube and PayPal got up and left the University of Illinois and went to California. That’s not happening now. Quantum is the next big thing, and companies are coming to Chicago to take advantage of that.”