Duke to Lead $15 Million Program to Create First Practical Quantum Computer

Seven-university, five-year interdisciplinary collaboration is funded by the National Science Foundation's largest quantum computing effort to date

A closeup view of a surface ion trap used in the quantum computing technology

A closeup view of a surface ion trap used in the quantum computing technology


AUGUST 7, 2018

By Ken Kingery

Researchers from Duke University will lead a seven-university, $15 million collaboration with the audacious goal of building the world’s first practical quantum computer.

Dubbed the Software-Tailored Architecture for Quantum co-design (STAQ) project, the effort seeks to demonstrate a quantum advantage over traditional computers within five years using ion trap technology.

The project is the result of a National Science Foundation Ideas Lab—a week-long, free-form exchange among researchers from a wide range of fields that aims to spawn creative, collaborative proposals to address a given research challenge. The result of each Ideas Lab is interdisciplinary research that is high-risk, high-reward, cutting-edge and unlikely to be funded through traditional grant mechanisms.

This particular NSF Ideas Lab focused on the Practical Fully-Connected Quantum Computer challenge. STAQ will involve physicists, computer scientists and engineers from Duke University, University of Maryland, University of Chicago, Tufts University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California-Berkeley and University of New Mexico.

“Quantum computers will change everything about the technology we use and how we use it, and we are still taking the initial steps toward realizing this goal,” said NSF Director France Córdova. “Developing the first practical quantum computer would be a major milestone. By bringing together experts who have outlined a path to a practical quantum computer and supporting its development, NSF is working to take the quantum revolution from theory to reality.”

“There’s a really clear path to getting to two-to-three dozen ion trap qubits working together in a quantum computer,” said Kenneth Brown, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, chemistry, and physics at Duke, and leader of the new collaboration. “But it will take at least twice as many to solve a challenging calculation, and achieving that within five years is no cakewalk.”

Many private companies including Google and IBM are also working to build their own versions of a quantum computer, but with different underlying technology. The new collaboration will be working with trapped ions—atoms with electrons stripped away to give them a positive electric charge. That charge allows researchers to suspend ultra-cooled atoms using an electromagnetic field in an ultra-high vacuum, where precise lasers manipulate their quantum states to form qubits.

Qubits are the quantum mechanical analogue of a traditional logical bit, which can be in a “1” or a “0” state, except a qubit can be in both positions at the same time. While researchers have proven able to build robust qubits, scaling them into large networks while detecting and correcting errors remains a challenge.

“System-level research for quantum computers—such as architecture designs, operating systems, compilers and programming environments—have only been performed in an academic environment at an abstract level so far,” said Jungsang Kim, professor of electrical and computer engineering, physics and computer science at Duke, who will collaborate on the project with Brown. “This project will enable these research activities to be carried out on a concrete experimental hardware system, so practical progress can be made.”

"The first truly effective quantum computer will not emerge from one researcher working in a single discipline," echoed NSF Chief Operating Officer Fleming Crim. "Quantum computing requires experts from a range of fields, with individuals applying complementary insights to solve some of the most challenging problems in science and engineering. NSF's STAQ project uniquely addresses that need, providing a cutting-edge approach that promises to dramatically advance U.S. leadership in quantum computing."

The project’s integrated approach to developing a practical quantum computer relies on finding new algorithms based on optimization and scientific computing problems, improving quantum computer hardware, and developing software tools that optimize algorithm performance for the specific machine. 

The STAQ researchers will focus on four primary goals:

  • Develop a quantum computer with a sufficiently large number of quantum bits (qubits) to solve a challenging calculation.
  • Ensure that every qubit interacts with all other qubits in the system, critical for solving fundamental problems in physics.
  • Integrate software, algorithms, devices and systems engineering.
  • Involve equal input from experimentalists, theorists, engineers and computer scientists.

Chris Monroe, the Bice Seci-Zorn Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland and Fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute, will lead the team developing the hardware. Fred Chong, the Seymour Goodman Professor of Computer Science at The University of Chicago will lead the software component of the project. Peter Love, associate professor of physics and astronomy at Tufts University, will lead the team developing applications to run on the new quantum system. And as the leader of the entire project, it will be Brown’s job to oversee the integration of and communication among the groups.

Other members of the collaboration include: Akimasa Miyake of the University of New Mexico, Aram Harrow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Alexey Gorshkov of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Hartmut Haeffner of the University of California – Berkeley.

“This project ties together several groups that I have worked on projects with separately in the past,” said Brown. “It is also providing me the opportunity to work with other well-known researchers in the field who I’ve always wanted to collaborate with. Having everyone together under one umbrella is truly exciting.”

As a cross-disciplinary project, STAQ encourages convergence across research fields and aligns with The Quantum Leap: Leading the Next Quantum Revolution, one of NSF's 10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments. It is funded through NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Computer and Information Science and Engineering directorates. 

About The Quantum Leap: Leading the Next Quantum Revolution

One of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas, The Quantum Leap initiative aims to accelerate innovative research and provide a path forward for science and engineering to help solve one of the most critical, competitive and challenging issues of our time. Researchers will design, construct and analyze new approaches to quantum computing and test algorithms at a scale beyond the reach of simulations run on classical computers. Quantum research is essential for preparing future scientists and engineers to implement the discoveries of the next quantum revolution into technologies that will benefit the nation.