The fourth floor of 17 Hillhouse Avenue was filled with energy on October 23 as Yale celebrated the opening of the Yale Quantum Institute. Scientists and students from all different fields came to celebrate the grand opening of Yale’s new center of investigation into quantum information systems. Yale has already established itself as one of the leading research facilities in quantum technologies. With the university’s ability to bring together theoretical models from computer science with its state-of-the-art hardware, it leads the field in the areas of superconducting and mesoscopic electronic devices. The opening of the Quantum Institute makes Yale an even more premier research center, and invites scientists from many fields to work towards making quantum computing a reality.
The event was a celebration of the work that the Quantum Institute has already accomplished and an exciting look forwards to what will be done. While Yale’s Quantum Institute has been around for about a year and the university’s quantum research program has existed since the birth of the field, its new location at 17 Hillhouse marks an exciting time of new collaboration.
Before the event officially began, the energy in the room was palpable. Graduate students and visiting professors mingled in the spacious wood-and-glass meeting room, casually diagramming quantum systems on the wall-to-wall whiteboards surrounding them. Not everyone at the event was an expert in quantum technologies; there were people with backgrounds as diverse as business and law mingling with the electrical engineers and solid state physicists. Perhaps this is what separates Yale’s new Quantum Institute from any other center of scientific research: a commitment to collaboration among fields is woven into the foundations of the program.
The main event began with a panel discussion on the future of quantum technologies and the many roles that scientists will play in Yale’s new institute. Moderator Joe Palca, NPR science correspondent, was joined by Raymond LaFlamme, the current director of the Institute of Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, and Robert Schoelkopf, the Sterling Professor of Applied Physics and Physics and director of the new Yale Quantum Institute.
The discussion focused on two key points: the curiosity of scientists in the field and the many roles that quantum technologies will soon play in today’s information age. Palca’s opening question tackled the goals and timing of the Quantum Institute. “It all starts with some form of curiosity,” said LaFlamme. He believes that quantum information systems are reaching a stage of more precise control, and that this is an exciting time that will yield breakthroughs. Schoelkopf added that those at the Yale Quantum Institute “have a sense that there is a great untapped power here.” Certainly, the excitement of the 50 or so scientists in the room seemed to corroborate these sentiments.
But there was an understanding that quantum computing is still under somewhat of a veil of mystery in the eyes of the general public. What does quantum computing actually mean for people at home? According to LaFlamme, advances in quantum computing will lead to a new age of digital insecurity. Quantum computers will one day have the ability to crack through RSA encryption, which is the current standard. Quantum computers will be able to crack through the encryption keeping sensitive health and government information secure. If quantum computing becomes a reality even a decade along the road, we need to begin preparing for the consequences now.
Schoelkopf added that quantum computers will soon be able to make monumental breakthroughs in pure science as well because of how fast they could potentially be. He also believes quantum computers will be able to reignite the pace of progress in computer science. An observation known as “Moore’s law” states that technological advances in computer hardware enable processing power to double about every 18 months. But this trend of rapid progress is rapidly declining due to the limits of current computer science. Processing power tends to depend on how small transistors can be. Because transistors today are only several atoms large, they can’t get much smaller. Quantum bits, however, might solve the problem.
At the conclusion of the forum, President Peter Salovey gave a few remarks from the lectern. He mentioned the hard work and dedication of those in the applied physics department that made the creation of the Yale Quantum Institute possible, and stated his pride in how Yale was helping to usher in the second information age. “It’s a real team effort; I love it. It’s what Yale can do,” Salovey said.
The official opening of the Quantum Institute was quirky and nerdy. Instead of cutting a ribbon as might traditionally have been done, President Salovey took part in a quantum measurement experiment based on Schrodinger’s now-famous cat experiment. Schrodinger’s experiment considers a cat locked in a box with a poison that could or could not be released. Schrodinger’s idea was that before the cat was observed, it could be both alive and dead at the same time.
Likewise, the Yale Quantum Institute at that moment could be in a similar state—somewhere between alive and dead. To reveal whether the Institute had a future or not, the President had to resolve its state. With much drama, and a considerable number of giggles from the physics faculty in the audience, President Salovey conducted the quantum measurement. Although there was initially a failed experiment (leading to a dead hypothetical cat), the second trial showed a mewing cat, and the Yale Quantum Institute was officially declared open for business.
Mingling among the researchers after the main event, it was clear that the people who attended had a spirit of collaboration. The crossroads of so many different fields has led to the birth of quantum technologies in the first place, and this institute seems to embrace that culture. Even though there is a certain sense of national security involved, as quantum information technologies could potentially leak many kinds of sensitive information, the physicist community is strongly geared towards working together.
Chunny Ding is a freshman in Saybrook College. Contact him at email@example.com.
(Featured image courtesy of Yale University and Peter Casolino.)
Revision: A previous version of this article misattributed the featured image.