International collaboration: Quantum science

Quantum physicist Dr Michael Biercuk spearheads a US-funded international collaboration investigating error suppression in quantum systems. When searching for scientific expertise, he explains, one shouldn’t be constrained by borders.

by Tim Groenendyk

Dr Michael Biercuk

“Expertise is spread around the globe and we see a convergence of a lot of different fields...showing that we can work across technology platforms increases the impact of our work,” says Dr Michael Biercuk

Dr Biercuk is one of four primary investigators in the Quantum Science Research Group and the University of Sydney node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems. These groups focus on a range of issues in quantum physics from understanding the foundations of quantum mechanics through to developing new technologies.

“We have a diverse set of tastes that all generally lie in the field of quantum information. Associate Professor Steven Bartlett studies Quantum Foundations - underlying questions about how quantum mechanics corresponds with the reality that you and I know. Associate Professor Andrew Doherty is an expert in the theory of quantum control. My colleague Dr. David Reilly and I explore fundamental questions through experiment and work on building new, useful technologies,” said Dr Biercuk.

A primary challenge presented in the engineering of complex quantum technologies is the task of error suppression. Despite efforts to shield quantum systems, factors outside of the researcher’s control - such as tiny, stray magnetic or electrical fields - influence them, causing errors.

“Someone doing lab experiments needs to worry about developing techniques to suppress errors in real systems, otherwise the long-term problem, in my opinion, would never be solved. In many cases for an experimentalist - myself included - getting a signal demonstrating some exotic phenomenon of interest with, say, 90% accuracy is good enough,” said Dr Biercuk.

Dr David Reilly

Dr David Reilly

“But ultimately, we need accuracy beyond 99.9999% to go from exploring basic physics to building useful systems. Therefore, my work, by necessity, bridges basic physics and engineering.”

Collaborating with Dr Biercuk on a project entitled ‘Precision Quantum Control and Error-Suppressing Quantum Firmware for Robust Quantum Computing’ are Professor Amir Yacoby from Harvard University and Associate Professor Lorenza Viola of Dartmouth College.

“Expertise is spread around the globe these days and we see a convergence of a lot of different fields, for instance trapped ions in my lab and semiconductor spin qubits in Amir’s. Showing that we can do work across technology platforms increases the impact of our work,” explained Dr Biercuk.

A successful collaboration, Dr Biercuk noted, requires trust, complementary ideas and approaches to research and enjoyment in working together.

“I can leverage the expertise of my friend Lorenza at Dartmouth - I don’t need to replicate someone with identical knowledge locally. We can just Skype each other and study new kinds of problems that would have previously been difficult due to distance.”

Dr Biercuk earned his doctorate from Harvard but his experience working as a scientific consultant for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) greatly informed his decision to seek grants outside Australia, leading his research team to a major award from the US Army Research Office (ARO).

Dr. Biercuk and his Quantum Science Research Group colleagues also secured two major awards from another US funding agency: Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). In size and scope, these are larger than many Centres of Excellence.

In pursuing funding opportunities here and abroad, Dr Biercuk recommends adapting your pitch according to the needs of the agency, ascertaining what problems they’re interested in solving and their approach to solving them.

“If you want to go and ask your Mum for money you’d ask her in a different way than the banker. It’s exactly the same here – it’s vital that researchers craft their message for a particular audience.”

Although Dr Biercuk speculates on how quantum physics can improve our lives across various industries with superior sensors and computers he admits “we don’t know what all the impacts will be.”

“But all you need to do is look back to the first realisation of the transistor where the only predicted application was the hearing aid,” said Biercuk. “And look at what we have today: we have supercomputers, we have the internet, we have mobile phones with microprocessors in them. None of that could have been envisioned, but it was all because of work in semiconductors and quantum physics.”