Budget commits $50 million to quantum computing centre

Canada will become home to the largest concentration of quantum computing talent in the world, thanks to $150 million in funding from government and the founder of Research in Motion Ltd.

The 2009 federal budget plan released this week reveals a $50 million grant to the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at University of Waterloo in Ontario as an investment in knowledge infrastructure that will help reach the government’s science and technology strategy goals.

“What the federal government is proposing is very visionary,” said IQC director Raymond Laflamme. “It’s really thinking about not only things of today and tomorrow, but the long-term sustainability of the country…I’m very impressed that the Government of Prime Minister Harper has decided to invest in this area.”

With another $50-million contribution from the Government of Ontario plus $50 million in private funding from Research in Motion. founder Mike Lazaridis, IQC plans to move ahead in becoming the largest quantum computing institute in the world.

“When you’re talking about this kind of money, assuming it’s managed well, you can make some significant advancements in an area that may redefine computing,” said Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group technology consultancy.

Quantum information science and technology – the focus of IQC’s research – is a promising replacement for today’s computing methods, which will end up at a road block in the future due to Moore’s Law, Laflamme explained.

But applying the laws of quantum mechanics to information processing is more than a just replacement. According to Laflamme, the technology promises to be a revolution of the 21st Century.

“It will bring information processing devices a power that is totally mind-boggling and something we wouldn’t have expected without these new rules of physics,” said Laflamme.

For the last 50 years, we’ve been computing using the laws of classical physics that we’ve inherited from Galileo, Newton and Maxwell, Laflamme explained. “We encode information to bits of information, units of information encapsulated in the physical system, which has two states – 0 and 1. When we compute today, we have strings of zeros and ones and we transform it into another string of zeros and ones,” he said.

But in the quantum world, Laflamme continued, particles can be at more than one place at a given time. “If you translate this to information, it becomes equivalent to saying that bits of information can be in zero and one at the same time…so we can add this parallel processing which becomes incredibly powerful,” he said.

“We’re talking about being able to shrink machines that are more powerful than supercomputers of today into things we could pop into our pocket,” said Enderle.

While commercial applications aren’t expected for another 10 to 30 years, investing in quantum information today is like investing in computers in the 1950s, said Laflamme.

“Investing in basic research is really opening the door to new technology of tomorrow that can really drastically change the world in which we live and bring economic prosperity to a country like Canada,” he said.

“This is an area that’s receiving an inordinate amount of funds,” said Enderle. “Quantum computing provides significant benefits to everything from security all the way across to communications. Whoever comes out as one of the leaders here is in the running to be on that next big massive wave of technology.”

“In communication, quantum computing provides the promise of zero latency across almost unlimited distances, so there’s at least a possibility that we could do things real-time that we simply can’t do now – everything from teleoperating equipment to communicating with space programs,” Enderle said.

“Every time we try to see a quantum system or learn something about it, we always leave a fingerprint behind,” Laflamme pointed out. “We can turn this to a cryptographic system in which we cannot eavesdrop anymore or we can detect if someone is eavesdropping, so it’s very important for information security and national security.

“The ability to decrypt stuff in real time or teleoperate at great distances in real time – those two things alone would be incredible for defense or weapons…If you think about it, what would the previous administration pay for an application that could decrypt anything in a matter of seconds? I just count the zeros,” Enderle added.

According to Laflamme, the $150 million will support construction of a new $80 million research facility on UW’s campus, which is scheduled for completion in December 2010. IQC will direct the remaining funds to operation, long-term sustainability and “attracting the best minds in the world.”

Founded in 2002, IQC began with five researchers from the UW Faculties of Science and Mathematics, two postdoctoral fellows and five graduate students. IQC’s numbers have grown to 17 faculty members and roughly 100 researchers, 20 post-docs and 65 students today.

IQC plans to double these numbers, said Laflamme. “If you want to compete with the best in the world, you can’t sit still and look at them to pass you. We want to be way ahead so anyone at IQC who’s tempted by other places like MIT or Caltech or Cambridge will say, ‘No, we want to stay here because this is the Mecca for quantum information in the world,’” he said.

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