The University of Melbourne has launched an online quantum computer simulator and programming environment aimed at making students and industry 'quantum ready'.
Named Quantum User Interface or QUI, the web-based program lets users click and drag logic elements that operate on quantum bits (known as qubits) to create a quantum program.
A remote cluster of computers at the university runs the program on a simulated quantum computer and sends back the results in real time.
“As the international race to develop quantum technology accelerates, there’s an increasingly urgent need to train the next generation of ‘quantum’ programmers, software developers and engineers,” explained Melbourne Uni's Professor Lloyd Hollenberg, who also the deputy director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T)
“The real challenge is to get people up to speed in quantum information processing with a minimal knowledge base in quantum mechanics, and to dispel common misconceptions about how quantum computers work,” he added.
Although there are a lot of learning materials available around quantum programming, it can be difficult for developers to get their heads around the concepts involved. What is needed, the university argu, was hands-on experience.
“You might think the most obvious way to provide this would be to program one of the small-scale quantum computers and simply follow how they work. But, a quantum computer is the ultimate black box – by the very nature of quantum mechanics, if you try to follow the flow of quantum logic on a physical machine you don’t get the full picture of what’s happening – despite all the great material available, this is a pedagogical void,” Hollenberg said.
“To appreciate how different quantum information is, think about the needle in a haystack problem. A classical computer would laboriously search through every part of the haystack. A quantum computer will effectively make the needle bigger than the haystack. It’s a nice analogy, but how do you show it?” he added.
QUI has been some two years in the making. One of the key features of the programme is its ability to display visualisations of the quantum computer’s state at every stage in the program.
“Anyone who tries to represent or visualise the state of the quantum computer comes up against this wicked problem – how to visualise this thing which exists in a multi-dimensional space of real and imaginary numbers, let alone the weird effects of quantum superposition and entanglement,” Hollenberg said.
“The QUI was designed to meet this challenge while maintaining a high level of user-friendliness,” he added.
The QUI system will be used in labs as part of the university’s new degree module Introduction to Quantum Computing, aimed at students from different disciplines, with no requisite of quantum physics knowledge.
“Quantum software design is such a new concept and it feels more abstract than conventional computer coding, so being able to see what is happening when we design a function really helps,” said University of Melbourne maths student Daniel Johnston, who is taking the course.
The university hinted at plans to make the tool publicly available, depending on demand “and our server resources”.
A number of players in the field have been encouraging developers to try their hand at quantum programming.
Late last year Microsoft released a preview of its Quantum Development Kit, to “empower developers in the quantum revolution”. The kit has three components: a quantum programming language Q#, local and Azure hosted quantum simulators and a GitHub library of quantum focused code.
In July, Google revealed its intention to make its 72 qubit Bristlecone quantum processor available in the cloud and launched its open source framework for running algorithms on the quantum computers called Cirq.
Researchers at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in March launched a quantum programming environment – Q∣SI⟩ platform – to help developers get to grips with quantum computing’s quirks and complexity.
IBM released its cloud-enabled quantum computing platform, dubbed the IBM Quantum Experience, in 2016. Last year it launched a lightweight quantum API and SDK to allow connection to the back end of the Experience, execution of the QASM code, and return of the results, from Python scripts.
In December, the University of Melbourne was named as one of only five global hubs to be given early access to IBM’s 20 qubit quantum computer.
The university’s researchers are now comparing how algorithms perform on IBM's quantum systems with those run on supercomputer simulators.
In June, researchers at the university said they had set a new world record by simulating the output of a 60-qubit quantum computer. The previous record was set in October by IBM which classically simulated 56 qubits in carefully chosen states.