Interview with Alibaba Cloud Chief Quantum Technology Scientist Shi Yaoyun: A Long Journey to a Bright Future for Quantum Computing
The 2017 Hangzhou Computing Conference (get your tickets now!) will be held once again in Hangzhou’s Yunqi township. As one of the world’s most influential technology expos, this conference will include brilliant lectures by many Alibaba Group’s experts and industry leaders. Among them is Dr. Shi Yaoyun, Alibaba Cloud’s chief quantum technology scientist, who will give a speech on the latest trends in the quantum computing field. Therefore, the Yunqi Community decided to interview Dr. Shi prior to the conference.
In July 2015, Alibaba and the Chinese Academy of Sciences jointly founded the Chinese Academy of Sciences–Alibaba Quantum Computing Laboratory, marking Alibaba’s formal entry into the field of quantum information science.
Across the globe, you will find that quantum computing has long been a battleground among technology giants. The reason is simple: this technology will provide an explosive computing power that ushers the mankind into a new computational revolution. But what is the real significance of such powerful computing? It is widely believed in the industry that the hottest technologies of today, artificial intelligence and machine learning, will benefit the most from quantum computing.
Although there are many wild speculations on the potential of quantum computing, the challenges of its implementation are very real. Research into quantum computing faces many challenges, particularly the question of its potential to be commercialized. Dr. Shi believes that the most challenging task for quantum computing is how to scale it up. Currently, no existing technology can achieve large-scale application while allowing for high-quality quantum storage and operations. The truth is, he admitted, even if quantum computing was successfully commercialized, this would not eliminate the conventional computer.
Shi Yaoyun graduated from Peking University’s Department of Computer Science in 1997. He then went on to Princeton University, where he studied quantum information science under the Turning Award winner Yao Chichi and received his PhD in 2001. After conducting postdoctoral research at the Institute of Quantum Information at Caltech for a short period of time, Dr. Shi joined the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at the University of Michigan, where he taught and continued his research. At the University of Michigan, he held the posts of assistant professor, associate professor, and full professor. Dr. Shi’s research involves multiple areas of quantum information science, such as quantum computing complexity, classic simulations of quantum systems, and quantum cryptography. His research has yielded defining work in many areas. For example, he is recognized for achieving major breakthroughs in device-independent quantum cryptography. In June 2017, Dr. Shi joined the Alibaba Group as Alibaba Cloud’s chief scientist for quantum technology. He is fully in charge of the Group’s R&D efforts in the field of quantum computing. Not long ago, he was appointed the deputy director of the Zhejiang Laboratory in Zhejiang on behalf of Alibaba.
Dr. Shi and his team are responsible for putting quantum computing in action. He revealed that his team is planning to enhance cooperation with hardware partners, develop software tools and quantum algorithms, and explore new applications.
In his view, there are two mainstream opinions about the future applications of quantum computing. Some people believe that it be possible for the technology to simulate quantum systems in fields such as materials science, quantum chemistry, and pharmaceutical development by using large volumes of computing resources. Others think it will help modern Internet companies with the computing tasks they need to perform. For example, they could use machine learning algorithms based on quantum hardware to accelerate machine learning, improve the algorithms used, and increase optimization performance.
In addition, Dr. Shi believes that the birth of quantum computing will have a profound impact on cryptographic systems. For example, the widely used public key cryptography systems will be gradually replaced by systems that cannot be cracked by quantum computers, which are referred to as “post-quantum cryptography” in the industry.
The following is the transcript of the Yunqi Community’s interview with Dr. Shi:
Yunqi: What led you to decide switching from academia to the industry? What are the greatest differences between the two in your opinion?
Dr. Shi: Shifting from the academia to the industry, my goal was to contribute as much as possible to development of quantum information technology.
For the quantum field specifically, it is very hard to explain the differences between the academia and the industry. In the past I only did research. Now, besides research, I am also taking up more responsibilities such as planning, decision making, organizing, and execution. But then again, the people in charge of major projects in academia also have to do these things.
If I had to compare a company to a university, the fundamental difference is the ultimate goal. In the industry, your goals are utility and products. In contrast, academic theories are more public, and you do more basic, exploratory, open-ended, and high-risk work in academia. One corollary of this is, in the industry, every quantum project must take the company’s actual situation into account during overall strategic thinking and design, to find the best combination of risk and reward. In academia, the general approach in most cases is to take a deep dive into a single aspect.
Yunqi: We have a pretty good blueprint of quantum computing, but the industry giants are still confined to the laboratory. What are the challenges in commercializing this technology?
Dr. Shi: There are many challenges, but the first one is how to scale up the technology. Currently, no existing technology can achieve large-scale application while allowing for high-quality storage and operations. In addition, implementation of quantum computing is a massive systematic project, involving technologies and capabilities from a large number of fields. The overall industry is not yet complete and the talent resources are scarce. For example, I need to construct traditional software to assist in the design of quantum hardware. Ideally, we would want to hire some top-notch software engineers with ample knowledge of quantum computing. However, it is rare to find these skills in the same individual. In the end, we have to find software engineers and teach them quantum computing, or find quantum scientists and turn them into software engineers. This means that we need people with strong learning abilities.
Yunqi: What are the current focuses of your research?
Dr. Shi: Our long-term goal is to realize the potential of quantum information technology and provide solutions based on this technology. Here, the key words are “realize” and “solutions”. In the near future, we plan to enhance cooperation with hardware partners, develop software tools and quantum algorithms, and discover new applications. I think we have a bright future ahead of us, but it is still a long journey.
Yunqi: Can you talk a little about quantum computing at the application level? What valuable experience have you gained from your work?
Dr. Shi: There are some mainstream opinions in the industry about the major potential applications of quantum computing. Basically, there are two types of applications. The first one is simulation of quantum systems in fields such as materials science, quantum chemistry, and pharmaceutical development using large volumes of computing resources. Second, it will help modern Internet companies with the computing tasks they need to perform. For example, they could use machine learning algorithms based on quantum hardware to accelerate machine learning, improve the algorithms used, and increase optimization performance.
I should stress that a great deal of work remains to be done before we can get a clear picture of these applications. Ultimately, the power of quantum computers needs to be verified on real machines. In my experience, we should take nothing for granted. We need to hold on to bold assumptions, while also carefully verifying the underlying principles.
Yunqi: In your opinion, what future changes can be predicted in the quantum computing field?
Dr. Shi: I think that there may be more developments in the hardware perspective. Many companies and research institutions have been forging ahead along the current technology paths until they all hit the same bottlenecks, awaiting some new breakthrough. For software, many institutions have similar systems with almost identical performance. However, the next breakthrough will come at the theoretical or conceptual level. This is why, my goal for building a team focuses on recruiting the best-of-breed talents, in addition to ensuring that everyone on the team can ultimately meet our requirements.
Yunqi: If quantum computing becomes a reality, it will set off a new computing revolution. In this case, which industries will embrace the revolution first?
Dr. Shi: Previously, I mentioned two areas where computing may lead to major changes: the simulation of quantum systems and the acceleration and improvement of important computing tasks (I should stress that I am only saying there is a possibility). It would be a little far-fetched to say that the traditional computer would be completely eliminated. We can be certain that both types of computers will coexist in the future. They will become two approaches to the same problem, with advantages and disadvantages respectively.
However, I did not previously mention the effect quantum computing will have on cryptographic systems. After the advent of large-scale quantum computers, the widely-used public key cryptographic systems will no longer be secure. Therefore, we can be certain that these systems will gradually be replaced by systems that cannot be cracked by quantum computers. This is the so-called “post-quantum cryptography”. The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology is currently collecting protocol candidates for such a future. Thus, quantum computing is already overturning public key cryptography today, even though large-scale quantum computers are still far away from us.
Yunqi: Can you give us a preview of the quantum computing forum to be held at the Computing Conference? Why organize such a forum?
Dr. Shi: As a sub-conference of the Computing Conference, we are organizing the “Alibaba Quantum Summit”, which will feature lectures by our partners and our new team members. The main purpose is to provide an opportunity to people who can talk about the current state of the field and its prospects. On the one hand, we get to align people’s expectations with the facts. On the other, we hope to encourage and attract more talents to join us. Of course, we also look forward to helping our partners to better understand Alibaba, so that we can collaborate together better.