Applying quantum technology to solve some of our toughest real-world problems

University of Calgary partnerships exploring how quantum research can help to address “hard problems”
University of Calgary
An apparatus holds two small rectangular glass slides with coloured lines.

Five decades ago, nobody would have expected the extent to which computers would shape today’s way of life. Quantum computing, while still at an early stage, promises to be similarly disruptive, says Barry Sanders, director of the Institute for Quantum Science and Technology at the University of Calgary (UCalgary) and lead investigator of the Alberta Major Innovation Fund Project on Quantum Technologies.

“We can’t yet fathom everything quantum will impact, but we believe having computers that are based on a different form of logic can make hard problems — and especially problems of a bigger scale — easier to solve,” says Sanders, who proposes three essential stages — “quantum aware, quantum ready and quantum active” — in order to unlock the potential of quantum.

“Quantum aware means that companies need to know that quantum computing is there — and that it could disrupt them. Quantum ready means that, with the possibility of using it on the horizon, they need team members who know about quantum computing, so it can be deployed,” he says. “Quantum active would be applying it to solve practical problems.”

Yet what could a real-world scenario look like? A quantum computer’s potential to arrive at a solution with less data — compared to a traditional computer — can advance outcomes in areas like anomaly detection, Sanders suggests. Take a city’s transportation system, for example, where trams are powered by overhead wires. A wire going down could pose significant hazards, and experts are turning to quantum science to explore the possibility of predicting — or even preventing — such events.

However, taking quantum research and development to the point of practical application requires efforts spanning multiple fields, such as fundamental quantum mechanics, information science, materials science, computer science and computer engineering, says William Ghali, vice-president (Research) at UCalgary, where “trans-disciplinary scholarship has become a signature brand.”

A decade-long effort to bring people “out of their faculty silos and engage in campus-wide research themes has led to interdisciplinary research excellence with examples in biomedical engineering, brain and mental health research, cybersecurity and more,” says Ghali. “This has led to increased success in funding competitions, including support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation.”

Beyond fostering cross-disciplinary connections, UCalgary is also dedicated to accelerating the adoption of real-world innovations through industry partnerships as well as entrepreneurship, he adds. “Our ‘Eyes High’ strategy, which started in 2011, envisioned two goals: to be one of Canada’s leading research universities and to focus on entrepreneurship.”

Statistics prove that both objectives have been accomplished. Last year, for example, UCalgary attracted $504-million in research revenue, which represents a 10 percent increase over the previous year, says Ghali. “And we are number one in Canada in terms of startup companies. This trajectory is really important for us, and quantum is a central piece.”

UCalgary is one of four universities — together with the University of Waterloo, Université de Sherbrooke and the University of British Columbia — advocating for a national quantum strategy, and Ghali welcomes the federal government’s announcement of a $360-million investment to launch the strategy.

“To advance quantum technologies, we need to support sector development, R&D and a purposeful talent strategy, and universities can play a key role,” he says, adding that efforts to strengthen the regional technology and innovation ecosystem have already helped to attract a number of companies to Calgary, with corporations such as RBC and Infosys having innovation hubs in the city.

Mphasis, an information technology solutions provider specializing in cloud and cognitive services, is yet another major corporation establishing an innovation hub in Calgary. In partnership with Mphasis and the Government of Alberta, UCalgary recently announced the launch of the Quantum City initiative that will build solutions for the commercial application of quantum computing for artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Beyond partnering with large corporations, Sanders emphasizes the need to “enable smaller companies to participate in exploring quantum solutions.

“Rather than quantum becoming this elite technology that average persons can’t access, we want to build success across society — and for a range of businesses, including the mom-and-pop store next door,” he says. “It’s exciting to see more and more startups turning to quantum technology for real-world problems.”

A vector graphic of a laptop with a paper airplane flying over it on a teal background encouraging you to subscribe to our newsletter.

Ghali shares this excitement about quantum’s potential to transform many sectors and dimensions of life. “There’s no question that the impact will go beyond computing to encompass innovations spread across quantum information science, materials and technologies,” he says. “Canada needs to move toward a knowledge economy, and we are helping to make this happen by facilitating growth in quantum as well as the digital economy more broadly.”

This story was originally published on Friday, November 19, 2021, as part of the “Excellence in Research and Innovation” feature in The Globe and Mail that marked the CFI’s 25th anniversary.