A Quantum Leap into New Technology

by | Mar 5, 2024 | Academics, Featured, Research and Innovation

The “Three Musketeers” and leaders of the new MS in quantum technology program: From left: Ehsan Khatami, professor of physics; program director and assistant professor of physics Hilary Hurst, and Silicon Valley AMDT Endowed Chair in Electrical Engineering and associate professor Hiu-Yung Wong. Photo by Robert C. Bain.

Albert Einstein famously described quantum entanglement as “spooky action at a distance.” It’s hard to argue with a genius, but Hilary Hurst, assistant professor of physics and program director of SJSU’s new master’s of science program in quantum technology, quibbles with the word “spooky.” 

“That gives you this idea that quantum is remote and untouchable,” she says. “It is weird and it’s counterintuitive, but it’s totally doable.” She wants people to understand quantum, not to fear it — as many of us do. So if the word “quantum” already made you nervous, like an unprepared student whose teacher just called on them, read on. We’ll take the journey together.

The master’s in quantum technology is brand new at San José State: in fact, its first cohort started in fall 2023. The program, hosted jointly between the College of Science and the Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering, is the only MS quantum program Hurst is aware of at a non-PhD granting university, and is an affordable, workforce development-focused option on the West Coast. Hurst is the program’s director, and leads it as part of what she calls the “Three Musketeers:” herself; Silicon Valley AMDT Endowed Chair in Electrical Engineering and associate professor Hiu-Yung Wong; and Ehsan Khatami, professor of physics.

“We’re aiming to be accessible,” Hurst says. “There’s only a handful of these programs around the country. So there’s a big gap in the quantum technology workforce right now, and we’re focused on workforce development — getting students into companies, national labs and permanent positions where they can really support greater growth of the industry.”

The basics of quantum technology

The field of quantum technologies can feel as remote and confusing as “quantum entanglement,” but Hurst explains its basic principles this way: “Quantum technologies are technologies that exploit the properties of quantum mechanics to do things that our classical technologies can’t.” 

What does this mean for computing, for example? A classical computer bit is either in binary code a zero or a one, but a quantum bit (a qubit) can be any combination (a superposition, in fact) of zeros and ones, which can mean far greater computing power and adaptability than a classical computer (like the computer you have at home) is capable of.

And entanglement? In classical computers, the power of Computer 1 and Computer 2 is equal to the power of Computer 1 plus Computer 2, but with quantum computers, the power of both is harnessed and ends up being greater than the finite sum of Computer 1 and Computer 2. This has broad implications. 

“Quantum computing allows you to store information across computers in a way that makes it very easy to detect if an observer tries to hack you,” Hurst explains, “and it also can lead to greater processing power.”

These examples are in quantum computing, but there are two other pillars of quantum technology: quantum communications and quantum sensors. Quantum communications could help build better networks, and quantum sensors can “sense really small electrical magnetic fields, even thermal gradients, that classical systems can’t” with huge implications for defense, including navigation methods beyond GPS that can get past jammed signals, as well as medical imaging, where quantum sensors are able to get enhanced and improved images of the human body.

Right now, Hurst cautions, the hardware hasn’t necessarily caught up with all the possibilities. “It’s kind of a balancing act of finding where the application space is right now and then also looking further ahead in the future,” she says. But the field is growing in leaps and bounds, with many companies (including IBM and Google) investing heavily in quantum technologies.

“It’s a very interdisciplinary field right now,” she explains. “A lot of it is trying to move it from science to engineering, which is why we wanted the program to be a joint venture. We’re trying to do outreach to engineers, computer scientists and other non-physicists. We really need people who can build the hardware, because a lot of the challenges in scaling up these technologies are in the hardware.”

An uncharted journey

James Saslow, ’22 Physics, ’25 MS Quantum Technology, describes his experience in the first MS cohort as “akin to being a pioneer embarking on an uncharted journey into the future, where every discovery is a step forward for the entire quantum community.”

As a National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) fellow, he’s been able to study quantum technologies at both SJSU and the Colorado School of Mines, and describes the experience as “nothing short of incredible.”

“My favorite thing about quantum technology is the vast potential it can bring to improve the world,” he says. In the context of his research specialty, solving optimization problems, he explains, “We can use quantum computing for cancer analysis via de novo gene assembly, optimizing supply chain logistics and for solving other traditionally difficult NP-hard math problems. I view quantum technology as the necessary ingredient to create the next generation of computers.”

His fellow student Daniel Pilipovic, ’25 MS Quantum Technology, is equally enthusiastic, calling the program “excellent” and adding, “For me, the best part of the field is how new it is. Its foundations are rock-solid, but there is still so much to explore in terms of new applications and how we can improve existing ones. The most state-of-the-art quantum computers today are comparable to computers in the 1950s and ‘60s, back when they took up entire rooms and weren’t much more powerful than a TI-84 calculator. But, much like modern computers, progress will hopefully come rapidly and unexpectedly. The upper limit of this improvement is still unknown.”

Pilipovic’s research focuses on “weak measurement.” As he explains, “One of the most unusual aspects of quantum mechanics is that measuring a quantum system changes it. If you have a pot of boiling water and you measure its temperature, putting a thermometer in the water to take the measurement won’t suddenly stop it from boiling. However, if the boiling water obeyed quantum mechanics, measuring its temperature might just freeze it, which is very counterintuitive.”

He continues, “My research is about a particular form of measurement called ‘weak measurement,’ a quantum phenomenon in which the measurement minimally changes the system in exchange for more uncertainty in the value of the measurement. I use Python simulations to study the effects of weak measurement on special systems where quantum entanglement is involved. Our end goal is to find out if weak measurement can be used as a tool to control and fine-tune these systems.”

It’s obviously difficult, complicated science, but he agrees with Hurst that quantum technologies are more accessible than students might initially believe. “Quantum physics has a reputation in the public consciousness of being weird, confusing and difficult,” he says. 

“Despite all of this, I truly believe anyone can learn and understand quantum physics with the right instruction and a lot of effort. If you’re someone with any interest in physics and/or computer science, with or without experience, it’s worth looking into quantum technology as a potential future career path.”

Step into the future with more information about the MS program in Quantum Technology.

If you’ve made it this far and are still a little confused by quantum, never fear: Pilipovic provided his own helpful explanation, which may nudge you along.

“Our universe can be thought of as being divided (with a rather blurry line) into two regimes of physics: classical and quantum mechanics. Theories such as Newton’s laws of motion, electromagnetism, and even gravity, all fall under classical mechanics. The vast majority of the technology we use in our daily lives can be fully explained using these classical theories. The line that, to the best of our current knowledge, separates the classical and quantum regimes is the length scale of the system. Quantum mechanics generally begins to apply at the molecular scale and successfully models everything at the atomic and subatomic scales.

“Quantum technology is ultimately about exploiting the bizarre properties of objects at these scales for our benefit. While quantum tech is still a fledgling field, some notable examples already exist and are quite prevalent, namely MRI machines and superconducting materials. Some up-and-coming applications with great potential are quantum computing and communications. While many people are already familiar with the goals of quantum computing, quantum communication promises greater information density and near-uncrackable encryption schemes, which opens up the possibility of a ‘quantum internet’ in the distant future.”

There. Now you should be an expert — and if you’re ready, applications for the MS program are due April 1.