Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory

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Passionate: Jonathan Loibl

A monthly profile series featuring a Lab employee who exemplifies one of 9 traits identified in the Laboratory’s Purpose Statement
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Patrick Coles

Advancing the quantum revolution — and growing a workforce to expand it

Patrick Coles (Physics of Condensed Matter & Complex Systems, T-4) just moved into a new office. It’s twice the size of his old one. The walls are still starter-kit bare, except for a few published papers — and exactly two photos.

It’s not that Patrick has just been too busy to decorate. It’s that these are important photos, and they are strategically placed. Both show a smiling Patrick surrounded by similarly smiling students.

“They’re the first two classes of the Quantum Summer School — 2018 and 2019,” Patrick says. “My plan is to put all of the future classes up here next to them.”

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Taking the first steps into science

Quantum computing has the potential to solve a world of problems. It could help us create better medicines, make sharp predictions about the economy and analyze an ever-growing backlog of data in record time. But it is still in its infancy. To grow, it needs people to research it. The Quantum Summer School — an immersive, 10-week boot camp — was established to train those researchers.

Running the school in Los Alamos as a quantum physicist is miles away from where Patrick began — in more ways than one.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Patrick was an athlete who played soccer and ran track. He was a good student, he says, but didn’t work especially hard until he learned about a national chemistry exam with a scholarship prize. On a whim, Patrick decided to take the test. For the first time, he spent a lot of time studying outside of class.

“I won the scholarship,” he says. “For my family, that was like winning the lottery. It made a huge difference and it taught me the value of hard work.”

The lesson stuck. He headed to Case Western Reserve University and scored a perfect 4.0 grade point average earning his B.S. in chemical engineering. He followed that with a master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Cambridge and a doctorate in chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

But a different kind of science was pulling at this experimental chemist. “I was taking tons of physics classes,” he says. “So I convinced someone to hire me as a theoretical quantum physicist.”

That “someone” was Carnegie Mellon University, located in his hometown, where he completed his first postdoc position. Two more followed at the National University of Singapore and the University of Waterloo.

“There wasn’t much quantum hype then. Singapore and Canada were the international quantum hubs at the time,” Patrick says. “There weren’t even very many jobs in the field.”

Now, quantum computing has taken off in a big way. Just last week, the president signed an executive order to launch the National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee, which will help spend more than $1.2 billion to advance quantum information science in the U.S. over the next five years.

“There are jobs in quantum everywhere!” Patrick says. “There are three open here at the Lab right now.”

One of Patrick’s next steps in the quantum revolution: teaching people how to do those jobs.

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Patrick works with Quantum Computing Summer School student Alex Buser. Alex was one of just 15 students accepted into the 2019 school; the 2018 class had just 10 spots.

Quantum computers: Not going to replace your laptop

“Quantum computing is the hardest to explain of any other technology,” Patrick says. “That may be a bold statement, but it may also be true. Because first you have to understand a computer science, which is complex on its own. Then you add in quantum physics.”

Classical computers transmit bits — 0s or 1s — via electrical impulses. Quantum computers do not have these bits. They have quantum bits, or qubits, which can be in superpositions of 0 and 1. In a quantum state, there’s a probability of finding a qubit in 0 or 1. When put together, qubits create a quantum phenomenon that gives computers incredible power.

“Quantum computers have specific problems to solve and they can solve them in extraordinary ways,” Patrick says. “In one second, they could solve a problem that might take a classical computer the age of the universe.”

Quantum computers’ problems might include simulating interactions among molecules to help create better cancer drugs, he says. They could calculate traffic routes super-fast and shorten our commutes. The applications could range from personalized medicine to security to weather prediction.

A big question is: When?

“That’s one of my objectives,” Patrick says. “I’m evaluating the near-term. What we can do to make quantum computing more efficient so that we see it working in two years, say, instead of 20.”

He’s also working to quiet quantum computing’s “noise” — what happens when quantum doesn’t deliver exactly the right answers.

“Let’s say you type in six times seven,” he says. “The answer is 42, but with noise, sometimes the answer is 41 and sometimes it’s 43. Part of my job is to mitigate that noise.”

So Patrick does what he tells his students to do. He gets creative.

Postdoc Marco Cerezo (T-4) has worked with Patrick for the last few months. “He told me, ‘Scientific research is like football. You get handed the ball, and you look for a hole in the defense. You move to the left, then you move to the right. And when you finally see the opening you just run for it as fast as you can,’” Marco says.

“He was telling me that we should not be afraid to try different and new approaches to solve a problem. Eventually, you will find that great idea, the one that you know is good because you can feel it in your gut. And when that happens, you just go with it.”

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Patrick has these photos of the 2018 and 2019 classes of Quantum Computing Summer School on his wall. Renowned mathematician Peter Shor, who developed an important quantum algorithm, was a speaker at the 2018 session. He's next to Patrick in the photo on the left.

Growing the workforce of the future — exponentially

Patrick had been working at the Lab just a few months before his supervisor, Avadh Saxena, said to him, “Hey, why don’t you start a summer school?”

With a few other organizers, Patrick put together a proposal. The Information Science and Technology Institute — part of the National Security Education Center that enables the execution of the Lab’s institutional information systems and technology pillar strategy — reviewed the proposal and made a few suggestions. And then? “They decided to fund it indefinitely,” Patrick says.

There were just 10 spots available in the new summer school, and Patrick had only a month or two to blast out advertisements. But what had been a low murmur about quantum computing was starting to turn into a loud buzz and word of the school spread. At the deadline, 90 applicants had applied.

The summer school invited speakers from academia and industry, including Google, D-Wave, Microsoft and IBM. The lecturers were some of quantum computing’s most VI of VIPs.

“That man with the white beard, he’s pretty legendary in our field,” Patrick says, pointing to one of the photos on his wall. “Pretty legendary” is an understatement: Peter Shor devised Shor’s algorithm, a quantum algorithm that factors exponentially faster than the fastest algorithm running on a classical computer. He was a summer school speaker in 2018.

“Patrick’s broad knowledge, expertise and focus have not only taken our quantum computing effort to the next echelon but have also put LANL on the world map in this important emerging area,” says Avadh. “Likewise, his dedication to and passion for mentoring were instrumental in the resounding success of the first two Quantum Summer Schools.”

For 2019’s Quantum Summer School, Patrick and his collaborators changed the advertising plan: They sent out two tweets.

They received 240 applications.

 

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