An interview with Professor Winfried Hensinger
While heading up the Sussex Ion Quantum Technology Group and being Director of the Sussex Centre for Quantum Technologies, Professor Winfried Hensinger is working on constructing a trapped-ion quantum computer demonstrator device, a quantum simulation engine and portable quantum sensors. He is also a co-founder, Chief Scientist and Chairman of Universal Quantum, a quantum computing company.
Alongside this, Professor Hensinger is also an investigator within the Quantum Computing and Simulation Hub, which is funded through the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme - a £270M investment by the UK government to ensure the successful transition of quantum technologies from laboratory to industry. The Programme aims to create a coherent government, industry and academic quantum technology community that gives the UK a world-leading position in the emerging multi-billion-pound new quantum technology markets.
We caught up with Professor Hensinger to hear more about his work, what quantum computing could mean for everyday life and what inspired him to become a quantum physicist.
Many people are fascinated and excited by quantum computing. Why do you think this is?
I guess because it really wakes the imagination of understanding reality and nature the way it actually is. The world around us isn’t just what we see, it’s multiple dimensions and maybe parallel universes and what quantum computing does is it really invokes all of these additional facets of reality in a really mind-boggling way by making use of what we call quantum superposition – when an object can be in 2 different places at the same time. You can be sitting here on your desk and go for a run simultaneously, that’s perfectly possible in quantum physics, this feature quantum superposition is being made use of in quantum computers. I think that’s the motivation for scientists, now, the motivation for maybe the general public is the applications. Quantum computers can do certain things that even the fastest super computers in the world would take billions of years to calculate, so that really ranges across all different sectors, from gaining a new understanding of biological processes, to creating new pharmaceuticals and solving really hard problems in the financial sector. We are only just about tapping into the full potential of quantum computers, and so, I think the general public are fascinated by quantum computing because they perceive it as an extremely powerful way to solve certain problems that we’ve never solved before.
Where do you think quantum computing is at, at the moment, how far off is it? You said it’s tangible but how close are we to having this as a reality?
I’ll start by saying we have a few quantum computer prototypes in my lab right now and they operate! On the other hand, these are proof-of-principle machines, they’re very small machines and they don’t really have the capability to solve real world problems and actually no machine around the world is yet capable of doing something a normal computer couldn’t do besides one exception, the famous quantum announcement by Google, but that relates to a purely academic problem and has no practical use.
I often compare quantum computing to conventional computing. Conventional computing was arguably started in the second world war, in 1945, with the ability to crack the German Enigma code. So, we had conventional computers in 1945, yet when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, I actually learned typewriting on a mechanical typewriter. I didn’t actually have a computer, even though they strictly existed since 1945, so quantum computers are like that, there’s not going to be one day when we have a quantum computer or when we don’t, but the machines will grow in power and range of applications and they will become smaller. First actually, they will probably stay in the cloud for a very long time and we will access them from home, but then they are going to grow in terms of their capability. I have a very personal connection to this as I did a lot of research on quantum computing in my research group in Sussex, we are now actually building quantum computing machines based on the blueprint we developed a few years ago. So, I think it’s fair to say we are now starting to build real machines and take them out of research labs and actually make a real difference.
Do you think one day we’ll all have quantum computers?
I can’t see quantum computers any time soon in our home and I don’t really see much reason either as to why you’d want to have them in the home, because you’re not going to use quantum computers for things like word processing or other standard things you use a computer for at home. You’re only going to use quantum computers when there is no computer powerful enough to solve a certain problem. So that refers to things where you don’t really need the machine at home, you can just log in via a fast web connection onto a machine that will solve the problem for you. Especially at the beginning, these machines will be very expensive and expensive to operate and as such you’re not going to just use them for any kind of problem, you’ll use it for something you really, really need to. So, I don’t think quantum computers, any time soon or probably ever, will really replace conventional computers, they, in essence, will provide a really, really powerful complementary solution to enable us to do things we couldn’t do before.
Are quantum computers superior to classical computers or just different?
I think to answer your question as concisely as I can, in the applications you will use a quantum computer for, a quantum computer is a lot more powerful than a conventional computer, but you wouldn’t necessarily use a quantum computer for every application and it would be kind of a pointless waste of resources if you were to try to. There are actually applications where a quantum computer is not even as good as a conventional computer so it really doesn’t make much sense to use a quantum computer for everything. You’d want to use a quantum computer for certain problems where you can generate a lot of impact.
Your spin out company Universal Quantum has just announced it’s received a considerable amount of funding from some of the world’s most influential tech investors – congratulations! Can you tell me a little bit more about this and what the objective is behind setting up the company?
So, I’ve been interested in building quantum computers for probably 20 years or longer, and people always told me “it can’t be done” or “it’s way too complicated” or “it’ll never happen” and all the reasons why you couldn’t do that. Whenever somebody tells me I shouldn’t be doing something I love to do it and so quantum computing is probably a life reflection of my liking of bending or breaking some rules, and so, I’ve been working on building and trying to develop quantum computers for a long time. But there is a point where you realise a university research group aren’t capable of doing the next steps which are really all about engineering, you have to have the most amazing engineers. The amount of funding required to do some of these tasks is tremendous, it cannot be undertaken with the normal research grants or normal academic research funding. So, 2 or 3 years ago I realised you really need to start a company in order to take the very next step, that doesn’t mean I’m less enthusiastic about my research group, which will keep on going and do some of the underlying research required, but the company really enables us to build the practical machines which can solve useful problems.
You can read more about Universal Quantum here.
People are very excited about the capabilities of quantum computing but amongst the cryptography community there is widely acknowledged anxiety about the potential for a “crypto-apocalypse” when quantum computing becomes available. What are your thoughts on this?
Nearly all of us use RSA encryption when we put our credit card details into the internet and when we try to send an encrypted message to each other, so this is a very, very important thing. One of the famous applications of the quantum computer is the ability to break this encryption and that obviously worries a lot of people. But while this is a very famous application, I’m really not so concerned about that because there are people developing new types of encryption protocols now that are resilient to that kind of breaking by a quantum computer. More so, there is something called quantum cryptography which is making use of some quantum mechanical effects in order to allow us to safely encrypt information, where the laws of physics stop us from being able to break into this.
I know that alongside being Chairman and Chief Scientist at Universal Quantum you head up the Ion Quantum Technology Group and direct the University of Sussex Centre for Quantum Technologies. Could you perhaps tell me a bit more about your career pathway? How easy do you think it is for young people to follow a career in quantum science and technology?
So, the whole thing started with me wanting to become Science Officer on the Enterprise, probably when I was in primary school! That was my clear career choice and I started from then working out what the most practical steps were to do that.
I went on to do a PhD in a topic closely related to quantum computing, in working with neutral atoms. I worked at the University of Queensland in Australia and I had a fantastic set of supervisors, Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop, Norman Heckenberg and Gerard Milburn. I was extremely lucky. Over the lunches I had with them, I overheard some conversations about quantum computing which really sparked my interest and I was really fascinated. During my PhD I also worked in the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, USA with Bill Phillips (Nobel laureate) and I was extremely lucky to work with him because he really taught me how to investigate Physics in the right way and he gave me many tremendously good skills.
I’ve been very driven all my life and after finishing my PhD, I applied to around 20 or 30 different groups to do a postdoc because I really wanted to have an academic career. I was very lucky, I actually got around 20 or 30 offer letters, I didn’t expect that! Then I decided I really needed to investigate all of them so I obtained Lufthansa Senator Priority Status in the process of flying over two and a half times around the world to visit every single one of these groups! This was the most amazing experience; all of these groups were truly outstanding and I learned a lot in this process and got a lot of inspiration. Pretty much from the beginning, somehow my gut told me I’d need to go to Chris Monroe’s group at the University of Michigan, this was confirmed when I arrived there and learned he had the same outlook and view and I felt that this would be the most likely physical platform to build quantum computers. So, I worked there for 3 years, it was a very challenging and hard time but I learned a lot and I’m very thankful to Chris and his group for teaching me so many things.
After that, I got an email from the University of Sussex, I had absolutely zero plans to come to England and I’d never been before in my life, I thought it rains all the time, people speak in really high voices all the time and this was pretty much all I knew about England! I flew here and completely fell in love with Brighton and the University of Sussex, it’s a really lovely place, the weather is really good and sunny most of the time, it’s a lovely university and Brighton is a fantastic place to live and so I moved to Sussex and started my own group here.
What advice would you give to young people who want to get involved in physics, particularly quantum physics, and to get to where you are today?
Ask lots of questions, read lots of books, never be content, don’t listen to people when they tell you things can’t be done or you’re not good enough or you shouldn’t do this. Love what you do, don’t go for something that people tell you is the right choice, go for something you have a true love for, inspiration for, follow your gut feeling and then just have lots of fun and do the things you really want to do.
Don’t ever be shy. When you’re at university, lots of people won’t ask questions as they think everybody else will know the answer and they won’t – you should always ask all the questions. The final big piece of advice I’d give is it’s all about focus and understanding yourself and the people you work with. You will never be able to do anything of meaning in experimental physics on your own, there’s plenty of amazing people around you that you work with and you should really cherish working with other people and you should encourage people around you to work with you because team work is really, really important. It’s really about having the ability to listen to others and be driven and just never give up. For me I was never even willing to entertain the possibility that I wouldn’t make it, it’s extremely challenging as there are very few academic positions out there but if this is really what you want to do, don’t give up. Believe in yourself!
The key advice is just love what you do!
If you’d like to hear more from Professor Hensinger, as well take a look inside the Ion Quantum Technology Group’s lab, take a look at this short video.