Quantum computing expert: “Germany is a world leader in basic research”

Tommaso Calarco heads the Quantum Control Institute at the Forschungszentrum Jülich, where one of the largest quantum computer centers in Europe is currently under construction. In an interview, he explains why Germany is the world leader in basic research. Calarco is considered an important network creator in European quantum research. As a member of the Quantum Computing Experts Council, he has been advising the federal government for many years and is one of the initiators of the Quantum Flagship Project of the European Commission. When he started in 2018, he planned a budget of one billion euros for ten years – and now that budget has been increased to seven billion. The first successes and start-ups in Europe are already visible today.



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Tommaso Calarco, head of the Quantum Control Institute at Forschungszentrum Jülich, is considered one of the most important network developers in European quantum research and the driving force behind the flagship EU Quantum project.  , Julich Research Center

Tommaso Calarco, head of the Quantum Control Institute at Forschungszentrum Jülich, is considered one of the most important network developers in European quantum research and the driving force behind the flagship EU Quantum project.  , Julich Research Center

Tommaso Calarco, head of the Quantum Control Institute at Forschungszentrum Jülich, is considered one of the most important network developers in European quantum research and the driving force behind the flagship EU Quantum project.

(Photo: Jülich Research Center)

So far, American companies in particular have made a name for themselves with quantum computers. IBM built the System Q One as the first “industrial model” and also installed such a machine in Germany to attract public attention. Google has proven quantum supremacy with a 54-qubit chip. Has research in Germany and Europe been overlooked for a long time?

Tommaso Calarco: On the contrary! Europe, especially Germany, is extremely strong in basic research. However, these are not purely intellectual questions, but basics, such as superconducting qubits. It is about the required physics and materials science. It’s about understanding fundamental phenomena in order to be able to build better quantum computers. And this is crucial because we know that quantum systems must maintain the coherence time as long as possible. A quantum computer requires the highest quality materials and systems. Only if you have it can you build computing technology on it. With all these aspects: how you produce the best materials, how you produce the cleanest circuits, how you implement production – Germany and Europe are leaders here. And our scientists are still happy to be called to the US.

But sometimes the brain drain turns into brain growth.

Calarco: Yes, sometimes it goes the other way. For example, Dutchman Rami Barends was second behind John Martinis, who led the Google Quantum Supremacy team. We managed to call him back to Germany. At the Forschungszentrum, Jülich is currently managing the construction of a low-temperature laboratory in which, among others, quantum computers of the European flagship and the German quantum demonstration project.

»How you create the best materials for building quantum computers, how you produce the cleanest circuits, how you implement production – Germany and Europe are leaders in this field.«

Do you agree that superconducting qubits will continue to be the dominant technology in quantum computers in the future?

Calarco: No, it’s absolutely not clear yet that one day it will be superconducting qubits. Even the head of the Google Quantum AI Lab, Hartmut Neven, recently told me that while they are now relying on superconducting qubits, they are looking for alternative technologies.

However, when we look at qubits with ion traps or at quantum simulations in atoms, the Germans and Europeans are in the lead, and Americans are lagging behind in some areas. And when it comes to developing qubits based on the color centers in diamonds, Americans are almost gone. And such platforms are extremely interesting. For example, the color center qubits in diamonds are very stable even without cooling.

But the research on qubits with ion traps was done in the US early, right?

Calarco: The first quantum startup to exceed a billion in market value was IonQ, founded in 2015, which builds ion trap computers. At that time, there was no comparable company in Europe. Four years ago, the EU launched its flagship quantum program, and even then many asked, “Are we already behind?” But in the meantime, many start-ups have sprung up in Europe, setting up and building their own quantum computers, for example. These include Alpine Quantum Computers AQT in Innsbruck which offer ion trap computers in competition with IonQ. European high-performance data centers will soon integrate such quantum computers manufactured in Europe.

Did the so-called Munich Quantum Valley start when it announced the integration of the German-Finnish quantum computer IQM Quantum Computers with 20 qubits in superconducting technology by 2023?

Calarco: Yes, in the participating data center Leibniz in Garching near Munich, classic supercomputers are linked to qubit systems. We also implement a comparable concept on the supercomputer in Jülich. Here, too, a new Quantum Valley is being created, so to speak, under the name “EIN Quantum NRW” (EIN – Education Innovation Networking). We have a modular supercomputer with CPUs and GPUs, and we’ve already added D-Wave’s quantum annealer. With Jülich, we are coordinating the EU HPCQS (High Performance Hybrid Computer and Quantum Simulator) EU pilot project, which aims to create a European infrastructure for quantum simulations. Quantum simulators are special-purpose computers that use qubits to simulate other quantum systems. For example, a start-up Pasqal is building such machines and will install a quantum simulator in Paris. As the HPCQS Coordinator, I was able to persuade Pasqal to offer a second quantum simulator in Jülich without doubling the price – possibly the first volume discount in the history of quantum computing. In addition, another quantum computer from the German manufacturer EleQtron from Siegen, which develops ion-based quantum computers, is to be released in the future.


Tommaso Calarco is considered one of the most important network makers in European quantum research and the driving force behind the EU's flagship quantum project.  , Centrum Badawcze Jülich / Sascha Kreklau

Tommaso Calarco is considered one of the most important network makers in European quantum research and the driving force behind the EU's flagship quantum project.  , Centrum Badawcze Jülich / Sascha Kreklau

Tommaso Calarco is considered one of the most important network makers in European quantum research and the driving force behind the EU’s flagship quantum project.

(photo: Research Center Jülich / Sascha Kreklau)

Isn’t the supercomputer in Jülich also simulating high-level quantum computers?

Calarco: Oh yes, we have the world record for the largest quantum computer emulation on a classical supercomputer. In the Quantum Supremacy Project, my colleague Kristel Michielsen was responsible for benchmarking, i.e. comparing a used quantum computer with a conventional computer. She heads the Quantum Information Processing group at the Jülich Supercomputing Center (JSC) and was therefore the co-author of the 2019 Nature publication on Google’s proof of quantum supremacy.

All these modules, the classic supercomputer, quantum emulator, quantum simulator, quantum annealer and the first quantum computer, will be assembled in Jülich. Eventually, the user accesses a platform we call JUNIQ. The user can connect and use the software to decide on which platform to run his application. In this way, it can explore different options for developing benchmarks and use cases.

Are enough quantum computing experts growing up in Germany and Europe? For example, is there a broad application developer base that is needed to implement this technology?

Calarco: This is and will be the main problem. At this point, the competition is decided. You cannot use standard engineers in quantum technology, special training is required for this. We want to focus on teaching in NRW and set up a postgraduate school in Bavaria has already started. The CDU NRW election program even foresees the creation of 100 new professorships in the field of artificial intelligence and quantum computing. The industry is also very interested in training quantum engineers. We’re not at the bottleneck yet, but it shows. We need to prepare and expand the course offer. Everyone has a problem, both the US and Europe, and those who cannot solve it will be left behind.

What would you say to a talented student why would they specialize in quantum engineering?

Calarco: I’d say it’s cool and literally “breathtaking” inspiring. A science that literally pushes us to the limits of what is imaginable. Secondly, there is a great demand in the industry and, after its expansion, also on the academic side. There are many opportunities before graduation. And third, it is education at the highest level. Even if you don’t want to become a quantum technician later, you can also excel in other fields with this training.

If the company wants to tackle this topic now, what’s the best way to start?

Calarco: At the European Quantum Industry Consortium (QUIC), a registered association based in Jülich, participants keep asking this question. There are offers from universities, there are textbooks; it has been shown that it is best to create small working groups as research groups in companies. Wherever two or three people deal with a topic, they often achieve operational competence within a few months. I would always advise networking with other companies, research institutes and academic organizations. In Germany, there are almost always hotspots within tens of kilometers, for example a university with expertise in quantum technology. And they are also interested in offering something. It keeps growing.




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c’t 13/2022 includes our Desinfec’t 2022 security tool. Includes several antivirus scanners, helps you hunt Windows Trojans, and runs directly from a USB stick. We are also shedding light on the hugely successful European quantum computing scene, testing crank radios for emergencies and mesh networks for disasters. We discovered Sparkasse’s unsecured software and concerns about freedom of expression on the Internet.


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