IBM Roundtable: Building a Quantum Workforce Requires Interdisciplinary Education and the Promise of Real Jobs

By Larry Greenemeier

The ability to harness quantum-mechanical phenomena such as superposition and entanglement to perform computation obviously poses a number of difficulties. Add in the need to make these systems perform meaningful work, and you’ve raised the stakes considerably. Creating a pipeline of talented, well-trained academics and professionals who can meet those challenges was the subject of IBM’s July 28 virtual roundtable, “How to Build a Quantum Workforce.”

Watch the Build a Quantum Workforce roundtable.


The roundtable’s panel of experts from IBM Research, Howard University, New York University and Forrester Research discussed digital learning’s role in accelerating quantum skills-building and the interdisciplinary skillsets essential for a career in quantum computing. They also addressed the need to avoid hype when promoting quantum computing’s potential, balanced against the need to attract and retain talent that could pursue potentially more lucrative careers on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley.

Entice students to make the leap to quantum

Early in the virtual event, the panelists weighed in on the challenges of getting students interested in quantum computing at a relatively early age. Moderator Jeffrey Hammond, Vice President, Principal Analyst Serving CIO Professionals, Forrester Research, asked if there is the quantum computing equivalent to the Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80 personal computers that introduced an entire generation of kids to home computing during the late 1970s and 80s.

IBM’s cloud-accessible Quantum Experience platform, while maybe not as iconic as the TRS-80’s boxy monitor and chunky keyboard, provides a comparable introductory path to programming on quantum computers. “Before IBM launched its Quantum Experience in 2016, you needed access to a lab to be able to work on an actual quantum computer, rather than a quantum simulator running on a classical computer,” said panelist Abe Asfaw, Global Lead of Quantum Education, IBM Quantum.

For quantum education to reach the broadest possible audience, it’s crucial that educators reach students as early in their schooling as possible, said panelist Tina Brower-Thomas, Education Director and Howard University Executive Director, Center for Integrated Quantum Materials. The pipeline for women and people of color, in particular, is “leaky” at different points during their academic careers, meaning these students will drift away from STEM subjects if not adequately encouraged, she said. “The solution is to push things as close as possible to the high school level, before we start seeing different barriers affecting different kinds of people in the talent pipeline,” she added.

Due to the nascent nature of quantum computing, “we have an opportunity to invite as broad participation as necessary at this point,” Brower-Thomas said. “It’s important to understand that although there’s a lot of mystery behind quantum science, it is attainable if we invest now and educate people, from younger students to the larger community.”

Lower the barriers while raising the bar

IBM’s goal has been to lower the barrier to entry for those interested in learning to program quantum computers through Q Experience, the company’s Qiskit open source quantum software development framework, and the open-source textbook “Learn Quantum Computation Using Qiskit,” which Asfaw and panelist Javad Shabani, Assistant Professor of Physics and chair of the Shabani Lab, New York University, helped author.

The newest IBM quantum education initiative is the Quantum Educators program. Introduced the same day as the roundtable, the program provides quantum computing teachers – from middle and high school to undergraduate and graduate programs – with prioritized use of IBM quantum systems via the cloud for both themselves and their students at no cost. The Quantum Educators program is unique in that it allows students to account for the effects of noise, quantum coupling and other programming challenges they will encounter when using actual quantum computers, which isn’t possible when teaching with quantum simulators.

IBM also frequently hosts Qiskit Camps and hackathons worldwide to support quantum skills development, and recently launched its inaugural online Qiskit Global Summer School, a virtual two-week event designed to give the next generation of quantum developers the tools and skills they need to write quantum applications. Although IBM had expected an enrollment of about 200 students, the program ended up with 4,000 students enrolled worldwide, from more than 100 countries. With quantum education, “we can bridge the skills gap, given there’s so much interest in it right now,” Asfaw said. “Our goal with all of these efforts is that, as students are learning, they working with actual quantum systems.”

Encourage an interdisciplinary approach

The primary goal of such educational efforts is, of course, to eventually create a skilled quantum computing workforce. Such a workforce will include many different roles and require interdisciplinary skills, the panelists agreed.

Quantum computers require not only programmers and physicists, they also need people with, for example, electrical engineering expertise to develop the control electronics that read the quantum computer’s signals. Materials scientists are also essential to improving quantum computing hardware. “There’s room for really all kinds of engineers and scientists to join the field, whether it’s developing the systems at a hardware level or developing quantum algorithms or different applications, which really requires a combined effort of many fields coming together,” Asfaw said.

Quantum mechanics, quantum information science and quantum computing are all interdisciplinary areas, “so we can draw from mathematics, chemistry, physics, electrical and mechanical engineering and other fields,” Brower-Thomas said.

Given the interdisciplinary nature of quantum computers, Hammond questioned whether it is a disservice to silo quantum computing students into studying either hardware or computer science, when it would benefit the field to have professionals who understand both. Shabani agreed, “At this stage in quantum computing, I don’t think you can separate students into hardware versus programming specialties.” To improve quantum computers beyond today’s noisy intermediate-scale systems, you need to know the technology inside and out, he added.

Avoid the hype

Despite the urgent need to establish a pipeline for quantum computing talent, the panelists are wary of overpromising to students. “Two years ago I wasn’t as experienced, and I had an undergraduate student who came to me and said, I love quantum computing,” Shabani said. “I gave him all of the great things about quantum computing. I basically rolled on the hype.” The student later told Shabani that he wanted to switch fields to biology because he expected that work to yield more and better career opportunities.

But quantum computing is already contributing to science.

“Quantum computers are an excellent way of simulating the behavior of other quantum systems,” Asfaw said. “The way we understand nature can be enhanced by our ability to manipulate quantum systems. We’ve already seen contributions to this, such as super sensitive detection of gravitational waves as a result of quantum effects.”

Still, “at the end of the day we need to be honest about the promise of the field because we risk bringing people in and immediately giving them bad news that none of that works right now,” Asfaw said. The reality is that today’s quantum computers have very real limitations, he added.

Those limitations can also serve as inspiration. “We all talk about the great things to come with quantum computing, but great things come with great challenges,” Shabani said. “More challenges means more opportunities. That’s the message we need to send because, if you ride on the hype, there’s nothing.”

Light at the end of the quantum tunnel

The prospect of building a satisfying career in quantum computing has to feel very real to students, especially if industry and academia want to attract young people who might be reluctant to pursue STEM-related occupations. “They need to understand how quantum computing skills will put money in their pocket, how they’re going to be able to take care of their families as a result of the hard work they have to put in to prepare for this type of work,” Brower-Thomas said.

That means finding students, providing them with direction and informing them of the opportunities in the quantum computing field. “The talent is there,” Brower-Thomas said. “The question is how to engage them and keep them involved.” If young people don’t know how to get started with quantum computing and that their hard work will pay off in the end, “they’re going to go with what they know is out there – places like Wall Street and Silicon Valley,” she added.