Antía Lamas, physicist: ‘In a few years, quantum computing will simply be another programming language’

The Spanish scientist, who is responsible for Amazon Web Services’ quantum networks, says that not all the possibilities are understood, nor is the effect of the intersection with artificial intelligence

Raúl Limón
Antia Lamas computacion cuantica
Antía Lamas Linares in Austin, Texas where Amazon Web Services has a technology complex.AWS

Antía Lamas Linares, 47, was born in Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain. There she studied physics before going on to study at Oxford University and in California. Later she ended up in Singapore, leading the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Center for Quantum Networking.

In recent years she has dedicated herself to quantum computing, a field of study that is still in its infancy but promises to deliver unimaginable computational power (see box below).

Question. What is Amazon Web Services (AWS) doing in the race for quantum computing?

Answer. Since 2019, we’ve had a service called Amazon Braket. It allows anyone to submit a program and run it on a quantum computer in the cloud. We’re also building a quantum computer at the Caltech (California Institute of Technology) campus. The latest initiative we have in the area of quantum information is the Boston-based center for quantum networks (the AWS Center for Quantum Networking).

Q. What network are you responsible for at AWS?

A. We’re building the elements that allow quantum computers to be connected, kind of like a repeater to connect them over a long distance, or the quantum memories that are needed in the intermediate components. We develop the necessary hardware and software for when quantum computers will be up and running.

Q. Why is AWS entering this sector?

A. We believe there’s a lot of potential in quantum technology. Amazon always thinks about what’s going to be useful for its customers, even if it’s in the long-term. Computing, networking and other types of quantum technologies are expected to be very important in the future. It’s basically an extension of the processors that do high performance computing, but in certain areas, it’s even more powerful. Quantum networks have immediate security implications and will eventually allow quantum computers to be connected to expand their capacity. Quantum networks will allow us to implement amazing capabilities

Q. Is a quantum internet possible?

A. That’s what we’re hoping for. It will be [possible] when all the capabilities of the quantum network are available. But there are several intermediate stages. The first [consists of] security and cryptography. Later, these networks will allow us to implement amazing capabilities, such as blind quantum computing, which basically [ensures that] no one can see what program you’re running or see the results. In this way, if you’re connected to the quantum computer with a quantum network, you’re able to do the whole operation in a completely private way. But all this has many intermediate steps: we must have a quantum computer capable of doing these computations. At the moment, this doesn’t exist. The [computers] that exist now are very basic; that is, they don’t have many qubits and have a number of errors that don’t allow several operations to be carried out in a row.

Q. What are the [quantum computers] available on AWS being used for?

A. There are several categories of users: a large part are academic researchers testing programs and comparing how they run on an ion-based quantum computer, or on a superconductor-based quantum computer. Then there’s another group made up of researchers in the industry. For example, BMW uses [the computers] to optimize processes for a problem they could solve with supercomputers, but they reduce that problem to a simpler version and explore and learn.

Q. When will there be a robust and error-tolerant quantum computer?

A. We believe that, in 10 years, there will be quantum computers with interesting capabilities, but the possibility of error in that prediction is enormous. We may have a discovery tomorrow and speed it up by five years, or run into a roadblock that slows it down. In parallel, we’re developing the infrastructure to connect [the quantum computers] to each other and to the user. When we have that quantum network, all those capabilities that are now purely theoretical will be enabled.

Q. Will quantum computing ever be accessible without quantum knowledge?

A. Almost certainly, yes. If you think about how classical computing developed, early on, programmers had to understand circuitry. Now, in quantum computing, we’re still in that period – the programmers are often physicists who know what’s behind it. But in a few years, all of that will be just another programming language. It’s still unknown what exactly the impact of quantum computing will be. Not all the possibilities are understood, nor is the effect of the intersection with artificial intelligence. In 1943, the president of IBM, Thomas J. Watson, said that he believed there was a market for five computers in the world. And now, as you can see, we all have a computer in our pocket. Companies like Amazon and others see the quantum potential, although we all recognize that this will be in the long-term.

Q. The technology world is suffering a wave of job cuts. Will this affect the development of quantum computing?

A. Investments in quantum technology are very long-term. That’s not to say that we’re immune to the general macroeconomic situation.

What is quantum computing?

In conventional computing, a bit is the basic unit of information. A bit is binary in that it can only have one of two values: 0 or 1. Combinations of bits can provide computers with extraordinary capabilities, but in quantum computing, the basic unit is the quantum bit, or qubit. It’s a quantum system that can have one of two states (0 and 1), or any superposition of these states. Superposition is the ability of a quantum system to be in multiple states at the same time until it is measured. The use of qubits allows trillions of bit combinations and therefore infinite computing possibilities. According to CSIC researcher Alberto Casas, “A quantum computer of 273 qubits will have more memory than there are atoms in the observable universe.”

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