Quantum computers. When you first hear the term, it sounds like something out of science fiction. But quantum computers are very real for Jerry Chow, GRD ’10—he’s spent the last five years working on creating one, and after graduating this past May, he now works at IBM, performing research on quantum computing at the Watson Research Center in New York.
When Chow talks about quantum computing, his passion for the subject shines through. To Chow, as well as many other researchers in the field, quantum computers may be the solution to an important problem in computer science—the potential end of Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors that can be put on a computer chip doubles every 18 months. Moore’s prediction has held since its formulation in 1965, but as processors get increasingly smaller, many worry that there’s a fundamental limit to how small silicon technology can get—a limit that may be reached as soon as 2015 with transistors are presently approaching the 20nm range.
For IBM as well as many other institutions, this is where quantum computers hold special appeal. While normal computers are composed of transistors on integrated circuits, a quantum computer is composed of particles with quantum mechanical properties like electrons with spin, which serve as “quantum bits.” Unlike their classical analogs, which can only encode two states (0 or 1), “qubits” can encode any valid quantum superposition of their two states. Furthermore, qubits can experience a phenomenon known as “quantum entanglement” with each other, which allows the entangled qubits to be operated on simultaneously. These two factors may allow quantum computers to reach levels of efficiency that are impossible for classical computers to achieve in some applications. Until recently, these quantum computers were only theoretical; Chow, however, along with several other members of Rob Schoelkopf’s research team at Yale, have successfully created semiconductor-based quantum computers that have the potential to be scalable.
Growing up in New York, Chow always had an interest in physics and engineering. Chow’s father was a physicist, and science was a common subject in household conversations. Before Chow went to bed, his father would often tell him stories about scientists from the past, like Einstein and Galileo, along with the problems they faced and their eventual solutions. Chow’s interest in scientific research solidified while he was an undergraduate at Harvard, where he worked in Professor Charles Marcus’ lab as a student researcher. Chow said that his time in Marcus’ lab was “very rewarding and helpful,” giving him a “very good idea about what different groups were working on in the field.” After graduating with an A.B. in Physics, Chow was accepted into Schoelkopf’s research group at Yale, where he finished his doctorate degree in 2010.
When Chow thinks about his time at Yale, he has only positive things to say, calling the work environment “amazing.” In addition to playing on the physics graduate student softball team, Chow can also share stories about impromptu Wiffle Ball games behind Becton and epic Halo matches in Davies Auditorium. But most of all, Chow appreciated the people that he worked with, citing the strong culture of mutual cooperation and teamwork as an important reason in his choice to come to Yale—an element that he also sought when he looked at post-graduation options. Now, at IBM, Chow notes that he enjoys the close-knit work environment, even though he has to jump through more managerial hoops than he had to at Yale. Chow is planning to stay at IBM, but he hasn’t closed the door to going back into academia later in life. Whatever the future brings, the passionate and capable researcher says that he is happy studying the fascinating world of quantum computing, and “mak[ing] a contribution to science.”