It’s a quantum world, and we just live in it.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Faisal Shah Khan, Co-Founder & Chief Advisor to Dark Star Quantum Lab. Dark Star is a company focused on R&D quantum technology for the Defense/Space Industry.
- You don’t have to get involved with formal schooling to be in the quantum tech space. Just find a particular niche you’re interested in and use the resources online to become adept in that arena.
- Having said #1, if the opportunity to get formal schooling presents itself, jump at it! There is nothing better than formal scientific training to become a critical and analytical thinker.
- If you want to solve hard problems with complex technology, find a way to make it fun.
- Ant-Man can be explained with the mathematical model of Nash Embedding.
“It’s a quantum world.”
Can you tell me a brief history of how you got involved in quantum computing?
The year was 1998, I had just finished my undergraduate degree, and moved from Santa Clara, California to Portland, Oregon, to start my master’s degree in mathematics. I came across a scientific magazine, about quantum computing. This idea of quantum computing has been around for a while, going as far back as the 1980s. Richard Feynman is typically credited with popularizing the notion of applying or viewing quantum mechanics as computational science.
This article proposed how one would build a quantum bus, a way to transfer data between different components of a quantum computer. I was hooked! I figured I’ll keep an eye on this emerging area of quantum as I worked on my degree. After I received my degree in mathematics, I went away to do some work in the real world till I came back to get a Ph.D. in 2004, again, in mathematical sciences. I decided to focus on quantum computing because by that time there was enough expertise with people willing to contribute.
During my Ph.D. in mathematical sciences, I studied applications of quantum information to Game Theory, the mathematical science of strategic thinking. I had an allied area advisor at Portland State who was an electrical engineer. So I got exposure to the hardware side of quantum computing. After completing my Ph.D., I worked in the area of quantum logic circuit design. Using “quantum” game theory to optimize these designs and fault-tolerant quantum hardware architecture design.
How did you come to be the Co-Founder and Chief Adviser for Dark Star Quantum Labs?
Before I joined Dark Star, I was an academic for 10 years in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. I was faculty in the Mathematics Department while being a Principal Investigator with the Center on Cyber-Physical Systems (C2PS)of Khalifa University. I set up the Quantum Computing Research Group(QCRG) where had projects relating to theoretical quantum computing. Practical implementations of quantum communication protocols, the art of transferring a quantum state from one place to another.
A project we worked on was the initiation of a quantum communication backbone for the UAE. An exciting practical result of this project was the set up of an internal, quantum-secured network that we called “kammiya”, which means “quantum” in Arabic. This network used random numbers sourced from a quantum system to encrypt data that left no patterns for a hacker to reverse engineer the encryption key from.
Once that tenure ended, I came back to the US. During this time, I was talking to David Wilkinson & Dave D’Silva, the two co-founders of Dark Star Quantum Lab. We agreed that I would make a good contribution to the product roadmap development, so I became the Chief Scientific Adviser.
What products is Dark Star building/offering?
One of our initial offerings is for the security domain, particularly as a security layer to protect against zero-day threats. Zero-day threats are when malicious parties figure out security flaws in an application that both the vendor and the user are unaware of. One of our initial product offerings is a quantum-secured mobile phone, Sentinel™, using “quantum chips”. A quantum random number generation technology on a chip, that can serve multiple user domains. Like what Samsung is offering in South Korea, the Samsung Galaxy A Quantum. But, our offering comes with features that make it desirable for mission-critical scenarios such as those required by the military.
In the FinTech sector, we offer a suite of solutions attached to Sentinel™:
- High-frequency trading (HFT) on the Qloud™ (quantum cloud).
- Qoin™ (pronounced “coin”), our planned quantum-secured cryptocurrency, the convergence of quantum tech & cryptocurrency. It allows for quantum securing for any blockchain or associated cryptocurrency. Qoin provides a hybrid classical-quantum enhanced solution to the problem of cryptocurrency security (cross-reference: Hacker Steals $2.8 Million from Cryptocurrency ‘Vault’ Despite ‘Unhackable’ Blockchain Security).
- BloQchain™ (pronounced “blockchain”), a quantum-secured blockchain to work with Qoin. When the internet is quantum-enabled in the near future, Qoin will be upgradable from a classical-quantum hybrid to a Quantum-to-Quantum asset, upgrading the underlying blockchain to BloQchain. A quantum database with entanglement generated correlations between data blocks that are stronger than possible in the conventional blockchain.
How do these quantum chips differ from the ones they manufacture at Intel?
Typically, when one hears “quantum tech”, they think of beautiful, expensive, chandelier-looking quantum computers. With a quantum processor (chip) functioning at temperatures close to absolute zero.
There is another aspect of quantum technology that does not require such expensive cooling to function. More mature and accessible than quantum processors, that hasn’t caught the popular imagination in North America yet. Pure randomness sourced from a quantum system. This aspect of quantum tech forms the backbone of quantum communication protocols.
Quantum randomness has been studied extensively, part of what is called quantum optics. It deals with photons as the source of quantum randomness, which can be implemented on chips. These chips differ from those built at Intel for computing because they control quantum features pertinent to generating pure randomness.
What does this have to do with the quantum communication system in China?
Chinese scientists are doing great scientific work in the area of quantum communications, with special emphasis on Quantum key distribution (QKD). QKD is the quantum communication protocol that allows distant parties to exchange encryption keys. As early entrants in the quantum communication tech game, they can set the rules.
Where did you believe this all started for China?
I was at a conference last year before the pandemic started. There was some discussion on how the Chinese quantum program advanced so quickly. One of the senior participants quoted a leading Chinese quantum scientist, who stated that “it was well understood in China that the Americans were intercepting, breaking, and reading messages the Chinese were sending.” The majority of the tech the Chinese used was made in the West. This motivated the Chinese to emphasize the development of an indigenous quantum communication program that would give the country a competitive edge.
I read somewhere that they predict by 2024 China will have an unhackable internet running in Beijing. Why aren’t other countries talking about doing the same?
It’s all about competition. One could argue that certain political systems have certain advantages versus others, but I believe it’s the market forces. If we believe in market forces, per se capitalism, we should be willing to compete. I think what’s happening is that there might be some loss of competitive edge at the moment in the USA and the West in general. I don’t think it’s a complete disaster, and we just have to get back to competing, that’s all it is.
It starts with the idea of building a quantum ecosystem. People who want to build a company in the quantum industry versus the umpteenth Instagram.
How can you encourage more investors to want to finance companies competing in this space so we can see a larger quantum ecosystem?
It’s all about having fun to keep people motivated. If you look at the personal computing revolution of the late 70s and 80s. Most of it came about from people trying things, right. Not because there was a market already out there, but because they were saying “I’m going to produce not only the product but also a market for it”. It was about trying things with what’s already in the market, putting things together in a “garage” creatively, and seeing what happens. Remarkable things were built. That’s what Dark Star is about, we call it the “quantum garage” model.
How can having fun lead to solving real-world problems?
A fun exercise could be understanding the interconnectivity of variables, like photosynthesis. The interconnectivity of how a photon that lands on a molecule of chlorophyll allow plants to produce food from solar energy. The most efficient form of solar energy harvesting known, 15% to 20% more efficient than the best-performing made-made solar cells.
Well, it turns out that photosynthesis uses quantum mechanical features (reference: Plants Perform Quantum Computation). Now, I want to know how 2 variables (and others) in photosynthesis interconnect, as a quantum circuit. This gives a computational flavor to photosynthesis processes that can be simulated on a quantum computer for better understanding. With that information, we can emulate a highly efficient artificial solar battery to solve a real-world problem.
This is something Dark Star is working on, what we refer to as the Philosopher’s Stone™.
Is this Philosopher stone synonymous with the stone of immortality?
Nothing so dramatic. But there is a connection to the mythical Pars stone of immortality that could turn lead to gold. In this sense of transmuting a baser element into another precious one, we are looking to study molecular dynamics as quantum computations and understand the molecular constitution of things to address questions like how one can optimize food production. Genetic engineering of food dates back to the green revolution in the 1960s. Everything in this area that was happening then and is happening now is of course great, but to take it further we need to understand how energy regimes behave at the molecular level. For then, one can potentially produce net energy from baser food just as the lead was turned to gold by the Pars stone.
What’s a good use case for the Philosopher’s stone?
We could use it to understand how to “quantum compute the salt out of seawater”. The idea is that as the human population grows, freshwater sources would be strained, and you’re going to need to desalinate seawater to make freshwater. This is environmentally sustainable as we have a lot of seawater. Desalination is a good solution for the future, but it’s a very expensive process. Not a lot of countries can afford it. Countries in the Middle East, like the oil-rich Gulf countries, run on desalination to a great extent, and they can afford it. But we need to make it more optimized at the molecular level and more affordable. To this end, we need to understand:
- What happens at the quantum level to the molecules of salt and water?
- What’s the minimum energy needed to separate these two molecules?
Rather than burning fossil fuels to separate salt and water by extensive boiling. Very expensive and carbon unfriendly process. Instead, it can be accomplished by building a quantum circuit or process to figure out the minimum energy needed for the separation. Then you begin to engineer that process to physically implement the results.
In the past, you’ve stated that we are in the first generation of Noisy Intermediate Scale Quantum (NISQ). Is Dark Star or any other quantum tech companies trying to build the next generation of NISQ processors?
That’s actually the proverbial holy grail in the industry. How do you take your NISQ devices and make them not just nice, but great? Right now there is a lot of “scientific noise”, in the sense that performance benchmarks are not well defined. It’s a fundamental problem that requires a lot of support. Not just from the industry, but even academics and scientific labs are actively working on this problem.
At Dark Star, we take a top-down approach to improve NISQ devices into the next generation of quantum processors. A mathematical approach rather than the usual bottom-up engineering approach. Experimental physicists tend to favor what they’re familiar with. We take the top-down approach where we seek to first establish the existence of a process that allows for traversing the classical-quantum divide smoothly, that is, with minimum or no noise! There are several statistical methods for this, but they are not exact. My favorite is the mathematically exact method of Nash Embedding developed by Noble laureate John Nash in 1954.
What would a product using Nash Embedding as the center model look like in real life?
We can understand Nash Embedding through Ant-Man.
If NISQ devices can’t perform properly, then how is it that Ant-Man from the classical world, the world we see, can enter the quantum world and exit back from it, so easily?
Answer: He must be implementing Nash Embedding to do this. A process that eliminates noise, the geometric distortion while traversing the classical-quantum divide.
By geometric distortion, I mean the classical world we live in has a different kind of geometry as compared to the quantum world. The two geometries are not immediately compatible, but Nash embedding makes them so. Nash Embedding could create an algorithm that could explain how Ant-Man goes from classical (big) to quantum(really small) and back.
In practicality, if you have a way to actually manufacture fault-tolerant qubits, NISQ devices can be replaced with devices that are resistant to noise. Not that you’re putting some kind of error-correcting redundancy to compensate for the noise. Instead, a qubit’s fragile quantum state is made immune to the noise. But the fundamental noisy process of quantum measurement still remains a fashionable way to traverse the classical-quantum divide.
Scientists attempt to do what is called quantum state or process tomography, to study the result of many measurements of a qubit and try to see what information this gives about the quantum state of the qubit. This gives a statistical measure of the quantum state of the qubit before measurement. Nash Embedding can provide valuable, more accurate information in this matter.
Could Nash Embedding be a solution to quantum teleportation?
Teleportation is the ability to transmit the informational content of one qubit to another. It has to be achieved within the constraints of the “no-cloning” and “no-deleting” theorems. This put limits on the exact copying of the quantum state of a qubit, which can erase the quantum state of a qubit.
If you are referring to the “solution” as being able to bypass the constraints of the no-cloning and no-deletion theorem using Nash embedding? I just don’t know! I would doubt it, but if this was possible, that would be quite a result!
For the average non-technical person, interested in the industry where should they start?
If you’re in school, try to figure out how to take more quantum mechanics courses.
If you’re not in school, there are a lot of resources. MIT has some really good online courses that are free. You can learn about Shor’s Algorithm through his online class. IBM has done some good work with respect to its efforts to get universities to adopt Qiskit, its programming library for quantum simulations.
My concern is that people get the wrong idea by thinking that once they get a certificate like for Qiskit, they’re “quantum qualified”. This is simply not the case given the expanse of quantum science and engineering. Nonetheless, it’s a good effort and I see a lot of youngsters getting into this, from high school students to undergraduates, especially in India. My Middle East and South Asia Meetup group is always hosting events to learn about this stuff. I think it’s important to get a community going that includes novice enthusiasts, and established scientists with credentials in quantum information science.
Or check out my first ever Deep Tech Dive on Quantum Computing here.
I understand that innovation is growing exponentially, but I am worried it takes too long for organizations to accept frontier technology. I aim to demystify the complexity of cutting-edge technologies for the average non-technical person. That is why I encourage entrepreneurship while exhibiting my excitement for the acceleration of technology, in hopes that you may feel empowered to engage with the future.
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