California Polytechnic State University undergraduates Alexander Knapen and Nayana Tiwari and graduate student Julian Rice had never programmed on quantum computers before. But after 50 hours at 2022 MIT Interdisciplinary Quantum Hackathon, they had built an online quantum chat server that encrypts messages using quantum algorithms.
Knapen, Tiwari, and Rice had worked tirelessly on the chat server over an adrenaline-pumping weekend at the third annual iQuHACK (pronounced “i-quack,” like the duck in the hackathon’s logo). At iQuHACK, 400 people from 57 countries came together virtually to design and build quantum computing projects from the ground up. Participants had the chance to code on real quantum computers, a highlight of the hackathon because so few are available today. In particular, hackers had free access to IonQ’s quantum computer (through Microsoft’s Azure Quantum service) and QuTech’s Quantum Inspire platform.
“Today you can [easily] create an app [for phones or normal computers] and put it on the App Store. We’re not there yet for quantum computing, but events like this hackathon are starting to “think about greater accessibility to quantum computing applications,” says Matthew Keesan, vice president of development at IonQ.
While all iQuHACK attendees had access to quantum computers, they came to the hackathon with varying levels of experience. Some hackers arrived with experience programming quantum computers – computers that use quantum mechanics to solve problems too difficult for normal “classic” computers, with applications such as stronger encryption methods for messaging more secure and complex molecular simulation for faster drug development – but others, like Knapen, Tiwari and Rice, had to learn on the fly. Knowing this, the chair of the hackathon, MIT post-doc Carlos Errando Herranz, sought to make learning as easy as possible, allowing everyone to bring their ideas to life. “We wanted people to learn first-hand that coding on quantum computers isn’t as difficult as it seems,” he says.
This year’s iQuHACK was organized by the MIT’s Interdisciplinary Quantum Information Science and Engineering (iQuISE) Program, a student-led group of MIT graduate and postdoctoral students. The iQuHACK organizing committee consisted of Carlos Errando Herranz, Shantanu Jha, Jawaher Almutlaq, Shoumik Chowdhury, Hamza Raniwala, Maddie Sutula, Eric Bersin and Michael Walsh.
The first day of iQuHACK allowed participants to learn about the inner workings of quantum computing. Hackers could attend tutorials on using the IonQ/Microsoft and Quantum Inspire platforms and also visit during “office hours” for assistance in setting up the necessary software tools. Later, when the hackathon was in full swing, participants could seek advice on their projects from experienced quantum computing professionals from industry and academia, who served as hackathon mentors. “The most daunting thing is getting something to work,” Knapen says of the online quantum chat server, “But once we had an idea of what we wanted to do, it was pretty easy to write the code and make it work.”
The chat server project, called Keytanglement, ran on the Quantum Inspire platform, the first publicly available quantum computing platform in Europe. “We can actually see it working live” on the platform, says Quantum Inspire system architect Richard Versluis. “When you go to their website and run on your phone what they did, you see the [chat server’s encryption] ‘work’ submitted, [the Quantum Inspire] run the [encryption] algorithms, then [the results] back to the web server.
Hackers with more experience in quantum computing have also taken advantage of their access to quantum computers. A team of five undergraduate students from Yale University spent the weekend digging into the intricate details of how quantum computers implement quantum code. In “the development of quantum hardware, looking at how various [operations] can be implemented is such an active field of study,” says Alex Deters, one of the Yale University team members. Often a direct translation between quantum code and hardware is not possible, leading to errors in the results. These error rates depend on the specific hardware used.
“Knowing that we were going to work with [quantum computers, we thought] it would be nice to compare the hardware[‘s error rates]says Deters. To do this, the team built a benchmarking tool, “reminiscent of standard computing tools”, which can provide the error rates for any quantum computer and help find the most accurate quantum algorithms for the specific material. The tool, called Quantum RX, ran successfully on the Quantum Inspire platform and provided “very valuable” feedback, Versluis said.
Although a virtual event, iQuHACK has created a strong sense of community, bringing together quantum computing enthusiasts from all over the world. Many hackers have capitalized on the virtual format, forming teams with members scattered across multiple countries. Frederik Hardervig, an undergrad studying in Germany this semester, had participated in iQuHACK last year as an individual team and was extremely eager to put together a multi-person team this year.
“As soon as I saw [participants] Tomasz [Kazulak] and Danai [Bili] write in the ‘search-for-a-team’ [Slack channel] and say they were from Europe, I wrote to them and said ‘can we team up please?’” Hardervig said. At the time, Kazulak was in Poland and Bili in England. The three then completed their team with two other members, Caspian Chahrom, who was in Switzerland, and Sneha Shakya, who was in the United States. “It was cool to meet people from all over the world doing the same thing,” says Chahrom.
Together, the five newly known hackers collaborated remotely and created a new Tetris game on the IonQ/Microsoft platform. The game, called QuanTris, works similar to Tetris, but with a quantum twist – falling blocks are governed by the rules of quantum mechanics. Using QuanTris, hackers hoped to teach gamers the concepts of quantum computing in a fun way.
With 75 projects under construction during the hackathon, the IonQ/Microsoft and Quantum Inspire platforms were widely used. Both platforms included quantum computers as well as quantum simulators, where people could test their code or play with ideas that required more computing power than the hardware could currently provide. For the IonQ/Microsoft platform, which made a quantum computer available, “the demand was incredible,” says Keesan. “We ran something like 50,000 simulations and 1,000 quantum programs during the hackathon.” For the Quantum Inspire platform, two quantum computers were available, each using a different quantum technology. “All of our systems continued to function throughout the weekend,” says Versluis, even with “dozens of people accessing the system at the same time.”
In addition to working on their hackathon projects, participants were able to attend talks from quantum computing experts to get a broader view of the field today. Professor Mikhail Lukin from Harvard University gave the keynote address for iQuHACK 2022, providing background and technical insights into quantum computing. Professor Paola Capellaro from MIT then kicked off the hacking portion of iQuHACK with opening remarks on future directions for quantum computing applications. Industry experts also gave a series of technical talks, presenting updates on their companies’ efforts in quantum computing. “I learned a lot about the current state of the art and [where] the field is moving,” says Hieu Dinh, an undergraduate student at MIT. (Dinh was part of a team of MIT undergraduates who built a quantum version of Tic Tac Toe, called Qic Qac Qoe, during the hackathon.)
iQuHACK 2022 quantum computing tutorials, lectures and other resources, including projects from this year’s and last year’s participants, are publicly available on the hackathon. Twitch streaming channel and website. As Errando Herranz completes his term as president of iQuHACK, he encourages anyone interested in quantum computing to use these resources to “start learning now,” especially if they want to participate in the hackathon next year.
“With quantum, when you learn in the classroom, everything is handed to you. This hackathon is the first time we have been able to generate an idea and implement it,” says Tiwari of the Keytanglement project. “I’m excited to take this [experience] and keep working on projects [in quantum computing].”
In addition to the three main platform sponsors, IonQ, Microsoft and QuTech, the hackathon was sponsored by Google Quantum AI, IBM Q, HRL Laboratories, Zapata Computing, Zurich Instruments, QuEra Computing Inc., qBraid, MIT, the laboratory of Electronics at MIT, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at MIT, and the Center for Quantum Engineering at MIT.