Quantum Valley the next frontier

At a recent Google GO NORTH event in Toronto, RIM co-founder, founder of the Perimeter Institute and the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) and head of Quantum Valley Investments in Waterloo Mike Lazaridis said that the Ontario region’s work in quantum computing is focused on building the foundations to “change humanity and build industry.”

GO NORTH is dedicated to helping the startup community connect with government, financial institutions and potential investors, and is focused on supporting young organizations as they explore innovations in machine learning and artificial intelligence. With more than 700 Canadian tech companies in attendance, the GO NORTH event, designed to “celebrate the growth and opportunities in advanced technologies within Canada’s startup ecosystem,” drew a standing room only crowd for its keynote presentations, including Mike Lazaridis’ talk on quantum computing.

RIM co-founder, founder of the Perimeter Institute and the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) and head of Quantum Valley Investments
RIM co-founder, founder of the Perimeter Institute and the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) and head of Quantum Valley Investments

The quantum initiative began in earnest in 1999 with founding of the Perimeter Institute, a leading centre for scientific research, training and educational outreach in foundational theoretical physics. The Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) is a scientific research institute at the University of Waterloo that is harnessing the quantum laws of nature to develop powerful new technologies that will transform IT and drive the 21st century economy.

The goal of these Waterloo-based centres of excellence is to create a globally recognized Quantum Valley that will be the go-to region for investors, technology companies and students interested in application of quantum theory. “We have been doing everything we can to help Canada intercept the next quantum revolution,” Lazaridis said. “There are many that believe that it will have more impact than the first revolution in the silicon industry. This is not about gambling. It’s about strategic investment.”

Lazaridis’ believes there are two essential foundations for future success in such a specialized field: density and focus. “Technology grows on top of that,” he explained.

Waterloo has these attributes built in, he said. “The University of Waterloo is part of a deeply entrepreneurial community that is driven in many ways by the academic discipline and culture. What people don’t realize is that it has the largest math factory in the world. There are 6,000 students in the maths program, whereas a typical university has 250. So there’s this existing focus and density to build on. That gives us the runway to intercept the next quantum revolution.”

Lazaridis speculated that the work done over the last decade is going to start playing out into the next. That patience will now start to pay off, he said. “It’s difficult to catch up in the last inning; it’s easier to win if you get base hits all the way through. We need to punch out of the noise – a term familiar to anyone in signal theory – and pick up something that we’re already good at and increase the density around that choice.”

Canada’s expansive geographic reach and relatively small population means it’s necessary to stay very targeted in the technology areas that industry needs to support, Lazaridis said. “We have to be very choosy in the areas we want to invest in. We can’t be good at everything, but quantum computing is a solid investment area for us.”

The prospects are promising since the Toronto-Waterloo corridor is already houses the second largest startup community in the world next to Silicon Valley, said Steven Woods, senior director of engineering for Google Canada. Woods is a Canadian who returned from a successful career in Silicon Valley to work with the startup and investment communities here.

According to Woods, there are new disciplines bearing fruit in other clusters as well, most notably in Montreal where there is tremendous work being done in deep learning and artificial intelligence, which is getting a lot of visibility with the federal government, he said. “These are huge areas of focus for Google.”

The information and knowledge that comes with deep learning can be applied to every business area – from video to industry. Woods observed: “Deep learning changes what’s possible beyond annotating YouTube videos. There is enormous information that can be extracted and queried. Applications can range from the fun, such as sports evaluations, to the more practical, such as applying machine learning to industrial environments to identify areas of improvement. The machines are now fast enough and the algorithms improved enough to enable real-time translation that is revolutionary. These breakthroughs can apply to every area of industry,”

He cautions that at this stage it would be wrong to ‘over-verticalize’ the potential these technologies can bring. “If a student develops a robot to find micro fractures in a mine, the idea could easily be applied to other industries such as oil and gas. The question is not what the technology is. Rather, it’s what makes a technology relevant.”

Add quantum computing to the equation and the possibilities are limitless, he believes. “Quantum computing makes certain classes of computing – that would have taken the life of the universe to compute in the past – infinitely faster. It’s hard to comprehend the changes that are possible.”

In the meantime, Lazaridis has his own ideas of where investors, students and industry will be turning for their quantum computing needs. “If people are seeking a career in these fields, we want the Perimeter Institute to be at the top of the list. If a physicist or anyone else is interested in Quantum computing, we want them to think of IQC. If we are part of the discussions at the beginning that is the definition of true success. Otherwise you’re just a participant.”