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Exploring quantum computing for high-energy physics

30 November 2018

The ambitious upgrade programme for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will result in significant information and communications technology (ICT) challenges over the next decade and beyond. It is therefore vital that members of the HEP research community keep looking for innovative computing technologies so as to continue to maximise the discovery potential of the world-leading research infrastructures at their disposal (CERN Courier November 2018 p5).

On 5–6 November, CERN hosted a first-of-its kind workshop on quantum computing in high-energy physics (HEP). The event was organised by CERN openlab, a public–private partnership between CERN and leading ICT companies established to accelerate the development of computing technologies needed by the LHC research community.

More than 400 people followed the workshop, which provided an overview of the current state of quantum-computing technologies. The event also served as a forum to discuss which activities within the HEP community may be amenable to the application of quantum-computing technologies.

“In CERN openlab, we’re always looking with keen interest at new computing architectures and trying to understand their potential for disrupting and improving the way we do things,” says Alberto Di Meglio, head of CERN openlab. “We want to understand which computing workflows from HEP could potentially most benefit from nascent quantum-computing technologies; this workshop was the start of the discussion.”

Significant developments are being made in the field of quantum computing, even if today’s quantum-computing hardware has not yet reached the level at which it could be put into production. Nevertheless, quantum-computing technologies are among those that hold future promise of substantially speeding up tasks that are computationally expensive.

“Quantum computing is no panacea, and will certainly not solve all the future computing needs of the HEP community,” says Eckhard Elsen, CERN’s director for research and computing. “Nevertheless, quantum computers are starting to be available; a breakthrough in the number of qubits could emerge at any time. Fundamentally rethinking our algorithms may appear as an interesting intellectual challenge today, yet may turn out as a major benefit in addressing computing challenges in the future.”

The workshop featured representatives of the LHC experiments, who spoke about how computing challenges are likely to evolve as we approach the era of the High-Luminosity LHC. There was also discussion of work already undertaken to assess the feasibility of applying today’s quantum-computing technologies to problems in HEP. Jean-Roch Vlimant provided an overview of their recent work at the California Institute of Technology, with collaborators from the University of Southern California, to solve an optimisation problem related to the search for Higgs bosons. Using an approach known as quantum annealing for machine learning, the team demonstrated some advantage over traditional machine-learning methods for small training datasets. Given the relative simplicity of the algorithm and its robustness to error, they report, this technique may find application in other areas of experimental particle physics, such as real-time decision making in event-selection problems and classification in neutrino physics.

Several large-scale research initiatives related to quantum-computing technologies were presented at the event, including the European Union’s €1 billion Quantum Technologies Flagship project, which involves universities and commercial partners across Europe. Presentations were also given of ambitious programmes in the US, such as the Northeast Quantum Systems Center at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Quantum Science Program at Fermilab, which includes research areas in superconducting quantum systems, quantum algorithms for HEP, and computational problems and theory.

Perhaps most importantly, the workshop brought members of the HEP community together with leading companies working on quantum-computing technologies. Intel, IBM, Strangeworks, D-Wave, Microsoft, Rigetti and Google all presented their latest work in this area at the event. Of these companies, Intel and IBM are already working closely with CERN through CERN openlab. Plus, Google also announced at the event that they have signed an agreement to join CERN openlab.

“Now is the right time for the HEP community to get involved and engage with different quantum-computing initiatives already underway, fostering common activities and knowledge sharing,” says Federico Carminati, CERN openlab CIO and chair of the event. “With its well-established links across many of the world’s leading ICT companies, CERN openlab is ideally positioned to help drive this activity forward. We believe this first event was a great success and look forward to organising future activities in this exciting area.”

Recordings of the talks given at the workshop are available via the CERN openlab website at: openlab.cern.

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