Google engineering director Hartmut Neven unravels mystery of quantum computing at UC Berkeley talk

Grace Zhang/Staff

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Sporting a silver jacket and shoes as futuristic as the subject matter of his discussion, Hartmut Neven came to UC Berkeley on Tuesday evening to present the quantum computing research he has pioneered as founder and manager of Google’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab.

The event, hosted in Banatao Auditorium by the Berkeley Forum, drew an audience of about 100. Neven began his talk by explaining the advancements in quantum processing that would make it possible for computers to process, simulate and optimize problems exponentially faster in the future.

“It’s made to be more mysterious than it actually is,” Neven said of quantum computing as he began his presentation. “Anyone with a GPA able to get into Berkeley should be able to understand this.”  

To facilitate his audience’s understanding, Neven drew comparisons between theory-heavy topics of quantum computing and more relatable activities. At one point, Neven compared the slowness of traditional search algorithms to the act of trying to find one ball hidden among a million different drawers, noting the potential for quantum search algorithms to speed up the search process significantly.

One of the main challenges that scientists face today, according to Neven, is creating efficient quantum algorithms. One could liken it to spinning a toy Beyblade for 30 seconds before it falls over, Neven said. Because you are limited to computing within that time span, if you need to compute something that takes longer, the Beyblade will simply fall over and the program will error before it is finished.

“I thought he did a really good job of simplifying it,” said Umesh Thillaivasan, a campus graduate student who attended the event. “Not being too reductionist, but trying to simplify it so people who have no exposure to it can get the general overview of what the applications of it are, what the implications of it are and how it works.”

Neven projected a timeline for quantum processing advancements, spanning from now until 2027 and involving a “candy store of algorithms” that could outperform current classical computing algorithms.  

Initially, work on quantum computing would be limited to solving specific benchmark problems, Neven said. Eventually, however, quantum processing could be more widely applied, in the pharmaceutical industry, aircraft industry and other areas. Quantum processing would make it possible for engineers, such as those working on solar cells and electric car batteries at Tesla, to run simulations and test ideas that are impossible to compute with classical computers.

Luca Cosentino, a campus MBA candidate who attended the event, had read about Google’s investment in quantum computing while working at the company, but he had found it difficult to research the topic through publicly available information. Cosentino said before the event that he was excited to hear Neven’s perspective, adding that he hoped Neven would share something more “confidential.

While Neven only briefly touched on the specifics of Google’s undertakings in quantum processing, he mentioned that Microsoft and IBM, Google’s competitors, had invested even larger budgets and teams than Google. Neven also predicted many more quantum computing careers to come with the influx of investments in the industry.

“Just to listen to someone like this right here in the Berkeley campus for free, it’s one of the biggest advantages, to me, of studying here,” said Nathalia Magnocavallo, a campus junior who attended the event.

Contact Alicia Kim at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aliciackim.