Get Reworked Podcast: Closing the Quantum Skills Gap
Applications of quantum computing in the workplace may still sound like a theoretical future, but the need for workers capable of working with quantum is immediate and real.
In this episode of Get Reworked, we talk to Bradley Holt, program director of workforce development at IBM Quantum, about what the company is doing to close the quantum skills gap and why it's focused on getting younger generations interested in quantum computing now.
Listen: Get Reworked Full Episode List
"There are an estimated 27 million classical software developers in the world today," Bradley said. "So that's a very, very different workforce, right, 3,000 people actually applying their skills in the field of quantum compared to say, 27 million classical developers. So we're getting there .... I don't think we need to go and really trained tens of millions of quantum developers overnight. But over the next decade or two, we're likely going to see a really significant increase in demand for quantum developers."
Highlights of the conversation include:
- How to get started exploring quantum in your organization.
- Whether widespread access to quantum computers is realistic in the near-term.
- How colleges are responding to the demand for quantum skills.
- The different roles preparing for the quantum future.
- Why policymakers should be part of the learning cohort.
Plus, co-hosts Kate Cox and Siobhan Fagan talk with Bradley about his quantum computing pitch for an 8-year-old, why IBM is partnering with HBCUs on quantum education and quantum scientists' popular pet names. Listen in for more.
Have a suggestion, comment or topic for a future episode? Drop us a line at [email protected].
- Bradley on LinkedIn
- IBM quantum computing explainer
- IBM work on NIST quantum-safe cryptography standards
Note: This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.
Bradley Holt: I really recommend starting with a small team really focused on this and really trying to understand what the impact is going to be to your business and what the use cases could be within your business and really growing it out from that small team.
I think it's really important to start from that solid foundation and it's really going to depend on the company and on the use cases and from there who you want to bring in.
Kate Cox: You've just heard from Bradley Holt with IBM Quantum, quantum computing is supposed to be the next great leap forward in everything, but is your workplace ready? I'm Kate Cox, new to Reworked; I am not Siobhan Fagan.
Siobhan Fagan: And I am Siobhan Fagan. Bradley Holt is the program director of workforce development at IBM Quantum. We brought him here today to talk a little bit about the initiatives that IBM is leading around the world to train the next generation of workers in quantum computing.
So I think it's time to jump in. Kate, are you ready?
Kate: Let's do it.
Siobhan: Let's Get Reworked.
Welcome to the podcast, Bradley.
Bradley: Thanks for having me here.
Closing the Quantum Computing Skills Gap
Siobhan: So we brought you here today to talk about a skills gap that you are actively working on closing, and that is with quantum computing.
Before we jump into the work that you're doing, I hoped that you could kind of set the stage a little bit and set up a timeline of how far away we are from basically seeing quantum computing reaching more companies than the few that are working with it now.
Bradley: The good news is that we actually already have access to quantum computers today, we actually here at IBM have the world's largest and most powerful fleet of quantum computers with over 20 systems deployed worldwide. And anyone could actually access those quantum computers today through the cloud to run experiments to learn, we actually have over 250, IBM Quantum network members who have access to you in more advanced systems. And these members are conducting important research using these quantum computers. And we also have a community of over 4 million learners who have used our Open Access quantum systems to build their skills and really get themselves ready for the quantum workforce.
We've actually, all these users combined over the last seven years that we've had access to these systems available have executed over one and a half trillion circuits on these IBM quantum systems. So now, again, these are people conducting research, and really working to drive forward new discoveries and advancements in the field of quantum.
Siobhan: Awesome. So honestly, the 4 million number kind of surprised me, because when I'm hearing skills gap, I'm thinking there's a handful of people who know quantum computing, and they're sort of parsing out this little bit of information. How many people do you have? Who are actually teaching these courses? And then where are these 4 million people who are working at it in their journeys to learn?
Bradley: Many of those people are students. So these are people that are still early in their careers, and they're at various stages of their learning paths, they might not be all them, necessarily ready for the quantum workforce today, but they're on the path and building their skills and filling useful skills that may be valuable in the field of quantum, but also valuable in other domains as well.
Kate: I'm a little curious, actually. So you say they're mostly students or researchers, are you finding that academics are really the ones who are diving in right now? Or are their early career folks in other industries who are really diving in right now, too?
Bradley: So I would say that right now, our estimate, or least some industry experts within IBM, estimate around 3,000 skilled quantum workers today. So folks that are actually applying their skills and using those skills in the industry.
So you know, really, if we compare that to, let's say, the, what we call classical software developers, so we use the term classical to talk about how computers work today versus how quantum computers work, which is very different. But if we look at those classical developers, there are estimated 27 million classical software developers in the world today. So that's a very, very different workforce, right, 3,000 people actually applying their skills using their skills in the field of quantum compared to say, 27 million classical developers. So we're getting there. But you know, there's still a lot in front of us.
And again, I don't think we need to go and really trained tens of millions of quantum developers overnight. But over the next decade or two, we're likely going to see a really significant increase in demand for quantum developers. Potentially, at some point growing to that same scale as classical developers. But at a minimum, we're probably looking at a quantum developer population that needs to be at least doubled or or quadrupled in the not too distant future.
So really, what's in front of us right now is how do we harness all this interest and folks that are starting to build their skills and actually get them ready for the quantum workforce and then get them into that quantum workforce.
Kate: And are you finding that universities and the places where the students are coming from are really interested in getting that into their ground-level training curriculum, like are the next generation of Comp/Sci majors going to know some of this when they hit the workforce?
Bradley: I think so. I think we saw we keep hearing about a few new degree programs here and there were there. are some schools adding, say, a master's program in various quantum technology, so we're definitely seeing interest from from academic institutions and building this into their curriculum and in making sure this is something that at least students have some exposure to, if not, in some cases, entire degrees focused around, around quantum specifically.
Quantum Computing Is Cool, but Is It for Me?
Siobhan: Bradley, I'm curious when you talk about this demand, and I think part of it is my own limited understanding of the potential of quantum computing, and the implications for the broader workforce, broader businesses and world in general. Will there be any businesses that really don't have to worry about this? Are there going to be any kind of verticals where they're just like, oh, quantum computing that's cool, but not for me?
Bradley: Yeah, that's a really good question. So again, we're still in the early stages of quantum computing. And the problem areas that we're really focused on exploring today range from what we call natural science, so that includes things like chemistry, to, of course, artificial intelligence, optimization, finance. So you know, these problem areas can include very specific problems, such as drug discovery, better battery chemistry, financial modeling, and of course, improving how AI models work.
So the way we look at this is that quantum advantage isn't going to be some singular moment, but rather a series of new and exciting discovery, likely in those specific areas to start.
So one thing that I really want to point out here is that these initial discoveries are going to be made by those who are taking part in the journey of exploring quantum use cases. So we actually recently formed a set of working groups, each aimed at advancing quantum computational science in their respective domains. So right now we have working groups on high-energy physics, high-performance computing, finance and healthcare life sciences. So we actually have a very ambitious roadmap to bring useful quantum computing to the world. But we aren't going to do it alone. And I'm really excited to see what discoveries come out of those work groups.
And so again, we're early on, but I do think that it's really hard to speculate where things will take us. But it's hard to imagine that this will eventually have an impact across many, many different industries.
Is Quantum Computing for End Users or Specialists Only Right Now?
Kate: That sort of gets me to something I was thinking too actually, which we talked about developers and how you've got 4 million people who are sort of engaging with the tools right now. But this strikes me as something like everything else we've done with computers, that's going to look really different for most end users versus the people who are developing the platforms and software, right, the current thing with ChatGPT right now, and all of that is that pretty much anybody can open up a browser window and get output, you know, they don't have to run the machine learning model.
So are you hoping that there will be tools developed in the comparatively near-term that will let end users actually do stuff? Or is this going to be in the realm of specialists for a while?
Bradley: You know, again, really hard to speculate exactly how fast we move this forward. But I do think in the near term, we are looking at people with very specific skills, people that are have taken the time to go learn how quantum computing works. So I do you think at least in the near term, we're looking at, you know, these specialized, especially quantum software developers? But yeah, no, I think that's a great question. And I don't know, when we actually reached that point of like, this is something that, you know, the average person can go and touch and use.
But I will say that, if you're a developer today, this is accessible to you, right? You can go take and use Python, which is a very common programming language and open up Qiskit, which is our open source quantum computing framework. And you can go and execute quantum circuits in the cloud today. Right? So this is like, if you have at least some amount of development experience or software developer experience or some related experience, this is accessible to you today.
But as far as your analogy about, like the average person being able to go do this, you know, maybe a little bit longer.
Quantum Computing Roles
Siobhan: You've touched on this a little bit. You've talked about how it's not necessarily that you need to develop a huge legion of quantum computing specific developers, can you talk about the different roles that you are actually training people for and where these roles would sit within organizations?
Bradley: Absolutely. So we actually have at IBM called the it's called the IBM Quantum accelerator. And this is a service that we provide where we help enterprises skill rescale and upskill their existing workforce on quantum so that they can actually build their quantum teams from the ground up. So here, we're focused on a number of different roles and specific places where where people can start.
So some examples are really research scientist who can start learning how to combine bits, neurons and qubits. So bits, of course, we're talking about classical computing, powerful supercomputers, neurons, we're talking about AI, artificial intelligence qubits, of course, we're talking about quantum computing. So how to actually combine all those together in the form of quantum AI and hybrid cloud to accelerate the rate of scientific discovery.
Research scientists, of course, are one place but again, that's not necessarily a huge group. But beyond that, applications, researchers, those are folks that were training to explore how quantum algorithms could provide an advantage within their industries and within, in specific use cases, for their companies. Then even consultants, analysts and other industry experts who can participate in exploring the use cases of quantum within their respective industries.
And I think even beyond that, like policymakers, business leaders, they can at least learn the fundamentals of quantum in order to better understand the impacts of the technology on the world and their particular sectors.
And of course, even beyond that last, is really focused on and this is a really important one is security researchers, and for them that what they can begin to do is prepare for cybersecurity in the quantum computing era, through quantum safe cryptography. This is an important one, because quantum computing has the potential at some point in the future to break today's existing cryptography protocols.
Policymaker Involvement to Be Determined
Siobhan: So the security response actually answered part of my next question, which I think is inevitable in any conversation about quantum computing. That's one of the big specters that loom every time we talk about the power of these things, but I love that you brought up policymakers. And I'm wondering if you are, or if you can speak to if you're actively training any policymakers. I mean, obviously, we had the trip of Joe Biden up to Poughkeepsie, he saw the beautiful, I always think of them as chandeliers, it's like a steampunk chandelier, but he saw the the quantum computers up in the IBM facility. Have you had any outreach from actual policymakers who are in office now to learn more?
Bradley: I don't really have any specific training of policymakers, again, other than speaking to our quantum accelerator where we do train a wide range of folks at companies, so there are various skills, and folks that are trained through that.
But, you know, I was talking about the quantum safe cryptography. And we actually have submitted many of the quantum safe algorithms that you're seeing incorporated by NIST. This is the standards body that's recently published a draft standards for quantum safe cryptography. We've actually submitted many of, IBM has submitted many of those quantum safe cryptography protocols.
Siobhan: So Bradley, say I am an organization, I am a bank, and I am worried about these kinds of questions. I'm thinking that I need to prepare my workforce for this inevitability. But I don't have anybody in my workplace who is specifically focused on quantum computing, A) I can look at the developers but what other areas in my workplace should I be looking at? Should I be potentially getting some of my lawyers involved? Should I be getting, I'm just wondering what the different roles are that I would be pulling from to start getting training?
Bradley: I really recommend starting with a small team really focused on this and really trying to understand what the impact is going to be to your business and what the use cases could be within your business and really growing it out from that small team. I think it's really important to start from that solid foundation. And it's really going to depend on the company and on the use cases, and from there of who you want to bring in.
Siobhan: But I mean, if we're talking about specific departments, or you're saying again, that this depends on what kind of company you're running?
Bradley: Again, I think it's gonna depend on the specific use cases, right? So I like what you discover it because again, we're so early in this, it's really this is a journey of discovery that we have to work on together as of you know, industry as a world. And I think that, each working on that and figuring that out what those implications are for your company, I think we really need to need to start there before you can really assess it and decide who else needs to be brought in.
Siobhan: No, that absolutely makes sense.
I want to touch a little bit on non-developer skills in the quantum realm. And I'm curious if in the curriculum that you're teaching and the curriculum that you're encouraging your partners to teach, etc, if there is any other skills that are taught, and I guess I'm specifically wondering about ethics, and questions of ethics and the implications of that with quantum computing?
Bradley: We're really in these early days of quantum computing, and I don't think we're at the point where we can speculate on like, specific implications on impact of this. But if you look at IBM in our history, we really have been a pioneer in AI ethics and advancing responsible AI. So I would say, to really watch this space as we advanced quantum computing, and begin to make important discoveries.
But again, I think that important place to start with companies with policymakers is looking at quantum safe cryptography, and really how, because that's a very practical starting point.
Risks vs. Benefits of Quantum Computing
Kate: This makes me curious actually, what you think are the risks, you've been very clear that there are benefits to quantum computing, right? And this is a direction a whole industry has headed and I think you're definitely right about that, because tech goes ever onward and upward.
But I'm curious what you think are the risks not so much of applying quantum computing, but of not preparing adequately or what you think are the pitfalls that organizations are really likely to fall into if they aren't looking forward towards training and being prepared?
Bradley: So I think, I think pitfall is just being caught flat footed seeing competitors paths and how they utilize this technology, making discoveries and of your companies making these discoveries. And I think we're early on, but I think this is the time to start because there was a huge advantage to those companies and those who will make those early, early and initial discovery. So I think the risk there is really missing out on being part of that initial journey of discovery.
Kate: Do you think there is also risk to jumping in without proper training and skilling and preparation?
Bradley: Oh, absolutely, yes. Again, you really, definitely need to make sure you're building up your knowledgebase within your company within your workforce and getting people at least aware and prepared for what the implications are, if not, again, going back to that core team and building out that core center of competency within your company.
Quantum Computing Pet Names
Siobhan: So Bradley, I've got to ask this, and it's horrible. But I really am curious, how many people in quantum computing do you think have a pet name Schrödinger?
Bradley: I know of many people with pets named after various aspects of quantum computing.
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Siobhan: I had to ask.
Bringing More Diversity to Quantum Computing
Siobhan: All right, so I want to talk a little bit about the specific work that you are doing with the different diversity initiatives. And I know that you partner with HBCUs, you partner with the Grace Hopper Celebration and other organizations trying to bring more diversity into the people who are learning quantum computing.
We've seen the downfalls of when sort of a homogenous group creates a tool for a non-homogenous population. So I was hoping you could just discuss that a little bit and why you're making that conscious effort?
Bradley: So it's really imperative that we invest in quantum talent early in their careers. If you look at the data available, it's really striking. So between 2016 and 2020, Black or African American students were awarded only 1% of physics PhDs, the statistics for Hispanic or Latino students isn't much better at 3%. And American Indian, or Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian, or Other Pacific Islander are below 0.1% each.
So when I look at this data, and I look at what's in front of us, and what this means, is that we really can't wait until students have graduated and are ready for the workforce in order to begin developing a talent pipeline, we really have to invest in students and support them in developing their skills and experience early in their careers.
So we actually do this in IBM Quantum through two important internship programs, in which we really invest in early career quantum talent. So we actually have a partnership with Qubit by Qubit. And with them, we're hosting what's called the Early Quantum Career Immersion Intern Program. So this is, we have a number of of interns coming in this summer just begun this program, and it's a internship program for undergraduates from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM. And it gives them an opportunity to gain in depth Quantum Information Science and Engineering training and industry experience. Qubit by Qubit actually matches each of these participants with the various program partners. And IBM Quantum was one of those program partners.
We also have a partnership with Princeton, where we host the Quantum Undergraduate Research at IBM in Princeton intern program or curate. This is a unique summer undergraduate program that combines academic research and quantum science and engineering at Princeton with industry experience at IBM Quantum. So this is actually for all undergrad students, it's not just folks at Princeton. But this is a really important program because it gives participants of exposure to quantum research at a point in their academic careers when they're deciding if they want to go on to graduate school or not.
Then you also mentioned the IBM HBCU Quantum Center, or we're collaborated with more than two dozen historically black colleges and universities to advance quantum information science and provide STEM-based opportunities for traditionally underrepresented communities.
Recruiting Younger Generations
Kate: I'm actually curious if you're trying to grab people even younger, I'm just thinking about this, I have a fourth grader at home, she's always asking questions about the future and what things will look like and how they will go and all that.
Is there something you know, a way you to explain this to my fourth grader or to you know, a high school student who's trying to figure out what college to go to if they might want to look into this stuff?
Bradley: Yeah, I mean, I honestly, I don't think it's ever too early to introduce basic concepts of quantum computing. So this concept of superposition, for example, there are some really simplified ways you can go about introducing this concept that would be accessible to young children.
So I think we look at how quantum computers work. They follow the laws of quantum mechanics, but the world that we interact with every day follows the laws of classical physics. So it's really not necessarily intuitive.
But I think if you start introducing concepts to people earlier, the students can really start to develop an intuition for this world that could otherwise seem very strange.
Quantum Computing for 8-Year-Olds
Siobhan: OK, so I want to hear your pitch. Say you've got an 8-year-old sitting there, and they're like, oh, I don't know what does this mean? Like, how are you going to get this 8-year-old interested?
Bradley: Yeah, so I think I mean, this might be a little too advanced for an 8-year-old, but I'll try it out. We'll see how it goes. So I'd say like if we look at our computers that we have today, right, so if you're an 8-year-old, you've probably used a computer at school, you maybe have a smartphone, I don't know maybe I don't know how old We give kids smartphones these days, but they at least, you know, seeing their parents on smartphones. And then they might even know a little bit about supercomputers is really big, powerful computers, they might even even heard about those, right. And so what I would say is that if we look at all those computers, those are all different types of computers, they all operate on what are called bits. And those bits are fundamentally either a zero or a one. So all these amazing things that we could do with computers, it all comes down to zeros and ones, or binary.
So again, we refer to these as classical computers. But quantum theaters operate on something completely different. So they operate on the concept of qubits. And qubits take advantage of the properties of quantum mechanics to actually do computing an entirely different way.
Now, this is where it gets a bit more complicated. And I don't know, I might have lost the 8-year-old at this point.
Siobhan: Unless you haven't, they really are captured.
Kate: You'd be surprised, she knows binary and subatomic particles, but she doesn't have a phone.
Kate: The things they teach on StoryBots, man, I don't know.
Bradley: So maybe at that point, I get into superposition, entanglement and interference. And like, there are some pretty interesting things that underlie like quantum mechanics and the way that quantum computers work.
But again I'm actually not, so just for background, I'm actually not a quantum information scientist myself. So as far as actually like, going beyond that level of description, maybe a little too far for me, but I think we can actually solve problems that are unsolvable with today's classical computers is really what it comes down to.
Siobhan: Well, Bradley, I have to confess, when I said explain it to an 8-year-old, the 8-year-old was me. And I appreciate that explanation.
Siobhan: So I want to go back to something that you raised earlier in the discussion. And that was the fact that you have open sourced access to some of the tools. And I'm wondering, you know, IBM is a company, obviously, it is running for profit. And I'm wondering how much of that is just genuine desire to give more people access to these tools to be able to explore and to learn these next discoveries. And how much of this is potentially a business decision?
Bradley: Honestly, I mean, so I'll tell you a little bit of my background. So my background is as an open source, working in open-source software developer, and that was actually one of the things that really interested me in IBM Quantum was seeing that we have this open source Qiskit tool, we've opened up access to our quantum computers for anyone in the world to use. And for me, that was really exciting, right? Like I even though I don't have a background in quantum, it was still something that interested me and that approach of openness of saying, like, hey, you can come we're not going to put up gates and say, if you need to have a PhD in physics, to be able to come into our lab and use our quantum computer.
So I think, for me, that was quite exciting. And I think, you know, we've seen the interest we have from our community, I think it's exciting for a lot of other people. And I think it's genuine, I think we see the excitement, we see people that come and work at IBM Quantum, because they also are excited by this.
So it's a genuine interested in me, it's a genuine interest that I see from my colleagues. So I think it's really important to have this organic foundation to build on and my colleagues, the people I work with, are really passionate about building a diverse, equitable, inclusive, quantum future. And we're not going to do that if we don't provide open access to our systems and open-source access for folks to go and learn and explore.
Kate: You've got me really curious, actually, with all of this, you know, open access and encouraging people to basically come in and mess with it basically, right. I'm curious if you're seeing, you know, strong interest from a particular industry, a particular background, or particular sort of focus, like are the folks who are coming in really coming from one background or is it a little bit of everything?
Bradley: It's a little bit of everything, honestly. From a company perspective, we focus around those those main areas of natural science, artificial intelligence, optimization, finance. So those are the areas that we see, certainly corporate interests, in terms of like, let's go and make important discoveries and advance our respective industries.
But I think in terms of the workforce, and people that are drawn to this and attracted this, it's really all over the place. We see, of course, people with physics degrees, we do see engineers, but we also see again, people like myself, who are open-source enthusiast and think that this is something that has huge potential and are really excited about what we can do here.
Is the General Population Ready for a Quantum Leap?
Kate: And do you think the sort of general population is really ready for this sort of, jump a quantum leap, as it were? Or do you think there's education broadly for the population like we're seeing proliferation with questionable AI answers and deep fakes and audio deep fakes and you know, everything that's sort of popped out in the last few years that some people are sort of really better prepared to engage with that future than others.
Are their skills, you would sort of recommend become more broadly taught and broadly applied to sort of help everybody who isn't a researcher working at IBM, contend with all this?
Bradley: So I think we've seen a lot of change, right? I mean, even when the field of computing itself has changed how rapidly innovations happen and how quickly the world moves. And I think quantum computing will, of course, continue, potentially accelerate that.
There's also a lot of hype out there, honestly. And I think you're getting some genuine interest, I think having people who are experts in the industry going out and explaining this to folks I think is important, you know, trying to cut through that hype and understand that, you know, I think those are really, really valuable.
But, again, going back to like these classical developers, folks that are, you know, maybe don't necessarily work in quantum computing today, and they want to start learning I would really, again, focus on Python programming is really a foundational element. And this is what our open-source developers use, who are utilizing Qiskit. Linear Algebra is also another important foundational element. So again, anyone that's looking to more look at this, from the technical perspective, that's a really important foundational skill.
But again, for anyone who really wants to get involved, is learning how to participate in open-source software tools. But again, for the general population, I think, really just trying to get those explainers out there and people talking about this and cutting through that hype to understand what this is really all about.
Siobhan: Excellent. Well, Bradley, I want to thank you so much for your time and for joining us on the podcast.
If anybody who is listening wants to learn a little bit more about you personally, and also about the work that you're doing at IBM, where is the best place that they can find you?
Bradley: So the best place to find me is just on LinkedIn, Bradley Holt.
Siobhan: Excellent. Well, thank you again, Bradley. And you know, the 8-year-old in me thanks you as well.
Bradley: Oh, you're welcome. So it was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Kate: Thank you.
Siobhan: If you have a suggestion or a topic for a future conversation, I'm all ears. Please drop me a line at [email protected]. Additionally, if you liked what you heard, post a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you may be listening. Please share Get Reworked with anyone you think might benefit from these types of conversations. Find us at reworked.co. And finally, follow us at Get Reworked on Twitter as well. Thank you again for exploring the revolution of work with me, and I'll see you next time.
About the Authors
Siobhan is the editor in chief of Reworked, where she leads the site's content strategy, with a focus on the transformation of the workplace. Prior to joining Reworked, Siobhan was managing editor of Reworked's sister site, CMSWire, where she directed day-to-day operations as well as cultivated and built its contributor community. Connect with Siobhan Fagan: