A conversation about quantum computing

Investigating the impossible, the unthinkable – literally, because one cannot form a mental picture of a quantum system – fascinates Prof. Dr. Tommaso Calarco, Head of the »Quantum Control« institute at Forschungszentrum Jülich, more than anything else about quantum technology. In this interview he talks to Ingolf Wittmann, Technology Analyst & Consultant at Fraunhofer IAF.


How did you actually get started with quanta?


Calarco — When I was a graduate student, the research field of quantum technology did not even exist. It was called »Fundamentals of Quantum Mechanics« and there were almost no career prospects. When I finished my studies, Peter Zoller and Ignacio Cirac from Innsbruck had the first ideas of a quantum computer using ions. That was when it became clear to me that something could really be built by »playing« with quantum systems.

Wittmann — I studied »Operations Research« at university and never dreamed that I would ever need it again, for example to map a traveling salesman problem on to a quantum computer. But that’s exactly how it happened when the IBM Quantum System was announced at the end of 2016 as an open source project with free access for everyone. I was at IBM at the time and quickly realized the system’s potential, but also that we needed a technical organization in the different countries to support customers locally.

Prof. Dr. Tommaso Calarco, Institutsleiter »Quantum Control« am Forschungszentrum Jülich.
© Helmholtz/Stefanie Herbst
Prof. Dr. Tommaso Calarco, Head of the Institute »Quantum Control« at Forschungszentrum Jülich.
Dr. Michael Mikulla ist Geschäftsfeldleiter für Leistungselektronik am Fraunhofer IAF.
© Fraunhofer IAF
Ingolf Wittmann, Technology Analyst & Consultant at Fraunhofer IAF.

How important are collaborations?


Calarco — Very important! Over the last 15 years I have put a lot of energy into coordinating quantum technology research in Europe and developing a common vision of the future. This resulted in the Quantum Flagship, which is still ahead of us in Germany. The Federal Government wants a uniform strategy, but research here is not yet sufficiently coordinated. Germany has enormous capabilities in quantum computing, but no organization, research group or country can do it alone. Collaboration is always the key element.

Wittmann — I completely agree. Fraunhofer’s mission is to make research manageable for industry. Our many partners and contacts mean we are ideally placed to empower industry to introduce quantum technologies to companies and to work with them on future hardware and software solutions that will enable them to remain competitive in Europe and the world going forwards.

Where will we be in ten years' time?

Calarco — In ten years, the first error-corrected quantum computers will probably be available. They will enable us to perform not only a few hundred calculations, but to scale up the computing time significantly. This will make it interesting for complex industrial applications. So far, we solve simple problems, but in ten years we could enter production mode.

Wittmann — I worked at IBM for many years, so of course I still think more in short-term cycles (laughs). The universal quantum computer will certainly take a few more years. But I do see a chance that in three to five years we will see the first industrial solutions and applications with hybrid hardware solutions as a black box or in the software sector.

© IBM Research
Graphics of structured monocrystalline diamond tips
© Fraunhofer IAF
Fraunhofer IAF develops diamond tips with built-in NV centers for use as semiconductor-based qubits.

And in 50 years?

Wittmann — When I look at the research we are doing here at IAF in the area of diamond, where we are leaving behind the cold range of millikelvin qubits and considering operations close to room temperature, I can imagine miniature accelerators, first as plug-in cards in computers and later as modules in mobile devices.

Calarco — If all goes well, quantum computers will accelerate artificial intelligence to such an extent that there will be applications that we cannot even imagine today.

Which people inspire you in your work?

Wittmann — One of my passions is to help young people develop and advance their careers. In the process, I have met two people who have really impressed me. Firstly, Paul Martynenko, who has accompanied me for many years as a boss and mentor and has set up an excellent support program for young technical colleagues. And secondly, Prof. Barry Dwolatzky from Wits University in South Africa, who built up the university with so much passion in a difficult environment over many years to cater for young disadvantaged people.

Calarco — Oh, I do not even have to think about it. My role model is definitely Peter Zoller from Innsbruck. He had the first ideas for the technological implementation of these »crazy quantum ideas« 25 years ago. I was a post-doc with him. He is also a role model for me in his ability to hold together different viewpoints, different actors and different currents in the community.

Prof. Dr. Tommaso Calarco researches quantum control and »juggles« with atoms.
© Forschungszentrum Jülich
Prof. Dr. Tommaso Calarco researches quantum control and »juggles« with atoms.

Weitere Informationen

Quantum computing at Fraunhofer IAF


An overview of the research work of Fraunhofer IAF in the field of quantum computing can be found here.

Competence Center Quantum Computing

The Competence Center Quantum Computing in Baden-Württemberg connects stakeholders in the state.