Journey through quantum networks

By Jillian Bartsch/El Inde

Saikat Guha sits at his desk with a pencil and sheets of paper. He looks down and begins to scribble math equations. In between working on his math problems, he can be found sitting in front of his computer in meetings with his students. A smile appears on his face as he gets to chat with them about the research they are passionate about. 

Guha was born in India. In 2002 he made the decision to come to the United States to work on his Ph.D. He spent almost a decade working for a company called BBN Technologies and afterwards decided to go to the University of Arizona in 2017. He is an Associate Professor for the College of Optical Sciences and he likes to work on his own quantum networks research the old-fashioned way, with a pencil and paper.  

When Guha was an undergraduate student back home in India, he had an amazing opportunity that changed his life. He was accepted into a summer internship program in Switzerland, leading to his first introduction in the field of quantum information processing. This field is about developing quantum computers that have the potential to be millions of times more powerful than the computers we use today. He loved being able to learn about the field and then apply what he had learned to real world problems.

One of the biggest challenges he has faced working in this field has stemmed from the fact that it hasn’t been around that long. The physics related to the field has been around for awhile, but using that to develop new computers is what makes it a new field. Guha’s job is essentially to understand a bunch of little particles of light and matter. 

“Using physics not just to describe the behavior but to use those particles of light and matter to do something useful for us is a very new field,” Guha stated. 

Even though he prefers to use pencil and paper, his work revolves around computers, sensors, and many other gadgets. He prefers the pencil and paper method because that is the method he grew up using and it is the most reliable to him. Before COVID-19, Guha would drive to campus and open the doors to one of his labs where he would meet with his students and help them with their own research. One of those people he worked with closely with in the lab is Allison Rubenok, a postdoctoral researcher. 

The young, black-haired Rubenok is relatively new to the field. She started getting into the quantum research field when she was an undergraduate. She is from Canada and did a program in the United Kingdom before coming to the University of Arizona, where she heard of a new program — through the Center for Quantum Networks — being started by Guha.

When Rubenok joined Guha’s program in 2017, it looked very different from what it does now. For starters, it didn’t have a lab to work out of. 

“We started from nothing working out of a very small space,” explained Rubenok. They eventually worked their way up to getting a bigger space so that they could develop better and more accurate research. They continued to work their way up to now having multiple labs. Guha and Rubenok have now been working together for three years. 

Some of the problems they are working on figuring out right now have to do with how quantum bits can be transferred over the networks available now, and also how to accomplish functional quantum computing without instantly breaking all of the encryptions on the current internet. The solution they are working on is upgrading the internet. It might seem obvious, but it takes a lot of knowledge in a bunch of areas to be able to figure it out. 

That is why Guha’s work also requires him to work with researchers from many other fields. In order to make progress in this area you have to know physics, quantum mechanics, electrical engineering, material science, photonic engineering, and computer science. Most of the time researchers only communicate with other researchers in the same field. This is not the case for Guha. 

These days, a big part of Guha’s job requires him to sit in Zoom meetings. During these meetings, he talks to all kinds of researchers from many different fields, so they can work together to gather more information on quantum information processing. 

“That has been a challenge but at the same time an interesting learning experience,” Guha explained.

Guha’s goal with his research is to see it end up building and designing systems that can be used and available to everyone. The research he is working on now could lead to computers in the future being able to solve problems that cannot be solved today, such as security systems that are not hackable. 

One day, Guha hopes, he will be able to see the quantum information processing projects out of the lab so that everyone will have access to buy a computer with the quantum processing mechanism. This would be revolutionary since the computers would be much more powerful and would further develop everything from medicine to banking to artificial intelligence, and more. 

Due to COVID-19, his research team doesn’t get to have that same freedom they did before. They now have to plan lab time and do everything through Zoom rather than in the lab or office. 

Before, they would wake up each morning and make their way to the office and lab. Rubenok would mainly be in the lab and Guha would mainly be in the office. They would split their time between working with students and working on their own research. Their day would vary depending on how far they were in their project; doing a mix of initial research, starting to collect data, or working on starting the experiments. 

They described the lab as a very vibrant place where they wanted to be all day. To some, the site of beakers and microscopes doesn’t seem like home. However, when Guha and Rubenok walk in the lab and see their science equipment and the smell of different solutions in the air, it feels like home to them. It is not just the lab that makes them feel that way, but also the students who come in the door. It is not just about the experiments and the labs, but about helping one another to discover something new.

A student’s quantum comms set up at the University of Arizona in 2020.
Photograph courtesy of Allison Rubenok.