TuringQ: Towards the 'top' of optical quantum computing
- On September 5, 《Wen Wei Po》launched a series of reports entitled "Shanghai: A Fertile Ground for Entrepreneurs" to tell the stories of entrepreneurs from all walks of life who have been working hard in Shanghai to cultivate the fertile ground and pursue their dreams. Wen Wei Po's exclusive interview with TuringQ's founder, Professor Jin Xianmin, premiered with the title "TuringQ: Towards the "Top" of Optical Quantum Computing".
- The interview with the founder of TuringQ, Jin Xianmin, was held at the Minhang campus of Shanghai Jiaotong University. When I walked into the discussion room in the Physics Lab Building 308, I was surprised by a wall of blackboards with physics formulas written in various colours of chalk. "The discussion room is opposite the laboratory, where the R&D staff gather during breaks to review and summarise the problems they have encountered. Jin Xianmin pointed to the board and said with a smile that this is where many difficult research problems are solved.
- In the first half of this year, 238,400 new enterprises were established in Shanghai, and TuringQ, which was "born" in the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone on February 19, is one of them. But what is special is that this is the first optical quantum computing company in China, so Jin Xianmin's identity has changed from that of a university professor to the founder of the company, which also means that this hardcore technology, which is at the forefront of the pioneering industry, is moving from the laboratory to its application on the ground.
- Good at thinking about the challenges of having a 'moat'
- Light quantum research is about light, so the lab is full of scenes with black cloths around and green lights on, but more often than not, researchers are used to turning off the lights before an experiment, allowing themselves to be immersed in the dark for 10 minutes before capturing those faint but powerful light quanta in a microscope.
- In the lab, Jin Xianmin is most proud of the two 'behemoths' at one end and the other at the other. In a separate room at the entrance, a femtosecond laser direct writing machine is working intensely and delicately to carve waveguides into the chip like a 3D print. The equipment has gone through layers of iterations and is now the most advanced in the world, says Jin Xianmin. The lab has published dozens of top-notch journal papers related to optical quantum chips based on this equipment, and the feasibility of industrialisation has been effectively demonstrated.
- "The most important concept I learned from my mentor is that one must have high ambitions in science. He said that although quantum computing takes a long time to accumulate technology, the technology has leaped up through several iterations and once the momentum is overwhelming, competitors will never be able to catch up. "We have to ensure that the key aspects of basic research are not constrained from the outset," he said.
The deepest part of the lab is a dedicated optical quantum computing prototype that was only 'born' in June this year, which can switch between multiple quantum algorithms and is used to demonstrate quantum algorithms and verify their computational potential. "This is the world's first commercial research-grade dedicated optical quantum computer. Jin Xianmin is proud of this, as it marks China's move to the forefront of the international first-tier in the industrialisation of optical quantum computing technology.
- When a problem is encountered in the lab, Jin and his research team discuss it thoroughly on the blackboard in the discussion room. "A good idea cannot be thought up by patting the head, but more often than not, it requires discussion, idea formation and a process of justification. The more we touch on those complex and difficult problems, the more we can build a 'moat' for our company. Jin Xianmin said that his latest flash of insight came when he was driving home and repeatedly circled on the elevated road because he was lost in thought, and vaguely came up with the solution of 'time for space', which allowed a small matrix with only five photon inputs in the lab to achieve a large 'N x N' matrix.
923 notes and 7 years of waiting
- The ideas on the board and in his head, which Jin Xianmin also jots down in his phone's notes, have accumulated 923 by now, and are carefully differentiated: red ones are solid ideas, blue ones still need research, and black means just having an idea. He says that the company is just starting out and there are many ideas to start up, so he needs to choose between them and make sure to do those things that are most important.
- The 923 notes began many years ago, when Jin Xianmin returned from Oxford University in the UK in 2014 with a strategic decision to lay out optical quantum computing chips as well as optical quantum computers in China, but he soon realised that there was not enough of an entrepreneurial atmosphere in the field because of a strange shortage of talent, as 'technology comes from a cluster, not individuals'.
- A top talent returned to China, with attractive olive branches being thrown around, and Jin Xianmin eventually chose Shanghai Jiaotong University to build a research team in photonic integration and quantum information from scratch. In his view, Shanghai is a highland of talent, with a keen insight and exploration of cutting-edge technologies. In the past few years, he has used the university campus as the main base to gather a group of young talents from the post-90s and even the post-00s, turning from a bare-bones commander into an innovative team with its sights set on the forefront of quantum technology applications, pursuing "to be the first of its kind for mankind in a certain category" and "technological extremes sufficient to drive new scientific exploration".
- Any hard-core technology is the hardest part of science and technology, and requires the spirit and perseverance to sit on the "cold bench". Quantum computing and photonic chips are so "hard" that it took seven years, but the "entrepreneurial fire" in Jin's heart has never been extinguished. Around the time of the epidemic last year, Jin Xianmin rethought the current situation and felt that it was time: on the one hand, the technology
- accumulation had reached the critical point of going out of the laboratory; on the other hand, the team was also ready to gradually grow various research directions with photonic chips as the underlying technology, and had the driving force for scientific and technological innovation.
- Out of the lab to empower Shanghai's special industries
- The stage of development that quantum computing is in today is somewhat similar to that of the artificial intelligence industry in 2012. Jin Xianmin compares this state for reporters on the blackboard: in 2019, Google demonstrates quantum hegemony, i.e. it crosses over traditional arithmetic in theory, while in practice, the industry is on the eve of an industrial explosion.
- No matter how good the theory in the laboratory is, it needs to be put on the ground and blossomed, and out of the laboratory, this competition has already begun. In May this year, TuringQ, which has just been established for three months, completed an angel round of financing of 100 million yuan, while in the United States and Canada, PsiQ and Xanadu got the two largest investments in the field of quantum computing at the same time. Industry insiders even believe that this year can be called the first year of optical quantum computing, and that the three top companies in the industry mentioned above will determine the direction of more widespread applications.
- In the 《Tao Te Ching》, it is said that to thwart its sharpness, to resolve its strife, to harmonise its light and to share its dust. Jin Xianmin believes that cutting-edge technology, especially disruptive technology, will encounter some setbacks and obstacles on the road to development, but since we have chosen this path, we must turn resistance into momentum, and once we achieve disruptive innovation, the rewards are bound to be rich. TuringQ, which started its business in Shanghai, has set its earliest application directions - financial technology, biomedicine and artificial intelligence, which are the industries most in need of arithmetic algorithm support, and are also the closest to Shanghai's industrial characteristics, which can achieve the superposition effect of "Shanghai empowers Shanghai". Just recently, TuringQ has been strategically partnering with Shanghai's top tertiary hospitals, pharmaceutical giants, cloud computing service providers and financial institutions to solve a class of practical problems through quantum computing and truly empower an industry. In Jin Xianmin's view, quantum computing can also play an advantage in the future in areas that require complex algorithms and arithmetic power, such as smart cities and big data.
- Shanghai, too, has given the young team the greatest support. The "14th Five-Year Plan for the Development of Strategic Emerging and Pioneering Industries in Shanghai" released in July this year proposed to form a "9+X" strategic emerging and pioneering industry development system, with "focus on photonic chips and devices" being one of the Xs.
- This made Jin Xianmin unable to hide his excitement: [For the past seven years, I am glad to have found the right direction, and standing in the present moment, I am also glad to have started my business in Shanghai to turn scientific research results into productivity and lead the direction of the new round of technological revolution and industrial change]