Imagine a mathematical problem so complex, it would take today’s most sophisticated supercomputer 9,000 years to solve. Now, imagine a new type of computer that could solve the very same problem in just a fraction of a second. That’s the promise of quantum computing—and it turns out, Canada is well on its way to becoming a global force in the research, development, and implementation of that cutting-edge technology.
On this episode of Disruptors, an RBC podcast, host John Stackhouse is joined by the CEO of Toronto-based Xanadu Quantum Technologies Inc, Christian Weedbrook. Just last year, Xanadu became one of the first companies on the planet to successfully achieve what’s known as “quantum advantage” or “quantum supremacy”; in essence, demonstrating that a programmable quantum device can solve a problem that no classical computer could in a realistic time frame. There’s also a special guest appearance by Dr. Stephanie Simmons, Founder and Chief Quantum Officer at Photonic. She was also recently named the co-chair of the newly announced National Quantum Strategy of Canada.
The next step is to scale the technology, and develop real-world applications that can be used to tackle pressing problems like pandemics and climate change.
But plenty of other countries, including Israel, India, China and the United States, are competing with Canada in this race, and Europe is also investing billions into quantum research and development. So how can Canada maintain the pole position? What’s needed in terms of government support and investment? And why did Christian name his company after an infamous box-office bomb from the 1980s? You’ll have to listen to find out!
You can learn more about Canada’s quantum strategy on the Federal Government’s website.
Xanadu has posted a series of resources online, including a helpful explainer video, which you can find here. RBC Capital Markets also wrote about the promise of quantum technology back in December 2022, you can read that article here. You can learn more about Dr. Stephanie Simmons and Photonic here.
Speaker 1 [00:00:01] Hi. Is John here. You may feel like 2023 is about to be a really complex year. No one seems to have a clear handle on inflation or the war in Ukraine or whether Donald Trump is going to make a comeback. And then there’s climate change. Demographic clifts and COVID variance kind of makes my head hurt. I didn’t even bother with New Year’s predictions this year as I just couldn’t think through the complexities that we seem to be drowning in. I suspect complexity is a word you’ll hear a lot in 2023, but don’t let it intimidate you. Even the world’s best computers are having trouble figuring out those complex problems. Winning Jeopardy may be easy. You just need to know every bit of information ever created, which, for a good supercomputer, is like a chip shot. But predicting the future requires a whole different level of thinking and computing. One could say it’s a quantum difference. That’s another word you may hear a lot this year. Quantum.
Speaker 2 [00:01:00] Hi, my name is Stephanie Simmons and I’m the founder and Chief Quantum officer of Photonic Inc., as well as the advisory council co-chair of the newly-announced national quantum strategy for Canada. Quantum is a coming technological tidal wave, and we already have specific concrete examples of how it’s going to change the way we communicate and compute. Ultimately, information. The bits we use are physical objects that are manipulated according to physical laws. The information possessed by quantum systems is simply exponentially larger in scale than the non quantum bits we use today. Once we harness fault tolerant quantum technologies, which is to say trustworthy quantum technologies, we will be able to do certain things that are otherwise physically impossible to accomplish by any other means.
Speaker 1 [00:01:43] India, Israel, Japan, Australia. They all have quantum strategies. And here in Canada the Federal Government is trying to help up our quantum game. It recently announced a national quantum strategy with $360 million behind it. So what is this quantum thing? And cannot live up to the hype in time to address the world’s most pressing issues, whether it’s climate change or international conflict or cybersecurity? This is Disruptors and RBC podcast. I’m John Stackhouse. Today, I’m excited to speak with an innovator on the front lines of the quantum computing revolution. Kristen Weed Brook is the CEO of Toronto based Xanadu Quantum Technologies. Just last year, Xanadu became one of the first companies in the world to successfully demonstrate quantum computation advantage. We’re going to hear a lot more about that in a minute. Christian, welcome to Disruptors.
Speaker 3 [00:02:50] Thank you, John. It’s nice to be here.
Speaker 1 [00:02:52] Before we get into some of the heavy stuff on Quantum, I love to know a bit more about your own background and journey, Christian and also the origins of Xanadu. But maybe we can start with the name of the company. What inspired it?
Speaker 3 [00:03:06] It actually comes from the song Xanadu by Olivia Newton-John and written by ELO. Actually one of the funny sort of side note. So that is the actual movie itself was a bit of a box office bomb. And we’ve raised probably ten times the amount of money that made at the box office.
Speaker 1 [00:03:22] Well, it’s a great tribute to the late Olivia Newton-John, fellow Australian. Tell us how you came from Australia to Canada and how the company got going.
Speaker 3 [00:03:32] Like a lot of people at Xanadu and other quantum companies, I came from academia. So from Australia I did undergrad and University of Queensland in Brisbane and I did a master’s in Nash and Young Australian National University in Canberra and then started to finish my PhD back at University of Queensland as well. There I was working on quantum computing and quantum security as it relates to photonics or light, which is what Xanadu, it’s, it’s medium that it’s stores and processes information. After that, I was a post-doc at MIT. He continued in the same sort of research and then found a job at University of Toronto. As soon as I landed. I just thought, This is a wonderful place to be and live and work and been here ever since and became a Canadian a couple of years ago as well.
Speaker 1 [00:05:28] Before we get deeper into this, I want to pause you there and help a lot of our listeners catch up to you on Quantum. So I’ll ask the killer Jeopardy question. What is quantum?
Speaker 3 [00:05:38] Basically, we have computers now. We have security solutions on the Internet and so forth. They actually run according to the principles of classical physics or Newtonian physics. Or another way of looking at it is non quantum physics. And these are things that we’re very used to in our real world. If we throw to our Frisbee, for instance, we throw away and it doesn’t do anything weird, you know, even if there’s wind or throw it off, but it doesn’t suddenly go the opposite direction, for instance. Now, if you’re able to zoom into any object and you see it’s made of atoms and protons and electrons and so forth, if you threw a Frisbee near an atom and you you’re part of the around the atom, it will have different laws of physics that operate. And these are called quantum physics. So quantum really means quantum physics or laws of physics at the atomic level. And so if you can actually harness these properties at the atomic level or if you’re looking at photons as we are, then you can actually generate some very weird things. And there’s certain properties that we don’t see in our classical world like entanglement and superposition interference and so forth that actually operate. So long story short, there’s different properties of physics that happen on the atomic level that we can actually leverage to do some really cool things. And in computation, if we can leverage these quantum properties, we can see for certain problems dramatic speed up in how long it takes to run a computation in security. We can actually create secure methods of transmitting information that are not possible using classical physics. So it’s a game changer, though. The catch here is that these physical properties of the quantum atomic level a very hard to leverage. And the reason is that our world interacts with this atomic world and you lose entangled. When you lose a ship for position and you lose interference and so forth. So they’re very hard to extract. And that’s why it’s very difficult to build a quantum computer. Is these properties or these weight effects that we want to leverage. They’re very ephemeral and they’re very hard to actually loft out.
Speaker 1 [00:07:45] Let’s talk for a minute about your computer. It’s called Borealis, which is a and it’s a photonic quantum computer. Last year, it reached what’s called computational Advantage, which made it solved a complex mathematical operation in a fraction of a second. I believe it’s something that would take the world’s most powerful supercomputer more than 9000 years, which is almost unfathomable. Tell us a bit more about Borealis.
Speaker 3 [00:08:11] Yeah, it was a remarkable achievement. As you mentioned, it was a demonstration of quantum computational advantage or quantum supremacy. Sometimes they’re used interchangeably and it shows a very well-defined task that you sort of hit a classical computer and not even just desktop computers, but supercomputers and pick them up against a quantum computer, as it’s called Borealis and press go and you see how fast each of them solves. And like you said, under a second for our Borealis machine. But it would have taken 9000 years or more for a classical computer. This demonstration was the first time ever by a start up and first time in Canada. So that’s why the team is very proud about it. It’s a great achievement for Canada. And also quantum computing companies in Canada took about two years to build the hardware, and the hardware team started essentially when COVID started. So there’s all that sort of difficulty on top of it, which is a testament to a very small team as well that managed to build this. The very first demonstration was by Google, who uses superconducting qubits and think of them as electrons. So a quantum version of electronics, whereas ours is quantum photonics. They did a wonderful job. It was the first time that was demonstrated for us. We were able to do it live based approach, first time that was available on the cloud as well. And so that’s the key thing. This decade perhaps will be characterized by having these very challenging computers to build accessible over the cloud. So, yeah, it was a crazy achievement, was published and verified and sort of peer reviewed in nature as well. So the community really is excited about the achievement by the Xanadu team.
Speaker 1 [00:09:48] When I first got to see Borealis, you took me on a tour last year and there was great excitement at the time because you were very close to that computational advantage. One of the things that struck me was the size of the computer. I mean, much bigger than anything I have access to, but relatively small given the enormous power of it. What all goes into the housing of these extraordinary machines that may change everything around us?
Speaker 3 [00:10:12] Yeah, actually, you mentioned our building, so we’re on the 29th floor. As you know, John, you know, we were concerned before we moved in is every building swings a little bit. And would that affect our measurements? Would it affect our apparatus? And because most of the time you see photonic computers or quantum optics, as we call them experiments, they’re often in the bottom of a of a university building in the basement because you need to keep everything all the light closed off and so forth. So we were unsure about building one of these devices, but in the end, thankfully, none of the issues that we were concerned about actually played a role, which is great. And I think that speaks to the robustness of our photonic devices and chips as well. And one of the key things, you know, I mentioned this device has 216 qubits when you can start solving important customer problems. So around a million cubits physical qubits now it could be plus or minus, but that’s a good way to sort of think about it, you know, what is a magnitude away. But the key thing is some of the breakthroughs in Borealis are actually needed, and one of them is you need some sort of buffer or transmitting light through fiber optics. And when you look at a traditional data center, a data center has, you know, a certain amount of square footage and you’d have all these server racks within it, you know, one after the other, and they’re all talking to each other using light as well. But they’re computing, using electronics. So the way to scale up and it’s very reminiscent of the things we achieved in Borealis is you’re going to have many of these modules very much, say, multiple versions of Borealis, roughly speaking, but they’ll all be talking to each other using light or photons. There are theses and why we believe perhaps we have one of the edges when it comes to scaling up is the ability to actually network our devices because they are already photonic based. So what better way to sort of scale up if you have to use photonics, meaning that’s how you connect them using the fiber optics, then already a computer that’s computing using light based approach.
Speaker 1 [00:12:07] This is a really exciting global race. The Chinese are very advanced in quantum computing. Google has been making great strides. Where does Xanadu stand up in the in the global rankings?
Speaker 3 [00:12:19] You know, it depends on how you define this. So if you if you look at quantum supremacy or quantum computational advantage, we do have the most powerful quantum computer. Again, there’s a lot of caveats there which we try to be clear about. And, you know, one of them is for a specific type of problem. No customer use cases yet, but we’re only one of three demonstrations of quantum supremacy. The first was by Google, second by a great team in China and also now a third time by SATs. Which is the first time it’s available on the cloud for anyone with internet connection. Susanna do is in terms of that aspect is one of the leaders in the world in terms of photonics, definitely one of the leaders as well. You know, the hope is with photonics is what we’re leveraging now is we didn’t have to invent the laser, we didn’t have to invent fiber optics. We can order them from companies. And, you know, as you mentioned, I originally came from Australia. And what better country to leverage the photonics than Canadians history in photonics, industry, Nortel and others as well. So we’re able to leverage that, which is a great thing. And, you know, speaking to your point about where Canada’s can succeed, it’s also in this area as well. So I would say on those points, we’re definitely hitting above our bodyweight and also one of the leaders as well.
Speaker 1 [00:13:31] Christian. I appreciate applications may also be a few years away or longer, but I wonder if you can give our listeners a sense of where you see quantum making significant differences in the economy and in society over the next number of years. Where do you think the applications will first be most impactful?
Speaker 3 [00:13:51] Yeah, that’s a good question. And I would say applications are still a few years off. We’re more confident that once us or anyone else can reach millions of us, that’s where you can start solving important customer problems. The big picture is in terms of the buckets. So the main industries, the common ones that you would hear about, where a quantum computer can really outperform and really change the world in would be pharmaceuticals. So there, for instance, would be drug discovery. Another one would be finance. Common examples. There would be portfolio optimization. We hear about that. Another big one, which is where Zander’s really playing, is in material design and specifically next generation battery development. And another one that you often hear about is logistics. So let’s take Amazon for instance. They want to find an optimal path so they can save a lot of money in fuel and drivers. Time to make sure that doing the shortest path for a delivery. So these are the Commonwealth. They’re all complex systems, meaning if you add extra, extra elements to it, it doesn’t scale very well. So now I think in most industries focus is key. So each of these buckets or verticals, it could take a lifetime, each of them. So we’ve just focused on material disease, SARS and, you know, quantum chemistry, but more specifically next generation battery development. In our last round, we actually got an investment seriously from Volkswagen, and we’re actually been working with Volkswagen on projects the last year or two and will continue to do so as well. And we try to be very optimistic and say, look, this is the potential, but be realistic as well. Find that middle ground. And for us, it’s a case of investigating. If you had a million qubits and more for quantum computer, where would Volkswagen and other car companies use them to create a new battery that would be ten times faster to charge ten times longer distance on a single charge, You know, safer. All the usual metrics that traditional companies are looking at in the batteries are doing that as well. If you ran like the Borealis for 9000 years, you know, Volkswagen, other companies are not going to want to run a machine for 9000 years. So maybe even a year is a good metric, you know, So there’s a lot of different ways that it could help. But I would say these are the common industries that people talk about.
Speaker 1 [00:16:03] It seems, and this will be overly simplistic, but that a lot of quantum computing opportunities are addressing future unknowns versus current computational challenges, which tend to be focused on current no ones and unknowns. Who is going into the vagaries of the future?
Speaker 3 [00:16:20] There’s two things that I think about when you thinking about the hopefulness of a technology. One is that, as I mentioned, we’ve been building computers but not exploiting the full laws of the universe of nature. So we’ve done enormous historically, companies have done phenomenal work since the fifties and beyond and computer chips and architectures and up until the Internet and PC and mobile phones today. But the laws they’ve been using in order to create these things are not the most general sort of laws. So why I’m encouraged is that imagine if we can now use the most general laws of physics that we know about quantum physics. Imagine if we can leverage everything of that, that space. The hope is, is that the ability of problems we can solve also is proportional to that. The other thing, if we look back at history, I always like reading about the mid seventies and late seventies and the PC revolution with the apple, Apple one and Apple two and so forth, you would see a lot of the early advertisements were really for hobbyists, for the personal computer though I remember some of the early ads in the mid seventies were about advertising to housewives, said you can use your computer to look at a menu. And that was really the selling point, you know, apart from hobbyists and just having fun on these things and programing for, you know, abstract things. And it wasn’t till maybe 79 or so that they started come up with business applications. The spreadsheets for businesses were documents. And then we went into the eighties and more things games and so forth came more popular as well as a suite of applications. But those things, you know, maybe a few people could have imagined. And definitely science fiction writers have thought about all the possibilities going back 100 years and so forth, what the future may look like. But the actual applications were very much unknown and it was still selling. But look where we are today. Imagine if we, you know, said we can’t think of any other applications.
Speaker 1 [00:18:16] Let’s take a quick break. When we come back, Christian SEABROOK, the CEO of Xanadu. We’ll talk about where Canada falls in the race for quantum computing Edge and who we’re racing against.
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Speaker 1 [00:19:30] Welcome back. Today, I’m speaking with Kristen Wheat, Brooke, the CEO of Xanadu, about Canada’s place and potential in the development of quantum computing. Christian, there used to be a bit of quantum hype maybe a couple of years ago that suggested that the first team to achieve quantum supremacy would have a singular victory that only one supreme quantum computer would prevail. Has your understanding of quantum supremacy evolved over the last few years?
Speaker 3 [00:20:01] Yeah. Yes, and that’s a good point. I do believe it depends on who you’re talking to in terms of the hype. I would say us and Google and a few others have always known that quantum supremacy is just a stepping stone, an initial achievement that the very difficult achievement but needs to be ticked off and then, you know, continued on. What’s the error correction and fault tolerance? The reason I say that, and I think Google has mentioned this too, when their great experiment came out, is there were a lot of naysayers that said even a quantum supremacy demonstration is not possible, meaning put aside applications for customers. Even if you’ve chosen an esoteric math problem, you still would not be able to beat a is a quantum computer. So I think those things were important. But also in our case too, and maybe with others, a lot of the technical demonstrations for Borealis are actually needed for error correction fault tolerance anyway. So it’s a rite of passage that I think was an important one for us as well. I think most people would have looked at it as a as a, you know, selling the pass through rather the be all and end all achievement. Now, though, getting back to your thought of one winner, to rule them all, even if a few companies came out tomorrow with a million qubits, which is not really possible or likely, it’s still a few years away. But let’s say that A, there’s still enough market and problems to go around, that it would be really hard to actually one company, even if it’s a Google, I’d be able to dominate every single vertical. For us to be a specific example, we’ve chosen next generation battery development to exclusion of everyone else, and that particular industry has a different supply. Chains have it has a different customer base, it has different sales and marketing. For us, we have to hire people that have background in quantum chemistry and batteries. So long story short, I think there’s more than enough for many winners. And you know, another way to perhaps look at it, maybe Xanadu dominates in Canada or North America and there’s another company that dominates in Europe as well. So a lot of different possibilities. But we all need to get to a million qubits first.
Speaker 1 [00:21:58] Well, let’s turn to that point about national strategies. As I mentioned earlier, the federal government has announced $360 million to create a national quantum strategy. Why does Canada need this?
Speaker 3 [00:22:10] I would say the first thing that comes to mind is building a quantum computer from the hardware point of view particularly is extremely expensive. It’s going to take a lot of money. And that money specifically was really going through the universities. And also that is a problem of the of the funnel of talent coming through and training them. The universities in Canada have been training these quantum physicists in quantum computing and so forth for the last two decades or more. And so having that pipeline come through, the companies in Canada, like Xanadu and others can actually leverage is important. Some money needs to be put there. Think of previous industries like the, you know, chip market or telecommunication market. These are very big markets. It takes billions and billions of dollars already. The other thing, if you look at competition, whether it’s friendly or not, the US has put ten times that amount of money roughly. So, you know, billion or two into the same sort of strategies. And so if we want to be competitive, it’s key for us to be able to have enough money to attract the talent as well to stop them from going to other places. China, I believe, has put in maybe 3 to 5 billion as well, something in a couple of billion or more. And Europe has done a lot as well. We’ve seen them being actively engaged. And thankfully, as you as you know, John, a week ago, the prime minister and the minister, the champagne visited us, which is great, and that was to announce Swift’s US Strategic Innovation Fund to reimbursement program of up to $40 million. And this shows you the amount of money that actually needs to go in and also the amount of jobs that it will create. And also the quantum Canadian ecosystem in general will create as well.
Speaker 1 [00:23:44] Yeah, I mean, $360 million is a lot of money. I believe Canada is spending roughly on par with Israel and Russia, which are serious players in this. But India, I think, has committed $1,000,000,000 to to quantum the EU. Now, these are announcements, but it’s 7 billion and China again an announcement, 15 billion.
Speaker 3 [00:24:03] Yeah. And then maybe another point, John, is Canada, Singapore and Australia. For the last two, two and a half decades, their governments have put in so much money in terms of the academic and university side where most of us have come from. And so it would be a shame for these countries and obviously Canada to not really be able to leverage as much as the talent pool and Xanadu has. I think 52% of the employees are from overseas and they want to. So far. Stay here.
Speaker 1 [00:24:31] Is there a unique advantage that Canada has in that in that global competition?
Speaker 3 [00:24:35] I think so. I mean, if you look at University of Toronto, you look at Institute of Quantum Computing in University World and other places in Vancouver and Montreal and so forth. We have the talent base here and that is really key. Some of the benefits for companies like the Shred program, we’ve been leveraging that from day one, which is grades two rebate on the through taxation, and it’s just helped start ups. It’s helped us to create 170 jobs now. The other big one is from our photonics based approach too. There are a lot of photonic engineers from Nortel and the history of telco companies in Canada. They’ve had a great history there and we’re hoping we can also leverage that as well. You know, if anyone’s listening that knows anyone that has a background, we are looking always for people that have the I would say not a quantum side, but they may have a, you know, optical engineering or electrical engineering.
Speaker 1 [00:25:23] I love that spirit. Entrepreneurs are always recruiting. You give a very hopeful picture for Quantum. Some prefer to cast it as a kind of a black and white narrative, and that if darker forces achieve true quantum supremacy or get to that million qubits before others, they could do incredibly malicious things with technology. Do we need to be fearful of where Quantum could go as well as hopeful?
Speaker 3 [00:25:49] Yeah, I believe most technologies have, as you mentioned, a darker last side. Most have that dual aspect of it. I would say it’s important to recognize that that’s the first step. So for instance, Internet security. Yeah, that’s still still far away. That’s probably the very least by the end of this decade. There’s certainly companies out there, if they’re not quantum in terms of their technology, but they’re the traditional codes that can shore up the Internet security again, you know, replace our existing codes. So there’s companies already working on one of the most drastic, nefarious aspects of quantum computing, which is Internet security. So those things are well underway and missed in the US is already working up a group of standards that people can sort of say, okay, well I can choose one of these, you know, two or three or four standards, implement them in my security device and so forth. So I think we’re in a good position at the moment because people are aware about these things that and are already working on solutions.
Speaker 1 [00:26:43] Let’s end with a question of hope. When you hit that million qubit mark, what will be your greatest hope for where it goes from there?
Speaker 3 [00:26:51] This sounds maybe a trial in some sense because it’s kind of obvious, but I hope if we hit a million, we’ve got over a thousand people we’ve given jobs to. You know, it’s kind of implied in all these things. But it’s amazing that we’ve already given 170 people jobs that can, you know, feed the family and provide shelter and all the basic necessities. Beyond that, it would be great if Canada can actually have a dominant company again in sort of hard tech. So we did have BlackBerry. There’s Nortel. We would like to have something of that scale one day with a different ending or maybe an ending that prolonged many, many decades. We have a goal of building a 50 year company. So that will be great. Whether of your work in Canada or where we’re helping our customers is providing useful this, you know, what are we actually doing for the world that someone is willing to hand over a dollar and receive a product or service from that. So very simple goals, but these things actually have a way of leading to the biggest accomplishments.
Speaker 1 [00:27:51] Those would be great. Pardon the expression quantum leaps.
Speaker 3 [00:27:53] Exactly.
Speaker 1 [00:27:54] Christian, thank you so much for being a part of disruptors.
Speaker 3 [00:27:57] Thank you, John. Appreciate your time. Thank you.
Speaker 1 [00:28:01] That was Christian Weedbrook, CEO of Xanadu. You know, it’s fascinating to hear about a technology with such massive potential. And I think I know a fair bit more about quantum than before we started this episode, but I sure wouldn’t pick it if I ever got on Jeopardy. What I do know is Canada is globally competitive in this frontier of technology, and if we get it right, we can help disrupt positively all sorts of sectors and solve all sorts of challenges out there, whether it’s developing precision medicine or being on the right side of cybersecurity. The quantum race is just getting going and it’s going to be incredible to see where innovators like Christian and Xanadu take us in the years ahead. I’m John Stackhouse and this is Disruptors, an RBC podcast. Talk to you soon.
Speaker 2 [00:28:55] Disruptors, an RBC podcast is created by the RBC Thought Leadership Group and does not constitute a recommendation for any organization, product or service. It’s produced and recorded by Jar Audio. For more disruptors content, like or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and visit RBC dot com, slash Disruptors.
Jennifer Marron produces "Disruptors, an RBC podcast". Prior to joining RBC, Jennifer spent five years as Community Manager at MaRS Discovery District and cultivated a large network of industry leaders, entrepreneurs and partners to support the Canadian startup ecosystem. Her writing has appeared in The National Post, Financial Post, Techvibes, IT Business, CWTA Magazine and Procter & Gamble’s magazine, Rouge. Follow her on Twitter @J_Marron.
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