Quantum Computing is Coming, Let’s Focus on Getting our Computer Science Workforce Ready

(Photo credit: Andrea Starr/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory – Derek Kilmer, Tom Alberg)

At Madrona, we are investigating the potential for quantum startups, taking quantum dives with Craig Mundie and spending off-sites delving into the state of the technology with expert researchers. We are excited about this area and are continuing to meet with companies venturing into this exciting area of computation. This post was first published by Geekwire.

This week I had the opportunity to speak at the Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit, co-sponsored by Microsoft, the University of Washington and Pacific Northwest National Labs. The Summit brought together, for the first time, the large network of quantum researchers, universities and technology companies working in Quantum Information Science (QIS) in our region to share quantum developments and to work together to establish the Pacific Northwest as one of the leading quantum science centers in the world.

Quantum computing has the potential to transform our economies and lives. As one of the Summit speakers said, we are on the “cusp of a quantum century.” Quantum computers will be able to solve problems that classical computers can’t solve, even if they run their algorithms for thousands of years. Quantum computers are not limited to the on-or-off (one-or-zero) bits of today’s digital computers. Quantum computers manipulate “qubits” that can be one-and-zero simultaneously which allows exponentially faster calculations.

Quantum computers are expected to be able to crack present day security codes, which is already causing scientists to work on devising new encryption protocols to protect consumer and business data and national security.

Applications developed for quantum computers likely will help us overcome existing challenges in material, chemical and environmental sciences such as devising new ways for sequestering carbon and improving batteries.

Even though the Seattle area is one of the top two technology centers in the U.S., along with the San Francisco Bay area, we have to make investments now to ensure we become a leading quantum center. To achieve this goal, I argued that we will need to substantially increase financial support to build up the UW’s quantum research capacity and equally important, to create an extensive quantum information science curriculum. The UW’s School of Computer Science and Engineering began this year to offer a course teaching Microsoft’s Q# language, but one course is not enough if we are to make our area one of the major quantum centers of the future.

Fortunately for our region, Microsoft is one of the acknowledged leaders in quantum computing and is committed to building our regional network. CEO Satya Nadella gives credit to former Microsoft chief technology and research leader Craig Mundie for launching Microsoft’s quantum initiative 10 years ago.

Microsoft’s goal is no less than to build a “general-purpose” quantum computer – the holy grail of quantum computing. In the meantime, they are supporting efforts to build a cadre of researchers who are familiar with quantum and capable of writing quantum programs. They have developed and launched a quantum computer language, Q# (Q Sharp), a quantum development kit and “Katas,” which are computing tasks, that classical computer scientists can use to learn quantum computing skills. They are also building an open source library of quantum programs and have launched the Microsoft Quantum Network to provide assistance to quantum startups and developers.

The federal government has recently launched the National Quantum Initiative which will provide $1.2 billion over the next five years primarily to quantum researchers. The President signed the new law in December after the bill was approved by unanimous consent in the Senate and a vote of 348-11 vote in the House. Among the purposes are to build a “quantum-smart workforce of the future and engage with government, academic and private-sector leaders to advance QIS.”

This federal funding is welcome, even though less than required for a Manhattan-style project equivalent to China’s national quantum initiative. It will be highly important to our region that our Congressional delegation, several members of whom are particularly tech savvy, advocate our case for a fair share of this funding. Our Washington legislature should support this by making appropriations for quantum computing and education at the UW as a down payment showing local support.

There is also a role for private companies to support our quantum efforts beyond what Microsoft is already doing. I am reminded of the grants by Amazon to the UW in 2012 during the Great Recession engineered by then UW CSE Chair Ed Lazowska to recruit two leading professors, Carlos Guestrin from Carnegie Mellon and Emily Fox from the University of Pennsylvania, to strengthen the UW’s machine learning expertise. The two $1 million gifts created two endowed professorships. Inflation has certainly raised the price for endowed professorships, but perhaps this could be repeated. Another way to build our region’s quantum expertise would be for a local tech entrepreneur to follow the example of Paul Allen who endowed five $100 million plus scientific institutes, one of which is the Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence, headed by former UW professor and currently Venture Partner at Madrona, Oren Etzioni.

Building a quantum workforce begins in K-12 schools with teaching computer science, which is a stepping stone to quantum information science. K-12 schools in the U.S. are woefully deficient in teaching basic computer science. Nationally, only 35% of high schools offer a computer science course, according to Code.org. And in low income and minority schools this is even lower since the 35% reflects a lot of suburban schools which are more likely to offer computer science courses.

Nationally, only 35% of high schools offer a computer science course, according to Code.org.

We are beginning to address this gap in high schools but a much larger commitment is needed. Private companies can help fill part of the gap. Amazon recently announced its Future Engineers program, which includes a $50 million investment in computer science and STEM education for underprivileged students. As part of this program, a few weeks ago, Amazon announced grants to more than 1,000 schools in all 50 states, over 700 of which are Title 1 schools. Studies have shown that if a disadvantaged student takes an advanced computer science course in high school, they are eight times as likely to major in computer science at a university.

In addition to Amazon, Microsoft and other tech companies have programs to increase the teaching of computer science. One of those programs, backed by Microsoft, is TEALS, which organizes employees and retired employees as volunteers to teach computer science in schools. Amazon, Microsoft, and other tech companies are big financial supporters of Code.org which is having a significant effect on increasing the teaching of computer science in public schools.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2020 there will be 1.4 million computer science related jobs needing to be filled but only 400,000 computer science graduates with the skills to apply for those jobs. Only a tiny percentage of the 400,000 are minorities or from low income families. A similar gap exists in Washington State, with a gap of several thousand between the jobs needing to be filled and the number of annual graduates.

In Seattle and other tech centers in the U.S., we have been fortunate that we have been able to attract and retain a very substantial number of computer scientists from other countries to fill these jobs. But with immigration and trade uncertainties, this flow is uncertain and may not be as robust as needed. Even more important, by not providing the opportunity for our kids, particularly disadvantaged children, we are short-changing them. The best way to close the income gap is to improve our public educational system so a broader segment of our population can qualify for the jobs of the future. Organizations such as the Technology Access Foundation are attacking this problem head on by creating curriculum, recruiting minority teachers and building schools. We need to support these organizations and implement their approach broadly.The best way to close the income gap is to improve our public educational system so a broader segment of our population can qualify for the jobs of the future.

The best way to close the income gap is to improve our public educational system so a broader segment of our population can qualify for the jobs of the future.

At the university level, we are also deficient in educating a sufficient number of computer scientists. Even at universities such as the UW, with large and high quality computer science schools, we are unable to fill the demand for computer scientists. The Allen School graduates about 450 undergraduate students annually. Although this is double what the school produced a few years ago, it is woefully short of the several thousand needed annually in our state. This needs to be doubled again but funding is lacking.

In short, our region needs to recommit to building our computer science workforce beginning in our K-12 schools and undertake a new effort to build our quantum expertise and workforce.

Day One in the Cloud with Skytap

It was the spring of 2006. Professor Hank Levy, incoming Chair of the University of Washington Computer Science Department (now the Paul G. Allen School) and I were catching up. Hank and I had previously worked together on a successful start-up that he and his grad students co-founded called Performant. As I sat watching Hank type on a keyboard, the words he typed appeared on a nearby computer monitor. But, the application was not running on a local device, it was running “in the cloud.”

As hard as it may seem, in the spring of 2006, AWS had not launched Simple Storage Service (S3) or Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) yet. But Hank, two other remarkable Professors (Steve Gribble and Brian Bershad) and PhD student, David Richardson, were working on the underlying networking and compute technologies that would help power the cloud. As this group discussed the potential customer needs their technology could help address, we decided to found a company.

As we have written about recently, it is both energizing and inspiring to partner with founders from Day One. Skytap, originally known as “illumita”, is the company we seeded in the summer of 2006 along with the Washington Research Foundation and Bezos Expeditions. Eleven years later, Skytap is announcing its $45 million Series E round led by Goldman Sachs.

Skytap has always attracted incredible talent to the company. In the early years, the company had to build most of a ‘cloud infrastructure platform’ themselves as the market for modern hypervisors, public cloud infrastructure and enterprise customer readiness were immature. At that time, the team naturally focused on hiring world class product management and engineering executives. In more recent years, under Thor Cullverhouse’s leadership, Skytap has built a world class go-to-market team. Enterprise customers are now fully embracing the cloud in all its forms – public, hybrid and private. And Skytap is accelerating cloud innovation for the hybrid applications that are developed and increasingly deployed by enterprises in the cloud.

The Madrona team has had the privilege of partnering with Skytap’s founders and team from Day One. Eleven years later, we have never been more excited about the success and long-term potential of the company. It is interesting to note that the three Madrona backed companies that went public in the past 12 months were part of the Madrona family on average for thirteen years at the IPO date. We look forward to seeing what happens in two years when Skytap celebrates their thirteenth birthday!

Madrona Awards the Madrona Prize to the Backscatter Team at the UW Industrial Affiliates Day

Every year, Madrona MDs, Investment Professionals and other staff look forward to the UW CSE Industrial Affiliates day. Graduate students present posters on their research, which ranges from Robotics to Machine Learning to Databases. At the end of the day, Madrona awards a Madrona Prize and recognizes runner up teams for the most commercially viable technology. Last night, Madrona awarded the cash prize to a team of graduate students from two schools at the University of Washington –Computer Science & Engineering and the Department of Electrical Engineering – working to make battery free communications systems work over long distances.

2016 marks the 11th year of the Madrona Prize which is awarded to a ground breaking and commercially viable technology developed at the University of Washington. Since Madrona’s inception, more than two decades ago, Madrona has funded 16 companies out of the University of Washington. These companies include Impinj (NAS:PI), Farecast (acquired by Microsoft) and Turi (acquired by Apple.)

This year the Madrona Prize went to a project building on the Backscatter work at the University of Washington. In the latest iteration, the team shows that backscatter can work over longer distances than previously thought – up to 1 km – and provide precision communication for agriculture, home sensing and for medical devices such as smart contact lens and flexible epidermal patch sensors. The team on this particular backscatter project are Vamsi Talla, CSE postdoc; Mehrdad Hessar and Bryce Kellogg, UW Electrical Engineering; Shyam Gollakota, CSE faculty; Josh Smith, CSE and EE faculty. The prize is a cash award that goes directly to the graduate students involved in directing and conducting the research.

“The University of Washington is one of the top five computer science schools in the nation. Not only does the university fuel this region and beyond with research on key areas like machine learning, the Internet of Things, and robotics, but it also instills an entrepreneurial spirit – from students to professors – and we want to foster that as much as possible!” said Matt McIlwain, managing director, Madrona Venture Group. “We are excited about the plan to double enrollment, and graduates, over the coming years as the new CSE2 building gets underway with gifts from the core technology tenants of the region – Amazon and Microsoft. The UW is an invaluable resource to our technology ecosystem.”

Madrona has deep ties with the University of Washington. Several of the managing directors and investment professionals teach courses on entrepreneurship in different schools and colleges within the university. Dan Weld, the Thomas J. Cable / WRF Professor at UWCSE, is a Venture Partner at Madrona and works hand in hand with investing managing directors to source and evaluate investments as well as provide technological guidance to portfolio companies.

The Madrona Prize comes at the end of the Industrial Affiliates day, when companies, large and small, gather at the UW to hear about new technologies and projects underway.

“It’s wonderful to be in a region where local companies support both our educational and research missions. We really appreciate Madrona’s long-term support for our students with the Madrona Prize, as well as their commitment to helping us transform and transfer CSE technologies into companies, where they can have major external impact,” said Hank Levy, Chairman of UWCSE.

Each year, the Madrona committee also awards Runner up prizes. This year the Runners up were:

Runner up: PipeGen: Data Pipe Generator for Hybrid Analytics
(Brandon Haynes, CSE Ph.D. student; Alvin Cheung and Magda Balazinska, UW CSE faculty)

Runner up: Just Say NO to Paxos Overhead: Replacing Consensus with Network Ordering
(Jialin Li, Ellis Michael, Naveen Kr. Sharma, and Adriana Szekeres, CSE Ph.D. students; Dan R. K. Ports, UW CSE faculty)

Runner up: Programming by Examples for Industrial Data Wrangling
(Alex Polozov, CSE Ph.D. student; Sumit Gulwani, Microsoft; the Microsoft PROSE team)

For past winners visit https://www.cs.washington.edu/industrial_affiliates/madrona