Head of Department and Professor at DTU Compute Jan Madsen. Photo: Hanne Kokkegård, DTU Compute

Jan Madsen: Computer scientists need to get serious about quantum computing

Monday 13 Nov 23


Jan Madsen
Head of department, Professor
DTU Compute
+45 45 25 37 51

Speaking to a packed room at Digital Tech Summit the Head of DTU Compute, Jan Madsen, emphasised the critical role of computer science in bridging the gap between physical qubits and useful applications. 


How does quantum computing take the necessary steps forward, and become a relevant tool in the real world?

If you ask DTU Compute’s Head of Department and Professor Jan Madsen, the key is combining knowledge of mathematics, physics, and classical computer science.

Jan Madsen was the first speaker at the final big session on the first day of the annual Digital Tech Summit in Copenhagen. The session titled “Quantum Computing: How can computer science unlock its full potential?” attracted a lot of interest and people were queuing outside long before the event started. Jan Madsen was joined by Christian Majenz, an Associate Professor at DTU Compute and Oswin Krause, an Assistant Professor from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Copenhagen.

Jan Madsen took an interested audience through a brief history of computing, from Alan Turing and the first transistor, through the advent of chip architecture to modern neural network and machine learning tools like the Cerebras processor, which contains a staggering 850.000 cores on a single chip.

His point? To make it clear that all this physical wizardry needed computer scientists to become useful.

“There has been both in the math and physics a tremendous amount of work done here. But the computer science coming into this is bridging the gap between the two. This building up from transistors into architecture and eventually getting to an abstraction layer with compilers and high-level programming languages,” he explained.

Erasing the abstraction layer

"What I think about when talking about quantum computer science is this complex middle layer that spans from physical qubits at the bottom, to the very abstract algorithmic applications at the top."
Jan Madsen, Head of Department and Professor at DTU Compute

Computer science made modern computing possible. “But what about quantum computing,” Jan Madsen asked the packed room.

“This is the challenge we have. It is still a lot about math and physics today. But we have to get the computer scientists into the game,” he said.

Jan Madsen’s point was that all the exciting developments in quantum computing is focused on physically building qubits, how to control them and keep them coherent. In quantum computing, qubits replace classical bits, offering the ability to hold multiple states simultaneously. The delicate nature of qubits requires careful control to maintain coherence, and measurements will collapse their superposition states into a zero or one.

While current methods in quantum computing involve programming at the gate level, akin to early classical computing, Jan Madsen made a case for raising the abstraction layer in quantum computing.

“Even though it is nice to use, and we have these graphical languages also expressed in programming languages, I think we need to raise the abstraction layer. And this is a challenge,” he said.

As quantum computing progresses, the integration of classical computer science into the field will become necessary and apparent.

Classical computer science time to shine

This complex middle layer, spanning from physical qubits to abstract algorithmic applications, presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities. And Jan Madsen emphasized the need for computer scientists to actively engage in this area.

”There is a lot of interesting problems here. What I think about when talking about quantum computer science is this complex middle layer that spans from physical qubits at the bottom, to the very abstract algorithmic applications at the top,” he explained.

Jan Madsen finished his talk with an important message to his fellow computer scientists. As quantum computing advances, it is clear that a collaborative effort across disciplines is essential for unlocking its full potential. To ensure that quantum computing can be useful in real world applications we need computer scientists with a foundational understanding of mathematics and physics, and the courage to think differently.

”It is a very different way of thinking, but I think we have a lot of the methods, a lot of the tools for it. It's time that computer scientists get seriously into the quantum computing game,” Jan Madsen closed.

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