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The hidden costs of homegrown qubit control systems

The hidden costs of homegrown qubit control systems
1 December, 2022

As a quantum control engineer in the Deltaflow.Control team at Riverlane, I meet with a lot of physicists building qubits in university and commercial labs. My goal is to understand how they do their work, what pains them and what they might need from a control system to progress their research. I get great insight from everyone I meet - each has their own story to tell, but what unites them is the constant pressure they face to win grants to fund further research. Experiments must be completed as quickly as possible to generate a steady pipeline of publishable results. Only then can they make a strong case for more funding to continue their work. 

However, I see a lot of slow progress, not just because building usable qubits is painstaking and difficult work, but also because the control systems they use to configure and run their experiments are hard to learn, hard to use, and sometimes buggy. To their credit they soldier on, learning how to work around the issues until eventually the pain becomes the norm. I had the same experience in my time at the Ion Quantum Technology group at the University of Sussex. We used homemade control software based on a legacy system that was repeatedly adapted and extended with "bolted-on" features by each generation of researchers and students, often with minimal documentation. 

Generations of smart and resourceful people continue to build their own tools at the expense of spending time on their primary research objectives. Physicists end up moonlighting as software engineers and mechanics, and what they create is certainly not industry grade. This has to change. There are three things we ask them to consider: 

  1. The days of having to self-build control systems have passed. The developing quantum technology industry and ecosystem can, and should, be leveraged to maximum effect. There is a choice of commercial products that are highly configurable and customisable. Choose equipment that takes the least time to learn and use and is easiest to maintain because that provides a path of least resistance to completing experiments and publishing results.  
  2. When making the case for capital investment in controls systems and other lab equipment, include time spent learning and setting up the equipment as a line on the balance sheet. That is the only way to reflect the cost of time spent not running the experiments (and therefore not winning grants). 
  3. Sunk costs on the purchase of existing equipment and time invested learning them mean switching can be a daunting prospect, but waiting longer only exacerbates the issues and increases the chance of hitting a brick wall at some point. Bite the bullet as soon as possible to future-proof your work. 

If we’re going to build useful quantum computers sooner and at requisite scale, pioneering physicists will need to spend more time experimenting, rather than building or battling with inferior control systems. They should demand professional grade tools that make their lives easier by providing the flexibility and features they require and that don’t divert their time and effort away from their primary research goals. 

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