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How this UW grad student, researching quantum computing, proved that classical
computers are better than we thought

by Tom Krazit on December 5, 2018 at 10:00 am
Ewin Tang is studying quantum algorithms as a grad student at the University of
Washington. (Photo courtesy Ewin Tang)

A lot of great discoveries were made while looking for something else. For
University of Washington computer science grad student Ewin Tang, research into
quantum computing showed that our regular old computers might be capable of much
more than we once thought.

Tang’s discovery of a powerful new machine-learning algorithm for classical
computers upended assumptions about computing challenges that were thought to
require quantum computers. That discovery, made while Tang was studying machine-
learning algorithms and quantum computing as an undergraduate at the University of
Texas, has enormous implications for both of those fields.

Now enrolled in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computing Science and Engineering
as a graduate student at the age of just 18, Tang is continuing to research how
quantum computing will impact machine learning. Just last week, two other papers
proving her breakthrough result will work with other types of machine learning were

“We ended up getting this result in quantum machine learning, and as a nice side
effect a classical algorithm popped out,” Tang said in an interview with GeekWire.
We ended up getting this result in quantum machine learning, and as a nice side
effect a classical algorithm popped out.

Quantum computing is one of the biggest Next Big Things on the tech horizon. It
proposes to replace the binary system developed to power old and modern computers,
where information was represented by a complicated combination of on and off
switches, with a system in which there are more than two ways to represent

That could lead to the development of extremely powerful computers that can process
information in ways we don’t yet fully understand, but quantum computing is hard.
The earliest systems are extremely expensive, and the specialists required to build
and maintain those systems are also extremely expensive.

That means a lot of quantum computing research is focused on determining whether
quantum computing algorithms will deliver the necessary “speedup,” as Tang puts it,
over classical computing algorithms. She is talking about an exponential surge in
computing power that will be impossible to ignore and that will become table stakes
for the biggest computing companies of our time, such as the two that sit on
opposite sides of Lake Washington in the Seattle region, Amazon and Microsoft.
D-Wave’s 2000Q quantum computer has to be refrigerated to near absolute zero (-

459.” she said. (D-Wave Photo) Tang proved that classical machine-learning algorithms working on recommendation problems — widely used across media and retail companies — were capable of far more than conventional wisdom held. and that traditional methods of providing the computing power needed to back those algorithms will have a much longer shelf life than anticipated. and paidContent before serving as executive editor of Gigaom and the Structure conference series. and have already shown that they will spend billions on the technology that will best power that research. but we’re very far away from a day in which quantum computers replace the regular old servers in data centers around the world.” Quantum computing and machine-learning scholars immediately recognized the impact of the discovery. Recommendation algorithms were once thought to be one of the easiest-to-understand applications for a quantum computer. Rigetti Computing. CNET. As explained by Quanta Magazine. Quantum computers will still enable huge computing breakthroughs in a variety of areas. from cryptography to geographic modeling. until Tang did.” she said. Tang. Tang modestly describes her work as pulling string on a bunch of different threads before reaching her conclusion. Microsoft. GeekWire's Cloud & Enterprise Editor. “These weren’t pieced together before I noticed it. however. and IBM have released rudimentary quantum computers. isn’t comfortable predicting the timing of that future: “I wouldn’t say that one of my main research goals is pushing quantum computers into the mainstream. Reach him at tom@geekwire. and Google. Tom Krazit. Still. but will likely be too expensive to justify using in the field of machine learning in their early days. Understanding when that bet makes the most sense will be extremely important to companies like Amazon Web Services. and Tang cited working with UW professor James Lee on these issues as a big part of the reason why she relocated from Texas to Seattle. Tang’s quantum computing research is very much theoretical. establishing the areas in which quantum computing will make a demonstrable different in outcomes will be an extremely important field over the next and follow him @tomkrazit. Her discovery suggests that machine learning won’t be the killer app for early quantum computers. a theoretical researcher. No one. a technical journal on quantum computing. But cloud companies are betting heavily on artificial intelligence research. but such is the nature of important discoveries. Tang demonstrated that sampling techniques used in a well-known quantum recommendation algorithm could be replicated in classical computers: “Tang’s algorithm ran in polylogarithmic time — meaning the computational time scaled with the logarithm of characteristics like the number of users and products in the data set — and was exponentially faster than any previously known classical algorithm. Previous Story .67 degrees Fahrenheit) in order to work. and research had demonstrated that a quantum algorithm did indeed produce significantly faster results than the best classical computing algorithms. and she made a point to note that quantum computing research assumes a certain level of computing power that isn’t necessarily practical in the near future. Companies like Cray. covered technology for news organizations including IDG. had determined whether there was a way to use classical computers to get similar results.

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