I Worked in Finance — Here’s Why I’m Learning Quantum Computing

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Qiskit
Feb 4, 2021 · 5 min read

By Amira Abbas, Ph.d Candidate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Amira and friends at Qiskit Camp Europe

I always knew that I liked mathematics as a child, but what I would study for my career, I had no idea. There was a common way of thinking in South Africa; if you hoped to become successful, you’d be a doctor, accountant, or a lawyer, and that’s it. I had to beg my parents to let me take a math class, and a tutor told me to study actuarial science — it’s math-heavy, and you can get a high-paying job. I did so on his advice, and enjoyed it enough; there was sufficient statistics and mathematics to keep me interested. I followed along that path, and ultimately went into finance, working for a few years at an asset management firm.

Along the way, I kept looking for ways to pursue my core interests, math and computer-science, and was quite assertive in what I wanted to do: I wanted to integrate machine learning concepts into finance. Thankfully, the firm I was working for let me apply these passions to more forward-thinking projects. For some reason I just still wasn’t happy; I wanted more, but I had no idea what it was that I wanted. It never occurred to me that physics could be the answer.

One evening after a day at work, I was on YouTube trying to find something to implement into a project at the time, when the lecturer in the video I was watching compared how a stock moved in the stock market to a particle moving in space and time via quantum mechanic’s core equation, the Schrödinger equation. I was so fascinated by the mathematics; it excited me to my core and my brain woke up. I knew this was the kind of thing that I wanted to be thinking about. I went down a rabbit hole, contemplating physics, the universe, and all of these crazy ideas, and started thinking about quantum physics at all hours, even while I was sitting at my day job. It wasn’t fair to the people who were more passionate about finance, and it wasn’t fair to myself, to stay where I was. I told my parents that I wanted to quit and go back to school to receive a masters in physics. They freaked out at first, told me it didn’t make any sense. But I persisted, and after writing to what seemed like every professor in the country, I was lucky to receive an email from a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and I convinced him I’d be competent enough to learn the necessary prerequisites for the degree. I’m thankful I did it — it changed my life.

Today, I’m a research advocate on the IBM Quantum team and pursuing my Ph.D in Quantum Computing at University of KwaZulu-Natal, where I research quantum machine learning algorithms. I’m hoping that I can leverage this research for financial applications. Today, I work with the IBM team in Zurich on quantum finance and optimization, and am starting to do projects related to derivatives and asset pricing. I’ve already had my name on a pair of papers about quantum neural networks and quantum classifiers. At the moment, much of this work is about looking for potential speedups in financial modeling. But this isn’t the end for me. I wonder whether one day quantum computing can offer the financial industry something completely different or new. What if there were an entirely new asset class, like cryptocurrency but quantum-computing linked? It sounds speculative now, but these kinds of questions are still interesting directions to pursue.

I often wonder whether, if I were to do it all over, I would have just studied physics from the outset. I wouldn’t. Finance gave me the business acumen, confidence, and mental maturity that isn’t taught in masters and Ph.D programs. If you run into enough CEOs and other successful people, they don’t seem as intimidating. It has made it easier for me to work with professors (respectfully, of course!) and has allowed me to network and form relationships with people that I may not have been able to meet otherwise. My experience in finance has made me value physics even more, too. I sometimes felt that there was a premium on perceived intelligence, and that one needed to uphold a “fake it until you make it” mentality and not admit when they were wrong. In the quantum community, everyone recognizes that there’s a lot that they don’t know. It’s wildly refreshing to be able to reply to someone very senior and say “I don’t know, let’s figure it out.”

If you work in finance today and are wondering whether quantum computing is for you, the first step is probably to assess the nature of your interest. If you’re just wondering how quantum computing might affect the industry, then there are amazing resources online to educate yourself, like the Qiskit Textbook and various lectures on Quantum Finance. However, if you’re starting to find that quantum computing is eating into your thoughts as happened to me, don’t ignore the feeling, and start to do something about it now. The timing is right, and it’s okay if you don’t have a physics education yet— we need people coming from a diversity of different backgrounds to push this field forward.

Perhaps most importantly to anyone interested in quantum computing: don’t forget to leverage this amazing quantum community. Write emails and be proactive, and find someone who’ll take a chance on you like I did. A mentor will allow you to determine the next steps more clearly, and give you someone to fall back on when you need help. The accessibility of the Qiskit community has been unlike any other, and the number of resources and members is growing rapidly.

Read previous “Why I’m Learning Quantum Computing” Stories here, and get started with Qiskit here!

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A community to discuss Qiskit, programming quantum…

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A community to discuss Qiskit, programming quantum computers, and anything else related to quantum computing.

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A community to discuss Qiskit, programming quantum computers, and anything else related to quantum computing.