My Experience at Rigetti’s Quantum Hackathon

13 April 2018

by Tanisha Bassan

Editor’s note: Tanisha Bassan is a high school student in Toronto, where she participates in TKS, a program focused on innovation, science, technology, and entrepreneurship to prepare students for where the world is heading in the next 5–10 years. She and her classmates participated in Rigetti’s quantum computing hackathon in Berkeley.

The tech world is increasing at a pace that people are quite underestimating. Rigetti’s first quantum hackathon just happened this past weekend and I was fortunate to have attended. For all of you that have no idea how this was possible, Rigetti has released a 19-qubit quantum computer where we can run actual software programs in Rigetti’s quantum cloud using the Forest API and PyQuil library for python.

I was honored to be part of such a great event where quantum computing enthusiasts from various backgrounds came together to create magic (i.e. quantum programs). Let me emphasize the difficulty in building scalable quantum computers, nevermind getting them to run software programs. This initiative was ambitious and very valuable because it is crucial for the greatest minds from around the world to collaborate on solving the hardest problems.

My team and I were the youngest competitors. Being present under the same roof as leading physicists and programmers in the field was inspiring for a bunch of nerdy high school students. We were able to see the quantum computers up close and get a tour around the lab. It was absolutely phenomenal. Seeing an actual quantum computer in real life is a huge deal considering the fact they are such a rare commodity.

The people were the best part of the whole experience. Before the actual hackathon my team and I were able to meet some of the hardworking staff, other participants from around the world, as well as the founder Chad Rigetti. I was able to connect with extremely smart, like-minded individuals with the commonality being our passion for quantum computing and a future of unlocked possibilities. Chad is an amazing guy who had the vision for creating something that most people thought was next to impossible and then allowing others to share the dream to accelerate the growth of our quantum computers.

Our specific project was applying unsupervised machine learning to quantum molecular simulation. The inspiration came from building a scalable model for the future applications of quantum computers in drug discovery and quantum chemistry. The idea was to visualize the first energies of different molecules and their interactions with each other to help simulate chemical reactions. Our test case was with helium hydride, a fairly simple and small molecule, however, the implications of performing the same model on larger molecules are huge. In theory, we could simulate all reactions that occur in our body and be able to predict the best drug combination for various diseases and cancers, which would allow us to cure so many problems within the healthcare industry. Although it was an ambitious project, we were able to simulate the energy graph for the specific molecule, and there were a lot of learning points that I took away from the whole experience.

The first big key point is to never give up. I know the idea is cliché, however, it played an important role in our project. There were many times our code failed, we had no idea how to fix a certain error, or how to implement a certain feature into our circuit, and the list goes on and on. But we persevered through the hard parts and were able to make progress. The great part was that Rigetti staff members were available the whole day to ask questions and get help from, and we reached out many times to help improve our model. Quantum computing is an extremely difficult area to understand but having the right attitude about problems will help you get past any roadblocks along the way.

The second lesson was to leverage the people around you. I was in a room of high-caliber individuals who all had interesting stories or knowledge to share. I learned the most from talking to people and making new relationships. This is an extremely important skill set to have because we wouldn’t be where we are today without smart people working together to solve hard problems. Teamwork is vital when leveraging many minds to work together on similar projects. Without great collaboration, it would be impossible to reach the level of technology we have today. I personally gained a lot of value from talking to everyone at the hackathon and utilizing their knowledge in solving some of my problems as well.

The last point I want to make is having the right mindset and being open-minded. Sometimes things will not work out how you want them to so you have to be open to creative ideas and solutions. In the case of the hackathon, there were problems we could not fix so we had to think of new ways to approach the problem and keep iterating until we had a valid solution. This process was helpful in creating our quantum program because — let’s be real — no one’s original idea turned out how they wanted to, because a common issue was the limitation of the number of qubits that can be used to scale out solutions. This lead to more creative ways to work around the problem. The right mindset will take you very far. The key aspects were enthusiasm and the willingness to keep learning and trying new things.

Overall the experience was life-changing because I learned so much about the quantum computing field as well as some soft skills. I built many good relationships and gained a lot of wisdom and knowledge from the experts around me. I will continue hacking away towards my goals and passion in quantum computing. I cannot wait until Rigetti hosts their next hackathon!

My personal goals after my experience are to keep pushing myself to solve hard problems and one way can be to take on more projects in PyQuil from Github. I want to learn more about certain topics such as how to implement QAOA in various problems. After this hackathon, I want to keep attending more of them and continue meeting exceptional people who I can use to further my knowledge and understanding.

I want to give a shoutout to Rigetti for an unforgettable experience, I want to thank them for their hospitality and helpfulness in making quantum technology available for anyone who wishes to experiment and try it out. Quantum computing is seriously going to change the world and I hope more people will be inspired to contribute to the growing knowledge in our understanding of the technology.

Originally published at rigetticomputing.github.io on April 13, 2018.