Campus and Community

Técnico students win the D-Wave Challenge at iQuHACK 2021

Diogo Cruz, Duarte Magano and Sagar Pratapsi, PhD students, and Óscar Amaro, Master’s student in Engineering Physics (MEFT) at Instituto Superior Técnico, stood out in MIT‘s iQuHACK 2021, in the analog quantum computing category and won an award from D-Wave – one of the most important companies in the field and sponsor of the competition. The second edition of iQuHACK took place online, on 30th and 31st January, and brought together 49 teams from 29 countries. This second edition was held virtually, from 30-31 January, and included 49 teams from 29 countries.

“We were very surprised when we heard the name of our team -“patoLogic”- being announced as winners of the D-Wave challenge”, recalls Duarte Magano. “Honestly, it took us some time to believe. The ceremony was held on a Sunday, at 23:00 Portugal time. We were in pajamas when we were asked to turn on the camera for a brief speech”, he says. The Técnico students won one of the two prizes awarded in this category.

The idea of participating in the hackathon came from Óscar Amaro. “I was looking for summer schools and competitions related to quantum computing and it was in this context that I found iQuISE, a group of PhD and Postdoctoral students from MIT that organises the iQuHACK”, recalls the MEFT student.

He got in touch with colleagues from Instituto de Telecomunicações (IT), and challenged them to set up a team. “It was a new situation for all of us. Hackathons are great examples of time pressure and – ideally – of great creativity. Although it cannot be considered scientific work, our participation was important to learn, in record time, about quantum annealing, a computing paradigm that is different from what we were used to”, says Óscar Amaro.

The hackathon lasted more than 24 hours, during which the teams had the freedom to use the sponsors’ quantum computers to solve a problem of their choice. “This in itself is a small privilege, since access to these computers is still limited and expensive,” stresses Sagar Pratapsi.

“The jury’s criteria were the product’s usefulness, technical merit and creativity. The challenge included two categories: quantum computing and quantum annealing”, explains the PhD student.

“Our challenge consisted in using quantum annealing to solve a puzzle called Star Battle, which is published regularly in the New York Times. In this game, we are given a square grid with marked regions. The goal is to distribute stars across the grid in such a way that each row, column and region has a given number of stars”, says Diogo Cruz.

According to the Técnico students “these events are an excellent opportunity to learn”. “The computing technique we used (quantum annealing) had been introduced to us in the Physics of Classical and Quantum Information curricular unit, at Técnico. However, none of us used it on a daily basis. We had a short and practical introduction to this method in the hackathon and we immediately started to work”, says Duarte Magano.

Quantum technologies: a new world that the next generation of talent is eager to explore

“Quantum physics provides a completely new way of looking at computing, and at the very concept of information. This is a new area and its doors are wide open, but we begin to see enough results to grasp its reality. As young scientists, the opportunity to explore it becomes fascinating. We are delighted with the opportunity to work on the intersection between the mathematical rigour of information theory and computing, the proximity to fundamental physics and the reality of the experimental world”, says Sagar Pratapsi.

Técnico has played a prominent role in this area in terms of training, but also in terms of research. “Técnico develops research and advanced training in quantum computing – and, in general, in quantum information science and technology – since 2003”, stresses Yasser Omar, Técnico professor at the Department of Mathematics (DM) and coordinator of IT’s Physics of Information and Quantum Technologies Group. “Técnico was a pioneer and leads this scientific area in Portugal. It is renowned at international level, as evidenced by the participation in many European projects, such as the Quantum Internet Alliance project , which aims to create the first quantum internet”, he adds.

According to professor Yasse Omar, another significant indicator that attests the important role of Técnico in this scientific area “is the excellent quality of Técnico students in this area, which includes Diogo, Duarte, Óscar, and Sagar, who won this MIT international competition, showing that we can be among the best in the world”.

“Placing Técnico among the best in the world, in this scientific area, has been my goal, and that is the message I pass to my students,” stresses the Técnico professor. “I expect great results from the research projects of these students. In September 2021, Técnico will launch the Minor in Science and Quantum Technologies, a pioneer in Portugal, which will further strengthen training in these areas”, says professor Yasser Omar.