Yorktown Students Meet Watson, Learn About Quantum Computing at IBM
Editor’s Note: Pranav Burugula is a member of Yorktown High School’s Class of 2019.
YORKTOWN, N.Y. – After learning about physics mechanics for the past eight months and taking the AP physics exam, my AP physics classmates and I wanted to learn about the real-world applications of physics, and fortunately, living in Yorktown Heights, we had access to one of the leading research facilities in the nation: the IBM TJ Watson Research Center.
Thanks to the immense support given to us by Vishnubhai Patel, retired IBM researcher and current Yorktown councilman, and Ramanjaneya Burugula, a scalable systems software researcher at IBM, our class was able to visit the Watson Research Center on Tuesday, May 21.
We began our tour by learning about IBM’s research in quantum computing, organized by Dr. Jay Gambetta, an IBM fellow in quantum computing. Using a decommissioned quantum computing module, we learned that a quantum computer works by using the interactions and characteristics of subatomic quantum particles to perform many calculations simultaneously, making it useful for large calculations like the Traveling Salesman problem.
One of the best moments of our visit, however, was when we got to visit a fully functional IBM quantum computer. According to the researcher who explained IBM’s quantum computers to us, the core unit of a quantum computer operates at a temperature of 20 millikelvin, which is 0.02 degrees from absolute zero. I was amazed that I was standing 5 feet away from one of the coldest places in the universe.
Afterward, we learned about the famous Watson AI supercomputer that played “Jeopardy” in 2011. Michael Frissora, a research experimental strategic technologies engineering manager, led us through a presentation about the history of the Watson computer, including why “Jeopardy” was chosen as a means to test the AI algorithm. After showing us video documentaries, with a press of a button, he showed us the original Watson computers in a room behind a glass screen. We were in awe of the glass screen, which was originally frosted but, using electrical charges and gas, could become transparent in a fraction of a second.
We then went downstairs to the IBM particle accelerator, reading about the history of IBM technology in exhibits placed in the hallways on our journey there. Matthew Copel, a research scientist in nanoscale analysis of electronic materials, taught us about how their particle accelerator works and described some of the projects that IBM carries out using it.
When I first imagined a particle accelerator, I thought of a large circular tube that would run underneath the entire IBM campus. To my surprise, most particle accelerators, including the IBM one, were much smaller and consisted of two or more smaller tubes that used electromagnetic fields to accelerate particles to a collision chamber. Since we have always heard of particle accelerators in our physics and chemistry classes at Yorktown High School, it was interesting to see a functional one up close and appreciate the complexity, as well as the applications, of particle accelerators.
Finally, while leaving the building, we ran into Dr. Jim Wynne, who is a biotechnology researcher and one of the inventors of the technology behind LASIK. We had an enlightening conversation with him about his passions and work from when he was in school to his time at IBM, along with some anecdotes about his meetings with world-renowned people, such as President Obama. He told us that the technology he was developing was actually meant for micro-engraving, but accidentally became the crucial feature of laser eye surgery. This made me realize that many of the greatest breakthroughs we take for granted in our AP physics class, as well as in daily life, came from discoveries found while solving entirely unrelated problems.
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