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New professor Vedran Dunjko finds real-world problems that a quantum computer can solve

When he started high school, his brother gave him an advanced book on quantum computing. That's when he knew what he wanted to pursue. Since 1 October, Vedran Dunjko has been appointed professor of Quantum Computing at the Leiden Institute for Advanced Computer Science (LIACS), working closely with the Leiden Institute of Physics (LION).

‘I couldn't even read that book when I got it’, Dunjko smiles. ‘But still, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.’ In his home country Croatia, it was not possible to study quantum computing though. So he started out in mathematics and with a detour in biology, he eventually found his way to quantum cryptography and landed in Leiden in 2018. ‘I was usually part of either the physics department or computer science. Here, they flow into each other and I don’t have to choose for the first time.’

Shortly after he came to Leiden, he established the Applied Quantum Algorithms (aQa) group with Tom O'Brien, connecting LIACS and LION. ‘Both physicists and computer scientists in Leiden were active in quantum computing very early on, it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to come here. The group grew from two to 45 people in just a few years. It really is a group effort of the five lead researchers.’

From quantum potential to real advantage

The quantum computer comes with great promise, but according to Dunjko, it will likely only have a real benefit in a few real-world cases. ‘I want to fundamentally understand how it works, but also when it makes a genuine practical difference. With aQa, we have identified many abstract quantum algorithms, but it is not clear which ones solve actual problems that a classical computer can’t. For example, we work with the automotive and financial sectors to identify promising problem scenarios.’

He also collaborates with his colleagues in physics. ‘We look for physics questions that can’t be answered with experiments in the lab and that a classical computer can’t solve. A quantum computer is basically a simulated lab environment, so it could be the solution. This is a particularly promising area where we can prove the advantage mathematically. It might even allow us to study new physics.’

A milestone for the field

What he loves most about his work? ‘The freedom to ask any question I want. There is still so much to discover. Six years ago I didn't even know I would secure my next postdoc position. Quantum computing was not the hot topic that it is today,’ Dunjko says. ‘Many researchers study subjects that are new or not mainstream, and many never become widely investigated. But I was fortunate: quantum computing did. I am grateful for the support from both institutes. This research chair is recognition for the field.’

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