• Taking a Quantum Leap Forward with IBM

  • The New School has long been renowned for its prowess in the social sciences, design, and performing arts. But today the university is reaching beyond its traditional spheres, cultivating knowledge and expertise in the most innovative technology in human history: quantum computing.

    Partnering with IBM Global University Program and IBM Skills Academy, The New School has launched a revolutionary quantum computing initiative that challenges students and researchers to explore applications to art, design, education, business, and even social justice. The university’s first quantum computing course was spearheaded by Dr. Lin Zhou, senior vice president and chief information officer of The New School, and Sven Travis, associate professor of media and design. Premiering at Parsons’ School of Art, Media, and Technology last year, the class yielded groundbreaking results for the university and the industry at large. 

    Individuals who have taken part in the IBM Skills Academy course can earn certificates indicating their mastery. So far, only 96 IBM Skills Academy Quantum Practitioner Certificates have been distributed, 12 percent of which belong to New School students, staff, and faculty. In other words, New Schoolers are officially among the first innovators to have access to this technology, and they are actively leading its development. Dr. Robert Sutor, who holds the title chief quantum exponent at IBM and has spoken in Zhou and Travis’ classroom, confirms that Parsons students are part of the first generation in their disciplines to be exposed to quantum computing. “They have a running head start,” he says.

    According to Zhou, keeping up with disruptive technology and investing in computer science is essential for any academic institution hoping to remain relevant in this decade, let alone this century. He argues that literacy is now defined not just as the ability to read and write but also as the ability to engage with and program computers. “When I joined The New School, I felt we had an obligation to prepare the next generation of talent for the technology-concentrated future,” he explains. 

    Zhou believes The New School has an important role to play in the development of quantum computing. He says that to harness the technology’s full potential, we’ll need to integrate quantum capability into daily life in thoughtful ways. As a university that’s been committed to social change and progressive innovation since its inception, The New School is uniquely positioned to research how quantum computing can be applied to the world in distinctly human-centered forms. “Preparing our society for this technology is largely the responsibility of liberal arts schools, of scholars,” says Zhou. “So we need to step up and better the social DNA of quantum, rather than solely put it on steroids.”

    Parsons’ quantum computing course was designed for students with little or no computer science experience. After an introduction to quantum physics and computing, students in the class accessed IBM’s quantum machines through the cloud and developed programs using an open-source framework called Qiskit. To Zhou and Travis’ delight, students excelled in grasping the novel technology and submitted final projects that reflected the creative thinking Parsons is known for. 

    According to Travis, students were encouraged to engage with their subject critically, as they would be in any other Parsons course. “No one has really looked at the technology and said, ‘Well, how does this change the way society might be looking at computers?’” he explains. It’s important to advance that kind of inquiry while quantum technology is still in its infancy, rather than after it’s been fully unleashed and we’re stuck addressing consequences retroactively, as we’ve had to do with innovations like social media. “Working with these new technologies, it’s increasingly important to look at issues of social justice and equity,” Travis adds. “As designers, we can’t solve the wicked problems just by viewing technology as a tool; we have to embrace technology as an intelligence amplifier that is going to allow us to solve design problems in fundamentally different ways.”

    Indeed, students in the course devised projects that brought quantum technology to a human scale. Their work ranged from solutions for managing traffic and strengthening QR code security to cultural pursuits like music and fine art. Quantum computing is still in its early stages, and student work reflected this raw quality. But it was clear that the New School way of thinking is moving the technology toward new realms of possibility. 

    Zhou and Travis are enthusiastic about the impact their course has had on students’ career opportunities. “Quantum computing has been heavily invested in by industries ranging from finance and natural resources to pharmaceuticals, automobile companies, and genetics,” says Zhou. Having knowledge of quantum technology can open up numerous and diverse pathways for students. 

    Parsons’ quantum computing effort has also won major accolades. This year, the Quantum Computing for Design and Social Research project entry won a FutureEdge 50 Award, which recognizes the most advanced trials and applications of emerging technologies in business. This overwhelming success only enhances the potential of The New School’s unique collaboration with IBM. Zhou and Travis hope to channel growing momentum into the creation of a computer science graduate program. This would further solidify the university’s role in the development of quantum technology and establish a real STEM presence in an already diverse, transdisciplinary institution. 

    Like quantum systems themselves, The New School’s quantum offerings are still in their early stages, developing according to need and opportunity in equal measure. But as with the technology itself, there is no doubt of the limitless potential in this sphere. As Zhou says, “This opens a new frontier for The New School.”


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