Quantum physicist Michelle Simmons with ABC presenter Dan Bourchier, 25 November 2018
LUKE CUMMINS: Hello and welcome to the National Museum of Australia. It’s lovely to see so many people here today for the 2018 In Conversation with the Australian of the Year, which is a great event that we’ve had the privilege of working on with the National Australia Day Council for a few years now. I would like to begin today by saying, my name is Luke. I’m part of the lifelong learning team here at the National Museum. And it’s great to be able to put together so many events for you all. And, of course, we should start by doing the acknowledgement of country. So I’d like to start by acknowledging the Ngunawal and Ngambri people who are the traditional custodians of this land on which we are meeting, and pay respect to their elders, both past and present. And, of course, I extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders present here today.
This is actually the fourth in the series that we’re here for today, so the previous Australians of the Year In Conversation featured people like Rosie Batty, David Morrison, Alan Mackay-Sim. Of course today we’re joined by the 2018 Australian of the Year, Michelle Simmons. And, of course, there’s someone sitting on stage with Michelle. Many of you may recognise Dan Bourchier, who is of course an Australian journalist. And he also features on our screens during the 7pm ABC News ACT bulletin, as well as the breakfast program on ABC Radio Canberra. And of course he’s been previously a political reporter and the National Indigenous Affairs correspondent for Sky News Australia.
So today we’ve got about 40 minutes of the In Conversation, and we’re hoping to allow for about 15 to 20 minutes for your questions. As the conversation goes on, do start thinking about the questions you’d like to ask. We’ll actually run around with some Q and A mics, so when we get to the Q and A section of today, please just hold up your hand and we’ll try to get a mic to you as quickly as we possibly can. And at this moment in time, I’ll hand over to Dan to introduce Michelle. Thanks so much.
DAN BOURCHIER: Thanks so much, Luke. Welcome everyone. And thanks for joining us here at the National Museum today as part of In Conversation with great Australians — Australians of the Year who have done, well, remarkable things in our community. It’s important that it happens, this conversation, at an institution like the Museum, which is about telling, in part, our national story. And I echo those sentiments that you’ve already heard, paying my respects to the traditional owners and the custodians of this land who have been managing, maintaining story, and songlines for tens of thousands of years, and we’ll be talking more about contemporary issues today. But I think it’s always very important to look to the past.
Right now, though, I’m sitting alongside, well, an esteemed Australian, our Australian of the Year for 2018, Michelle Simmons, who is well known as a science communicator. She’s been dubbed a ‘science evangelist’. We’ll get to that in a moment, I suspect, but she’s also an expert, a quantum physicist, who has been leading the charge on some of the big discussions, debates, and also research about the big picture right down to the molecular. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Professor Simmons.
Great to have you along today. I first spoke to you immediately after you were announced as the recipient, and for anyone who isn’t familiar with that ceremony, it was all bells and whistles, there was a lot happening. And before you came and had a chat with me, you just needed a few minutes to stand by yourself, sitting at the end of the desk while I was interviewing other people, of which you just needed some time to reflect. Twelve months on, give us a sense of what this year’s been like.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: It’s been an amazingly busy year but I’ve had a wonderful time. I’ve got to travel across Australia, meet people from young school children — I particularly love talking to young school children, they’re very curious and open — all the way through to travelling internationally and representing Australia overseas. So it’s a very unique insight, you get to see into what is Australia and it just made me prouder than ever to be Australian.
DAN BOURCHIER: You spoke 10 months ago about how bizarre it felt to have this honour cast upon your shoulders. Does it feel any different now?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: It still feels incredibly weird. I think a lot of people think that you get a heads up that it’s happening, but you really don’t know until that moment. And so it’s a real shock first of all, and then you feel that tremendous responsibility. What a great country to be a representative of. So it’s been great.
DAN BOURCHIER: Let’s talk about your field of expertise. One of the things that I think I’m quite thrilled about is that you’ve made quantum physics something that’s more accessible. That’s not without its challenges, is it?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: It’s not. So, really, it’s understanding the way the world works and it’s very small, so the smaller you get, quantum physics starts to dominate. It’s like seeing a new way of visualising the world around us. If we can understand that, and actually control it, we can actually hopefully build computers that allow us to do calculations that we simply can’t do. And so that concept of how it’s technologically very important for Australia to get behind this and understand it, and actually the realisation that Australia is at the forefront across the country, and in this field — it’s something that’s very exciting and I think everyone should know.
DAN BOURCHIER: To that end, eventually one of the aims that you have is creating a computer so strong, so powerful that it can determine answers to problems that may have ordinarily taken thousands of years. How do you begin to grapple with a power that is so strong?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, for us — particularly, I’ve been interested in the history of the evolution of classical computing and going, really everyone knows that we use computers every day, has taken them for granted. But if you look at the history of the computer, it started very simply with one transistor, and then the integrated circuit, 10 transistors working together. Fifty years later, we have that powerful computing that we now take for granted. But everyone can communicate across the world, things happen in real time. But the reality is, classical computing only does one thing after another. And so when you write code, it literally follows like an automatic one line of code after another. If you’ve got a system with lots of variables, complex systems, such as the weather, or trying to predict how to reduce fuel costs for airlines, or how molecules interact with the body, such as drug design, all of that is just too complicated for classical computers. They just can’t do it, it takes too long. So this ability to look at the world in a different way, is going to open up a whole new power in computing, if we can harness that.
DAN BOURCHIER: So the core of this is being able to multitask essentially?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: It really is, so if you could call it massively parallel computing, but anything to build a computer, you’ve got to have experts in the fabrication, the chip design. Then once you get through to actually making the chip itself, you’ve got to test it at very low temperatures with very high frequency currents and voltages measure across. It sits right at the forefront of all the measuring capability we have about how to measure an individual electron on an individual atom. And then at the end of that, we want to model it and make sure we understand it mathematically. And then we are right at the forefront of that modelling field. So all of those are pushing the boundaries of where technology currently is.
DAN BOURCHIER: How far are we from that type of a computer?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Some would argue it exists already, and it’s true. You want to control the quantum world. You want to put information in, create this process called entanglement, where you’ve accessed that quantum power, and then you want to read the information out. Those processes have been demonstrated already, we’ve demonstrated that in our lab. But you want to get a computer that acts faster than a classical computer for a well-known type of problem. That’s the kind of the challenge that everyone’s heading for now. When that’s realised, that will be when quantum computing becomes a practical reality.
DAN BOURCHIER: You spoke about the applications that could have for weather for, say, the price of fuel for airlines — would it have practical applications for any of us in this room for our home computers, for the way that we communicate?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes. So in the first instance, probably not. So in the first instance, it’s really going to be like, almost the first computers with these big mainframes that existed and people would send jobs to —
DAN BOURCHIER: That were a size of a room.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Size of a room. So they’re not quite as big as that now, because the chip itself is very small, but they are quite big still. They’re called cryostats, they’re dilution fridges. They cool the chips to very low temperature in a controlled environment. But ultimately it’s going to be the same thing, people will send particular jobs. So it’ll be big corporations that have complex calculations, will send those to this computer and get the answers back. And eventually as those computers grow and we understand what they can do, eventually, I imagine, people will start getting access to them directly.
DAN BOURCHIER: This is something that you’re clearly passionate about. What is it about this arena or the science that has so captured your imagination?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: It really is the fact that we know so little about the world, and the quantum, well, it’s a whole new world that exists around us all the time, and we have a little glimpses in it. So, you know, if we can understand — essentially our bodies are made of atoms, the way we are is made up of signals that we’re processing to our brains, and we can’t model than more than 20 atoms with the classical computer. So having a computer that’s powerful enough to try and mimic how the body works, how the brain works, eventually we’ll understand more about who we are, and the world around us. So that’s what really excites me.
DAN BOURCHIER: I wonder, do you ever grapple with that question of just how little we do know?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: All the time, even in our field. One of the things that I find very exciting, as you know, in the digital world it’s ones and zeros, it’s literally black and white. And that’s the way the digital world works. It’s actually very limited. When you hit the quantum, well, you’re looking at the colour, you’re looking at everything in-between, and you realise you’re having to think in three dimensions rather than two dimensions. Everything is more complicated mathematically, conceptually, visually. So we’re kind of sticking our time at the moment and realising, ‘Oh, my goodness, there’s all that out there. Can we grapple with it?’ If fundamentally we can understand it mathematically, pictorially and write it down, we’ll get a better understanding of the way the world is around us.
DAN BOURCHIER: You spoke about one of the joys of being Australian of the Year was being able to speak to so many young Australians.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Absolutely.
DAN BOURCHIER: Is that what you see — the beginning of a sparkle in their eyes, that idea of the possibility?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, absolutely. So the thing I love about young people is that they are inherently curious. They haven’t learned to be nervous about what they say or think. So they will just ask questions. And fundamentally understanding the world requires that you constantly ask, constantly doubt, you constantly question. As we get older, we get more fearful of doing that. Whereas young people, they don’t care. So spending time with young people — I encourage everyone to do it because they always ask things, and no matter how you see the world, it will throw your view a little bit. They will question it and it make you rethink what you’ve already thought you’ve understood up to that point.
DAN BOURCHIER: Perhaps without the filters that we place upon ourselves.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, great. Unfiltered life, wouldn’t it be great if you could have that the whole time?
DAN BOURCHIER: [laughing] It could be quite dangerous to us —
MICHELLE SIMMONS: It could be.
DAN BOURCHIER: Particularly in my line of work.
I want to take you back to 1992, to start to paint the picture of the evolution of your own career. This was when you did your PhD. And now you’re going to have to excuse me if I get some of these more scientific terms incorrect. But it was on the characterisation of CDTE, which I think is an acronym based — epitaxial solar cell structures fabricated by MOVPE. So what is that?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: It’s a terrible title for a PhD thesis, that’s what it is. Looking back now, I’d never get my students to have titles like that. But no, it was really making a solar cell, it was making a solar cell and the idea was to try and make a more efficient solar cell than what had existed today. So it literally was — One of the things that I have a big passion about is creating your own technology, not just using it, not getting online and sitting endlessly getting information, but actually create things. And so my PhD was about making a device from scratch, actually growing a crystal, slicing it up, make it into chips, and then growing different epilayers, so small layers of material. And the idea being that each epilayer would capture a certain fraction of the sunlight, because sunlight’s got lots of different wavelengths, and to create multiple wavelengths that we can capture some more efficiency in a solar cell. And it actually worked.
DAN BOURCHIER: Yes.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: So the fascinating thing was, it’s very complex, lots of different techniques that I had to learn. But at the end of the day, we did get a high efficiency cell. The tragedy was it wasn’t going to be economically competitive with silicon.
DAN BOURCHIER: Right. And that’s the challenge. One of the challenges then, isn’t it? Of some science, is that an enormous amount of work can go into it, but it will just cost too much to replicate that on a mass scale.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: That’s right. And so fundamentally if you want to build something that’s useful to society, you’ve got to take all that into account, the economics as well as the fundamental understanding. I guess one of the challenges in science is you have to have that fundamental understanding to know what’s going to come out in the future. You can’t pick it too early, because you pick too early, you might pick the wrong thing and nothing will come. So you’ve got to have that fundamental base all the time generating ideas, and then as it grows seeing, Well, this one works, this one might not.
DAN BOURCHIER: I suspect that that’s what sets the pathway towards your focus on that fabrication of atomic scale devices in silicon and germanium.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes. So now we’ve moved from those kind of epilayers, where we were literally growing layer by layer. Now we can actually control every dimension with atomic precision. So we’re literally the only group in the world that can put an atom in place and then address signals to that atom and read them out from the atom. That’s very exciting. It really is good.
DAN BOURCHIER: It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it as well?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: It’s great. Every day we go in the labs, and when you’ve been working at it for a number of years you might think you get fed up with it, but I absolutely love every device we make, seeing the signals come out, watching it. It’s great.
DAN BOURCHIER: How much trial and error was involved in getting to that point?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Actually, it’s interesting, so we set out a plan probably back in 2000. An eight-step plan, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ Each of those steps had never been done before. And people would say, ‘Look, that’s terrific, but you’ve got to get through all eight for it to work, good luck to you.’ And actually people from overseas would say, ‘Good luck, you Aussies, off you go.’
DAN BOURCHIER: Better you than us, perhaps.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes. So that really galvanised me, because there was no reason why each step couldn’t work. So we did a lot of reading and theoretical understanding and if we could get there the benefit would be, we’d be able to make devices that just didn’t exist and could make a quantum computer. And so as every step was knocked down, it’s a fantastic feeling. When you get to the eight, and you finally make the first single atom transistor, that’s just an unbelievable feeling.
DAN BOURCHIER: Yes.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Nothing beats that, that feeling of something that’s taken a long time and there it is.
DAN BOURCHIER: Does that happen in a lightning bulb moment where you just realise, ‘Oh, my heavens, we’ve done it.’
MICHELLE SIMMONS: No, it’s thorough systematic hard graft, you can’t bypass that. I think this is true of any industry you create. It’s genuine hard work and it’s ruthlessly systematic, you can’t bypass, there’s no quick routes to get there. And that’s one of the things I try and teach young people. If you want to be successful, you’ve got to realise that you’ve got to put that that time and effort in. The more you put in, the deeper you understand it, and the more unusual things you’ll come up with.
The transistor took us many years to build the eight steps, literally decades to get to those eight steps. But then even when we made the final transistor, it would have taken about two or three weeks and at each step it could have failed. Yes, and we had got to the point we knew what each step should look like. And then eventually, we finally saw the end result. And it looked at high level exactly what we’re expecting. But then at the detail level, there’s all kinds of stuff we were not expecting. As a scientist that’s even more exciting because suddenly there’s the things that you’re not predicting.
DAN BOURCHIER: Well, that throws up additional challenges, doesn’t it?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: It does, and then it really tests your understanding, ‘Gosh, we thought we understood everything but here’s this, what is it?’ So it took us about another six months till we had to publish it, to figure out what all those other features were.
DAN BOURCHIER: Was that then what led to creating the first — well, being the only group to create an atomically precise device in silica? And why is that so important?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: So that atom that we put in there is a phosphorus atom. It has one extra electron compared to silicon and we’re encoding information on that electron spin. So it’s literally that electron spin, what we call our quantum bit, or qubit. That gives us this, instead of the ones and zeros, it sits between, and that allows us to access the quantum well.
DAN BOURCHIER: In and of itself, that atom what does that do? What does that power? How is that used?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes. It literally is, whenever you encode any information, you are doing ones and zeros, a letter A or B will have a whole zeros, and ones and zeros in a string. But you literally only have those two states. In the quantum world, you can look at the states in between. And the advantage of that is when you encode in the quantum world you’re able to do calculations in parallel. So instead of one off the other, it’s massively parallel. And that’s really the benefit of quantum world.
DAN BOURCHIER: I want to take you back to the travels that you’ve had around Australia over the last year. You mentioned there in passing about what you’ve learned about Australia, what’s the take-out being for you?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: It’s a huge number of things. One is just a fantastic sense of collaborative spirit. Very community-minded, highly competitive in certain areas. So obviously we see that in our sporting fields, but actually in the scientific arena, we’re incredibly strong. So the research base across Australia is in a great position. So I’ve seen all of those things as I’ve gone around. And the fact that people like to have a joke, even in this time of political correctness. Australians don’t take themselves too seriously, which I love.
One of the things I’ve learned, which I was surprised at, and I’ve really learned this throughout the year, is that kind of aversion to risk when it comes to creating companies. So really strong research base willing to take on the world in research, but when it comes to translating to creating a company, there’s suddenly a fear about, ‘Australia doesn’t traditionally do this, you know, should the others do it, and we get the benefit when they’ve made it, and we just then buy it in afterwards.’ So that was something I wasn’t expecting.
DAN BOURCHIER: What do you think that’s about? Is that culture or is that intrinsic or is it tall poppy syndrome?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: It’s a mixture of all of those things. I’ve tried to unpick it, and I guess it is risk aversion. It’s not done, so it’s new. But there’s also the sense that, ‘Maybe we can’t do it here.’ I don’t know why it’s there. Biggest thing I’ve learned this year is just so many fantastic positives, giving it a go and taking on ambitious projects. I just would love to see Australia push through that, and create companies over and over again.
DAN BOURCHIER: Yes. And you’ve done that this year as well, haven’t you?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: We’re doing that actively.
DAN BOURCHIER: As well as being Australian of the Year, you just thought, ‘Let’s start a company as well.’
MICHELLE SIMMONS: So that took a long time too. The creation of a company took us many years. But yes, we started a company, Silicon Quantum Computing, this year, and that’s really trying to build the hardware here in Australia based on this technology that we’ve developed.
DAN BOURCHIER: Yes, and how is that going?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: It’s great. It’s really good. So it’s allowed us to accelerate. I guess that’s the other thing is, when you have a company, you’ve got to give it everything. The research space is very much collaborative, and keeping up with the rest of the world, or leading the rest of the world, in a company — it’s full on devotion to try to create something. It’s taking it from fundamental to applied research. It means you’ve got to talk at a very different level to investors. You’re hiring new people who are engineers, rather than research scientists. We’ve actually created an unusual situation. We’ve got the company sitting next to our centre of excellence. It’s a unique model in Australia, it hasn’t happened anywhere else in the world. And it’s trying to play off the benefits of that highly collaborative and highly competitive Australian research base with the company building a prototype.
DAN BOURCHIER: When you talk about research, there’s been a lot of media focus on government spending in the research arena in universities. I wonder if you have a view on the impact that that’s having.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes. I think, one of the things again I see if we look at that research base, it has come from the Australian Research Council, it has been fed well over the last two decades. We wouldn’t have so many terrific results internationally if it hadn’t been supported. And there’s a lot of fundamental schemes, such as Research Fellowship Scheme from the Australian Research Council or a Centre of Excellence scheme, where lots of people are collaborating at a very high level in a way that’s unique internationally. And again it’s something not many people are aware of, but when I go overseas, a lot of people say, ‘You’ve got a great system in Australia, you get these fellowships that give you leadership at a young age. You’ve got centres of excellence that allow you to build scale and capacity.’ So we are really highly regarded overseas and not so well-known here. But, that said, you can always have more funding.
DAN BOURCHIER: Absolutely. And I wonder if there’s a risk if the model, or the dynamic of funding, might change if, say, national interest at the behest of politicians becomes paramount to the way money is spent or where it’s spent.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: You see, the interesting thing for me is national interest and national benefits have always been there. So in every research grant there’s always —
DAN BOURCHIER: Is the challenge, the interpretation then, or if it becomes a political tool rather than part of a broader discussion?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, see, I haven’t seen it become a political tool. So my sense of it, essentially we are funded by taxpayers to do research. We are accountable to them to do the right thing with the research dollars. And wherever we can, we should be trying to create economic benefit, if we’re able to. So obviously some fields are so fundamental, it’s not easy to do that. Other fields are at the forefront. So I do think it’s always important to have that context of, ‘We’re getting funding, we’ve got to do the right thing. We have to look at how internationally leading we are in this field. If we can compete in that space, and what benefit can we bring back to Australia.’ I think every researcher should have that forefront.
DAN BOURCHIER: One of the big challenges that Australia’s grappling with is that around gender in, well, across the board, but in the sciences, in younger people, young women moving into STEM. This is one of the challenges that you’ve spoken about quite a bit through this year, but over the many years of your career.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes.
DAN BOURCHIER: Are we getting any better?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: I think we are. I think across the world, people have recognised that there’s a disparity there, and have been trying to figure out why it’s there, and what to do about it. Other countries have been probably ahead of Australia in that, but in the last few years, I’ve seen lots of programmes come up in Australia, whether it’s the female Superstars of STEM with Science and Technology Australia or its research fellowships targeted at females. So there’s lots of things, especially for young girls now, the opportunities are fantastic. So the ability to go and do work experience and get funded for that, if they’re interested, is definitely growing.
But one of the things I’ve really looked at is what point does it drop off, and it’s really the age of 14 to 16 that young girls start to move away from those engineering, maths, computer science subjects and physics. Really at that point, if you talk to them and figure out, ‘Why are you not doing it?’, a lot of it is careers. So they’re looking at, ‘What is my career going to be if I stay in this subject?’ And it’s not obvious. You can’t plot, if I’m a physicist, where am I going to end up? Whereas if you have you’re a medic, you’re going to have a career of medicine or a lawyer.
And so, yes, over the last year, what I’ve been trying to say to them is, ‘Don’t worry about where you’re going to end up. Jobs are changing so quickly now, that you should be focusing on what you love and building skills around what you love. If you build the skills around the things you like, whether it’s design, whether it’s maths, statistics, computer coding, dance, music, whatever it is — build the skills around what you love and the job opportunities will be in that space. Get your options and open them up as much as you can by picking up skills and don’t worry about where you see yourself in the long run.’
DAN BOURCHIER: It strikes me as that it was today 10 months ago that we last spoke, and one of the comments that you made particularly to young women is, ‘Don’t be defined by the expectations of others.’
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, absolutely.
DAN BOURCHIER: What were you meaning by that and has that changed at all?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, I guess this goes back to a story of playing chess with my father and, you know, he didn’t expect me to know how to play when I first played him and ended up beating him on the first game.
DAN BOURCHIER: How did that go down?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Oh, not too well, I’ll be honest with you. He played me 10 games and thrashed me in a row, every time.
DAN BOURCHIER: To sharpen up.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, but I had a very close relationship. So I’d try to figure out, ‘Here is someone that knows me, wants me to do well in life, but didn’t expect me to do that.’ So there was that sense when I was young that people are going to expect things, just by my gender. And certainly in the physics field, a lot of people would think that I’m not going to be good at physics. So in some ways —
DAN BOURCHIER: Still now?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Throughout my career, that would be the case. Now, it’s less though. So the older I’ve got, the less there’s the crisis, but certainly when I was young —
DAN BOURCHIER: Right. Particularly when you’ve got all those runs on the board and you’re Australian of the Year.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: That helps now. But certainly, when I went to Cambridge in the UK, I was the first female post doc there, and there was 80 people in the team I was in. It’s a commonly said view, ‘Well, women just aren’t good at physics.’ And it was accepted at that point. That’s just the way it was.
DAN BOURCHIER: Not by you, I suspect.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: No, not by me. I look back and it was never a barrier to me that that was there. In fact, I guess I’ve realised that I’m quite competitive. So for me, it galvanised me to show them yes. And throughout my life I’ve always tried to show that, and find out myself, ‘What are my boundaries? Am I good at this or am I not good at this? Is there a barrier to me learning this?’ And I’ve learned for myself there is no barrier, there’s never been any barriers, and actually the biggest barriers have been my own. So I look at my career and I think, If I had been at an age listen to them and define myself by them, my life would have been very different. But even as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to push my own expectations of myself. That’s really where I’ve learned the most.
DAN BOURCHIER: When Justin Trudeau was elected Prime Minister of Canada, he had more women in his cabinet than men. One journalist despairingly asked why that was the case, and he said, ‘Because it’s 2018.’ Have we got to a turning point yet? And are there lessons for Australian politicians, policymakers, business leaders as well about having not just the gender question, but greater diversity of voices and diversity of experience?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, look I think diversity is critical and in every way. Just from a research team, what I know, the more people from different countries, different backgrounds, the more gender balance I have, the better things work, and so I’ve had direct experience of that. I know it to be true and even age. Like I say, talking to young people, we shouldn’t discard what they say, the questions they ask, they’re great questions. So diversity is absolutely critical. I think there’s a lot of political discussion about bringing more females through all these different areas, and I applaud that, and I think it is happening with time. But I think you’ve got to be cautious not to change it so much that young people feel that they’ve got to do it. And so, ultimately, I really believe success comes from doing something you’re passionate about. And it doesn’t matter what it is. That’s the thing. It doesn’t matter what it is, you shouldn’t see what other people think define success, you should create your own version of success for you.
DAN BOURCHIER: Because that hinges off you being happy and fulfilled in what you’re doing.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Absolutely.
DAN BOURCHIER: Yes.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: If you want to achieve something, you’ve got to give it everything. You’ve got to be able to jump in wholeheartedly. If you’re ever trying to do something for what other people think, or for other reasons, or what people might think of you, that’s a disaster really.
DAN BOURCHIER: A moment ago, we were chatting before we came out, and you said that one of the things that you don’t like being introduced, particularly to young girls, is as the female scientist.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes.
DAN BOURCHIER: There are stigmas attached still out there.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: I think yes, and one of the things I’ve realised over the year and I learnt it pretty quick on, is that young people don’t see this as a problem for them. So they see the opportunities expanding all the time, and they look and see people talking about STEM research. They’ve actually said, ‘This is a problem of your generation.’ In our generation, we’re quite happy with the way things are going, they don’t see it as a problem, they haven’t been old enough to see it as a problem, yes. So the challenge is to remove the barriers that we know exist, to open their eyes to what’s possible, and then just encourage them to do what they love.
DAN BOURCHIER: I wonder if that extends across the board to other groups within society that might have been told in the past that, ‘You’re just not going to be good at that.’
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, absolutely. I think the concept of being good at something is really an individual thing. The person that matters most about whether you’re good at something or not is you. If you don’t like something, don’t do it. If you like it, keep doing it.
DAN BOURCHIER: Yes.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: And just see what happens, yes.
DAN BOURCHIER: Tell me, have there been lessons, not just about who Australians are, but perhaps about who you are, that you’ve learned over the course of this year by being Australian of the Year?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Oh, gosh. That’s a great question. I guess I have learnt that I do have a very strong responsibility gene. So I do feel throughout the year that I’ve got a company and I’ve got a lot of people in there that rely on my time and energy. So I’ve been trying my best to keep them happy and motivated, which is not hard, actually, because there are very happy people. But I guess throughout the year I felt, and I think a lot of women feel this, that I don’t want to let people down. So there’s been lots of things that I wish I could have done, and I’ve just not had the time to do. So I’ve learned about myself, that sometimes you have to let that go. You can only do your best and try hard wherever you can, and realise that you’ve got to put your fundamental family, number one. Close family, your research and your team of people that rely on you, number two. And then everything you can to everyone else.
DAN BOURCHIER: Yes, it’s right. Well, on that point about the family. How have your family coped with this, and how have they felt about Mum being the Australian of the Year?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, I think they found it kind of weird. At the beginning, I think they were totally shocked, more so than I was, and they didn’t really know what it meant. I think at that age, you’ve got no idea.
DAN BOURCHIER: How old are your children?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: So they’re 15, 14 and 11.
DAN BOURCHIER: Yes.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: So they’ve seen less of me. So it’s been actually hardest on them throughout the year, because I’ve been travelling a lot, going to different things. But I’ve brought them into many different forums that they would never have seen, yes. So they got to come to enter Parliament House that day, and they’ve come on various trips with me. So they’ve had a unique insight, too, in seeing the way Australia is.
DAN BOURCHIER: Yes, I can imagine, and they’ll probably be happy to have Mum back —
MICHELLE SIMMONS: I think they will. Big family holiday over Chrsitmas.
DAN BOURCHIER: You’ll be well deserving of that, that’s for sure. What’s the mantle that you pass on to whoever is the next Australian of the Year?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, look, I think there’s a lot of things that you can do as Australian of the Year. I think one of the things that surprised me at the beginning is people said to me, ‘What’s your platform? What do you stand for?’ And, you know, you don’t—
DAN BOURCHIER: You’ve got to have one though. It seems like there’s the line in the sand. You’ve got to stand for something.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Well, apparently you do. So I don’t know who nominated me, I didn’t know much about the scheme, I’ll be honest with you. So when they asked me what platform? I was very nervous, because I didn’t have a platform. But then I started thinking —
DAN BOURCHIER: But I would have thought that your platform is that of exploration in the sciences?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes. To be honest, I think a lot of it is making sure young girls don’t miss out on the opportunity, coming forward. So there’s a lot of high tech changes coming, a lot of it requires maths and coding, statistics, the kind of traditional things that they don’t like. So what I hope I’ve got out to them is, ‘Don’t bypass those things because there’s a whole world opening up and your opportunities will be reduced if you don’t jump in.’ Hopefully I’ve got that message across, and shown them that it is absolutely amazing, and it’s fun. I have a great job, I have a great life, and I have a family, so I don’t have to give it all up.
I think throughout the other thing I really learned is this concept about creating companies and breaking down boundaries. So I see Australia is in a very unique position to break down the boundaries between universities, academia, industry and government. At the moment those are three sectors that tend to be quite isolated from each other. And schools. Schools is isolated again. Whereas in Australia, because of the size, and because of the fact that you can meet people in those different sectors, you can actually break those boundaries down much easier than other countries. When I’ve travelled to the US, they really struggle with that. They’re very, very separate in the US, whereas Australia has an opportunity to lead in that cultural sense about getting those people talking and working together. I think that’s very exciting going forward.
DAN BOURCHIER: Yes, and it strikes me that you’re in a unique position to be able to have a sense of what the technological world is that we’re looking at, in the next five or 10 years. In fact, your own story is one of change. When you did your PhD the jobs in molecular science that you’re doing now simply weren’t around, were they? Do you have a sense of where we’re going?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Technologically, I can see lots of new industries coming. I see Australia, like I said, strong research base, absolutely in the best position to take advantage of that. So for me it’s, ‘Get rid of that self-doubt jump across there and grab it.’ Other countries look at us and are nervous about how powerful we’ve become in certain areas.
DAN BOURCHIER: Really?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, and we don’t realise that, we don’t realise it. So I’m really keen to push us over that little bit of self-doubt, and see what happens.
DAN BOURCHIER: Which area is that in particular? Is that around the sciences?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, around the sciences. In the quantum science — across Australia quantum engineering is very strong. In places like robotics, medical devices, agriculture. You know, there’s things Australia does that it takes for granted. Even the banking sector — the fact that you can tap on, tap off, we take it for granted. Other countries still use cheques, yes. So there’s things that we do, innovative. Companies like Atlassian coming out and creating big software platforms, that over and over again there’s fantastic Australian stories. Overseas they watch, they go, ‘It’s another one out of Australia.’ In the US they say, ‘We hire an Australian, we’re very happy.’ So they know that the Australians are good people to have in their companies.
DAN BOURCHIER: It strikes me that we don’t know that here at home ourselves.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: We don’t and I wish we did, because it would change that self-belief.
DAN BOURCHIER: And I wonder how much of it is self-belief or that thing of not putting yourself forward and not wanting to be seen as a tall poppy?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, there’s an element of risk-taking as well. So we don’t like to fail. I guess in the areas of start-ups, generally people accept internationally you’ve got to have 10 start-ups before you get one that’s successful, whereas here every one cannot fail. It’s that mentality about you just got to keep going over and over again. If it fails, that’s good, you learn something, you move on.
DAN BOURCHIER: Yes.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: It’s that risk aversion which, like I said, in the research side is not there, but in that corporate side is there for start-ups —
DAN BOURCHIER: Yes, and you kind of have to fail, don’t you? In order to learn —
MICHELLE SIMMONS: It’s a badge of success if you fail, so yes.
DAN BOURCHIER: As long as that’s not the only thing on the run board — the failures. And, look, before we move on to questions — which I think we’re going to have a heap, so I’m keen to get there very soon — is there a way that in a sense you look back on the last year, and the way that you reflect on perhaps what path this will set you on personally?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes. I do feel, I guess, I’ve had that benefit of travelling internationally and realising that there’s huge linkage that Australia has overseas where, again, they’ve recognised the benefit of having an Australian company or a liaison or collaboration. So I think going forwards, Australia’s always been incredibly good at collaboration in the way the rest of the world has not. So I’m going to try and figure out from that collaboration, how do we bring it back and then look at what positives we can bring to Australia internally by changing that psyche, and looking at future industries for Australia so that we become a leader across many fields. That’s really what I’ll hope in the future, I can scope things, and in that process get that gender balance out along the way.
DAN BOURCHIER: Yes, well, there’s certainly some big challenges and lots of opportunities there. Ladies and gentlemen, Professor Michelle Simmons, thank you so much.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Thank you.
DAN BOURCHIER: We want to open up to questions now. If you’ve got one just throw your hand up in the air and we’ll get a microphone to you. I’ll start. This gentleman in the middle, was the first and if you can just stand up and just say your name at the start and then your question to professor. Just in the middle here, the gentleman in the blue just standing up there.
QUESTION: Good afternoon. Just moving on from a couple of your answers, without too much of a time horizon, I’d like you to paint a bit of a scenario of if we follow, sort of, the pattern of the classical computer, while now it’s personal, all over we get quantum from science into technology, into engineering, into personal devices — what does the world look like? A scenario, perhaps.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Gosh, that’s the kind of question that’s difficult for me to answer. But I know looking back at the history of classical computing, 1947 there’s the first transistor, 1981 before people actually had a PC that they could stick on their desk, yes. So it’s a long period of time where you have to get across all the technical challenges and engineering challenges of building hardware, robust enough that the average person can use it. I guess one of the challenges for the quantum field is, in that 30-year period, what are the things that are going to come out? What are the things that are going to allow it to keep going? So people are looking at things called quantum sensors, looking at the movement of molecules across a cell, looking at gravitational wave detection, looking at lasers and how they interact with the body because that link scale is the kind of link scale where quantum dominates.
So there’s all those areas that are growing along the way to actually build this powerful computer. So that in itself is going to be fascinating. We’re seeing the world in a way, and controlling it, that we just couldn’t do, and that will hit medicine. Yes, all over. But then I guess, having a quantum computer what’s it going to do? I have this funny story. About 10 years ago an author came to see me and said, ‘Michelle, I’m writing a book and I want to get the heads-up from you. I’m writing that Australia builds the world’s first quantum computer, and nobody knows about it. And I want to be sure that could happen.’ I said, ‘I don’t think it could happen, because once you get it, you’d start to be able to learn things and do things, like playing the stock market, or understanding and creating new technologies that would give you a heads up, yes.
‘And things would change, I think, pretty rapidly. You wouldn’t be able to keep it quiet.’ Anyway, I had a fascinating hour-long discussion with this guy, and he didn’t end up writing the book. But it’s very difficult to know. It’s like saying, going back to when computers were first made, and people used them as hearing aids, and not many people had access to them, you know, and then now look at the world. It’s trying to project far ahead. I think, for me, the biggest thing is, hopefully we’ll get to the point we understand how the human brain works. That would be the thing that I’m most excited about. So understanding how the body forms, how the brain works — that’s a scenario that I think you’ll see.
DAN BOURCHIER: I wonder if with that comes medical advances or the opportunity for them to understand illness, sickness, the way to deal with cancers —
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, absolutely. Drug design. So all of these things at the moment we can’t — like I said, we can only model about 20 atoms. Molecules that are used for drugs are much bigger and more complex, and how they interact with the body, we have no idea. So all of those things will start to change quite dramatically. In fact, you can see lots of genetic engineering companies, banks, all the people that want more compute powers are talking to us because they realised the limits of the technology that they currently have. And it’s across every industry, that’s what’s amazing.
DAN BOURCHIER: [to audience member] Yes sir.
QUESTION: The political overlay influencing your life as a scientist and many scientists, we’re in a period, obviously, of instability. We had 47 ministers of science in 20 minutes. It would be nice to have some coherence. If you got a letter tomorrow, saying that you’re supreme commander for science, and hopefully innovation, gluing them together, with supreme commander powers, like Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, Margaret Thatcher, that sort of stuff.
DAN BOURCHIER: Oh, wow. It’s quite the blend there.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, I can imagine, yes.
QUESTION: What are the two or three things that you would do, or you would do differently to help our country over the next 10 to 20 years in the science?
DAN BOURCHIER: Where is that supercomputer when you need it?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes. It’s funny, I think one of the things I do sometimes get frustrated about is the fact that lots of people are doing great things, but it’s not coordinated and it’s replicating different things. Do you mean particular technologies? Or do you mean how to make Australia more of a winner?
QUESTION: making us a winner, and getting more people to coordination [inaudible]
MICHELLE SIMMONS: The coordination.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes. We’re good at collaboration as researchers. One thing I didn’t realise was just how strong the different states are against each other. So I would coordinate research across the states. You know, I see universities all trying to get the same equipment across the country instead of pulling together and focusing.
So I would love to be in a situation where we could get a highly internationally collaborative research area where there’s strength in Australia, and then make it so that the country works as a national country on that area with all the people working in the same place, with all the equipment co-located, and then internationally leading that across the world. Because I do think we would be able to lead in the collaborative research area in certain fields. So getting collaboration, stop wasting dollars on everybody replicating the same thing would be something. But then I’ve talked about that, breaking down the barrier with industry, government and university.
We are really easily positioned to do that because people see each other. It’s easier to go and talk to people from those different groups, and the cultural silos that have built up there are inherently not good, and I believe are not big enough that you can break them down. So I’ll be looking at schemes where you’d get those people working together for the benefit of the country and then coordinating nationally.
DAN BOURCHIER: We’re going to go up there, and then we’ll come down to the front, and then over to the left.
QUESTION: Hello professor, could you please tell us a little bit more about what a qubit is and how information is encoded in an electron spin?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Sure. Okay, so a qubit is literally a quantum bit, and so in the classical world it’s a transistor and the way a transistor works is you have a whole load of electrons that normally lie on a two-dimensional plane, you have a gate above, and you apply voltage and you either get the electrons to break apart so they don’t conduct, or you encourage them to meet together and they conduct, and that switches between on and off states. So it is literally just a charge, either the charge can flow or the charge can’t flow.
In the quantum world, we’re not using charge anymore, we’re using electron which holds charge, but we’re using the spin. In particular, when you look at an electron spin, it is like a little bar magnet. It has what we call angular momentum. You put it in a magnetic field and, just like a bar magnet, either aligns with the field or it aligns against the field. And those are two different energy states. It prefers to align with the field because it’s the same energy, and against the field you’ve got to give it energy. So you create two different energy states.
In the quantum world what we do with that little bar magnet is we get it to point anywhere on the surface of the sphere. So it’s not just north and south pole of the sphere, it’s anywhere on the surface. And when we do that we’re actually creating a state that you can write down as a vector, and that vector contains more information than just a one or a zero. So it’s that ability to put it on the surface of the sphere that contains more information. And then each qubit you add together, you double the amount of information. So what we’re doing is getting electron in a magnetic field, and we’re actually getting it to point onto the surface of a sphere. I don’t know if you can imagine — it’s incredible, really, it’s easy to get it up and down, but to get it to point somewhere exactly where you want on the surface, that’s the quantum state we’re trying to do. So it’s [inaudible] about being three-dimensional.
DAN BOURCHIER: Just on the front here.
QUESTION: I’d like to know what was your favourite or best discovery or opportunity?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Oh, that’s great. So, I have to admit the single atom transistor was probably my first favourite. But I’ve had many. I think one of the things about being a scientist is you’ve got to keep having them, yes. So very recently, we’ve got a result that’s going to come out sooner where we’ve taken two atoms with two electron spins. And imagine if you bring them together again, if they’re like bar magnets, if they’re pointing in the same way, they repel each other, and they won’t go together. So we’ve got them pointing in opposite directions, we bring them together. And what happens in the quantum world is that when they get close enough, they start to feel each other, and they naturally start to do this. That’s quantum mechanics. We didn’t do anything to it, it just naturally does that.
Then after a period of time, we separate them again, and we measure this one. And if you measure this one, you automatically know what this one is. So eventually, we’re trying to write information into two spins, bring them together, create — this is called entanglement — and then use that entanglement to get access to those states that live in-between one and zero. So that’s called a two qubit gate, it’s just literally happened in the last year in our labs. It’s very exciting. We found that we can do this in less than one nanosecond. Super fast time and it’s 200 times faster than anybody else has done across the world. So that’s the kind of thing we get very excited about. So every week something comes out, but that’s my most exciting recent find.
DAN BOURCHIER: Lots of excitement here, you might have a future engineer of sciences on your hands.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes.
QUESTION: Good afternoon. I could put a list of questions, if I can, if I may.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: A shopping list.
QUESTION: Yes. Speaking about mind, what are your thoughts about Roger Penrose’s ideas?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: To be honest, I don’t have any. There you go, that’s a very simple answer to your question. So I guess he’s published lots of different things —
QUESTION : His last two books, Emperor’s New Mind, and another one, latest one. So he thought that our brain is a quantum computer, technically.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes. So I’ve heard discussions about it, I haven’t read the book. But I guess fundamentally I do believe that we’re all made of atoms and atoms are all connected, because essentially an atom is a wave function that extends in space. So in some ways, what’s fascinating for me, is the way that I look at the world is we try and create this entanglement. And I’ll view as an experimentalist. When it’s like this, it doesn’t exist. When we bring it close together, it does exist. A theoretician, which is really where he’s coming from, imagines that the world is fully entangled at all times, and that you can’t break the entanglement.
So again it’s a very different way of looking at the world. The reality is, the entanglement is so small that, as an experimentalist I can’t measure it at some distances, but I can control it to create it, and measure it under certain circumstance and watch it go again. So at the moment, it’s very much a theory versus experimental view of the world. I’m a very practical person, I know what I can measure. But I’m aware that these wave functions go infinitely into space. So who knows about what’s out there that we just haven’t got the ability to see, right now.
QUESTION: Another question about Everett, do you agree with Everett, or Everett’s multi-verse description of quantum physics?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: What’s the question?
QUESTION: Do you agree with Everett or not?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: So again, I don’t know. I’m very practical. I love the concept of the fact there are many universes of being at the same time. I think it allows you to see the world differently. But until we can prove it and understand it, who knows?
QUESTION: From practical question, what are your thoughts about IBM Q and Microsoft quantum, no they don’t have quantum computer yet, but the quantum API from software engineering point of view?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: So there’s two questions there. And you have to be a bit more explicit about what the question is?
QUESTION: IBM Q [inaudible].
MICHELLE SIMMONS: So, I guess, yes, there are at the moment at least five or six different types of computers, they’re all in different physical systems. So the Australian team has decided to build one with silicon, it’s called Silicon Quantum Computing, the company. But other groups have built them in different materials. In the US, in particular, they’ve got IBM, they’ve got Google, they’ve got a company called D-Wave, Quantum Circuits, there’s about five or six different companies [inaudible] that look at super conducting systems. And they have very different physical systems. And the way they encode information is very different. And so at the moment, the classical computing industry was all silicon, some germanium, but pretty much everyone’s computers contains silicon chip now. For quantum computing, there are five or six different physical materials that people are using, and no one knows which one is going to work. Every one of them comes with positive and negatives, yes.
For us at the moment, our bet is that the silicon system has the longest and highest quality qubits and it’s in a manufacturer environment, which is why we’re so excited by it. But each one, you’ll see over the next five to 10 years results coming up from all those different systems. It’s fascinating, and all the heads of those groups will talk to each other. We’ve all got the same technical challenges, we’ve got specific ones to our hardware. But then there’s kind of software and engineering ones, which are generic across all of us. So culturally, mentally in every way, it’s fascinating to see how that field evolves.
DAN BOURCHIER: We’re going to go up to the back now, and then we’ll come over to the right side. And then there were a couple of questions around here in the middle.
QUESTION: What’s your top three goals?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: My top three goals. In life?
QUESTION: And how do you relax from work?
DAN BOURCHIER: I’m interested in that one.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: I’ll go for our company, because that’s what I’m very focused on. In the next four years, we want to build a 10 qubits system, which is called a quantum integrated circuit. So the integrated circuit was made in the 1950s for the silicon chip that we’ve got now. that won a Nobel Prize, and it was really getting lots of transistors to talk to each other. So it wasn’t just one on and off, but lots of them together. We’re trying to do that in the quantum world, and that’s called a quantum integrated circuit. So 2022, hopefully we’ll get a 10 qubit system. Then beyond that, we want to build a full-scale quantum computer that can solve problems that are commercially relevant. And we’re working on that at the same time. So those are two of my goals. My third goal is to see my children have children. I want to see that they’re happy in life. So there, very keen to see my children grow up.
DAN BOURCHIER: And the second part of that, how do you relax?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Was that the question?
DAN BOURCHIER: I think that was it. Wasn’t it? Yes.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: How do I relax?
QUESTION: It was.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: It was. To be honest, for a long time I played basketball. I love playing basketball.
QUESTION: My brother plays that.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Great game. You don’t do it then?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: You do? It’s a great game.
QUESTION: I don’t.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: You don’t. But then, yes, keeping fit is how I relax. Because at the moment, your mind can only work as long as the body is still functioning well. So the older you get you realise you can’t ignore the body. You’ve got to keep it healthy.
DAN BOURCHIER: So a good diet, lots of sleep and —
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Lots of sleep is essential.
DAN BOURCHIER: Perhaps doing what Mum says is helpful —
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, doing what Mum says is always a good idea.
DAN BOURCHIER: Let’s just, on this side here.
QUESTION: I’d like to ask, you talked about how we’re very competitive in the world of science, just as we are in sport. Two part question, how do we tell those stories? And how do we use those stories to inspire people to stay in the STEM-related fields?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, one of the things I’ve been amazed at, so when I first came over here, after a few years, I got involved with something called the Australian Science Media Centre. And I was working on the Board of that. I remember sitting next thing was a Channel 9 editor talking about, ‘Why are there not more science stories out in the media?’ And he said, ‘Well, people just aren’t interested.’ And I said, ‘Really, aren’t interested?’ Because when I give talks, people are always asking. And he said, ‘No, they just don’t sell.’ So there is a cultural thing here about not celebrating scientists, for whatever reason. And what you find is, if it does come up, it’s always a cure for cancer. There’s nothing else exists in some ways. Yes.
So the amazing thing for me is when I first arrived, I got to be a woman in physics lecturer, and I went all across the country. I went through each department and I met these fantastic research leaders in many areas in physics, in medical science. And I was thinking, ‘Wow, there’s all these great stories in Australia that we don’t tell.’ So I would love to change the rhetoric that we have a standard piece in the newspaper or on the news that talks about the latest and greatest, and there’s so many stories to tell. Australia is strong in so many different areas. I don’t know how we change that. I’d love to know.
One of the things I’ve been talking about is we have a lot of young people going out and competing in the International Science Olympiads. And again, they go off they come back, they do fantastic, they win, does anyone know about it? No. But that should be constantly celebrated. So celebrating when our young people do well, would be the target, I would say. Then as people get great results across the country, having a constant science forum in the media would be great. But I don’t know how we achieve that.
DAN BOURCHIER: On that point, I think the media is one of the big challenges here. Having worked across mediums from print, TV, radio, the ABC does it differently to others. But in the commercials, at least from my experience, it’s very difficult to tell stories that are as complex as the sciences. Why that is as concise as what the news demands. I’m not defending the model at the moment, that’s just what it is. I think that’s part of the challenge myself, in telling those stories. And I wonder if that’s part of the change that might be needed.
We’ve got one just here, then down the front, second row here, and then over there.
QUESTION: Hello. So very powerful technology can be put to good use or can be put to bad use. I just wondered what your thoughts were, the ethical implications and those kinds of challenges.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes. I think one of the things, insights in general, and I actually feel very strongly about this, part of the reason I encourage government to become an investor in the technology is because at the moment, it is going to be transformational if it all works in the way we think. So I didn’t want to be responsible for looking at all the issues that would come from that myself, because I’m not an expert in that. So getting government behind, and realising the defence implications and how it can be used for good and bad, it’s something I was very keen about. But I think, as a scientist, in some ways we are ethical every day, and the choice of things we do, we have to publish good data, we have to understand it well. So ethics is ingrained into scientists.
But when it gets to the point where technology starts to evolve, and it starts to be functionally useful, then I think you’ve got to bring in teams to understand what the implications are. The only way I know how to do that is to bring government with you and make sure they’re constantly aware of where it’s going. So that’s been my own approach. And I’m conscious that there’s a dual functionality here, you’ve got to pay attention to that, you’ve got to have it integrated in what you’re doing. At the same time, if you have too much of it — and I guess I start to see this actually across the world — if you have too much regulation right at the beginning, it will stifle that innovation coming through. So there’s a point at which as it starts to become commercially relevant, you’ve got to embed it.
DAN BOURCHIER: Just down the fron here.
QUESTION: So I did a PhD in quantum mechanics about 20 years ago, so thank you for explaining it to my daughter far better than I ever could. But my question actually is, I ended up going to a career in and cybersecurity, and I often get asked this one, so I’m interested in your answer. So is quantum computing going to be the saviour of cyber security, or is it going be the death knell of security?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Oh, that’s a great question. So at the moment I think it’s going to be something that challenges security as it exists, and it will integrate. So it will be useful in some way. People worry about if it gets big enough, it’s going to break codes, and what are we going to do? So there’s all kinds of field quantum cryptography that are growing out of that, yes, but fundamentally, quantum will be good at certain things, and not good at other things. To get something that can break codes is going to be very big.
So I guess the challenges at the moment, those two fields will work together. Classical and quantum will be integrated, you won’t have a classical chip and a quantum chip that do different things, they will work together in some ways. I think that understanding how to get problems together — the classical part how to go to the quantum part —and getting them working together, it’s going to be quite critical. So I think it’s neither the saviour or the end, it’s the partner.
QUESTION: Yes, that’s the answer I normally give, hedge my bets.
DAN BOURCHIER: But part of the challenge is of course, what it’s used for, and what their regulations are around it, isn’t it? That’s where, to the point that you made on the earlier question, that having governments and politicians involved without stifling it. I mean, that’s probably the sweet spot, isn’t it? Of having enough regulation to protect privacy and integrity, but not so much red tape that it stifles developers.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, in that you’ve got to have enough people that are skilled in understanding. So part of that is the educational aspect of what it really is, and what it can and can’t do.
DAN BOURCHIER: There might be new careers in quantum ethics —
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes, absolutely. You can see that happening already because Artificial Intelligence [inaudible], it will be in quantum too.
DAN BOURCHIER: Yes. And just over here.
QUESTION: I have a PhD in power technology. I just want to ask what are your views about in the future where we would see big data and data mining and the relationship between that and quantum computing in the future, in the next five years?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: In the next five years, I mean, that’s a field that’s growing rapidly right now. But it’s really right at the beginning. So I think you’ll start seeing more and more coming out in that space. So a part of the challenge at the moment — so quantum has this ability to use these states in-between, but ultimately you’ve got to get information into an out of the computer as well. Which is why classical and quantum have got to go together. So how big can it compute? How much information can you get in and out fast enough is going to be a challenge for the field.
So at the moment it’s still very practical engineering problems, but eventually, those two fields will start to come together, you’ll start to see some problems going off to the quantum chip, and some going to the classical chip. So next five years, it will be small-scale stuff, but a huge number of people going into that.
DAN BOURCHIER: Was that your question? And we are at one o’clock now, but if you’re happy to take one more question, just over here.
QUESTION: Hello Michelle, thank you again for coming to talk to us. It’s been really interesting. I wanted to know if at some point in the future, an archaeologist came along and found A lab as it is now, what would they find? And I guess I had a second question for my daughter who didn’t want to ask it, which is, how hard is it to convince people of the value of your research?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Okay, so what they would find? Honestly, the technology that we use to manipulate atoms uses ultra-high vacuum. So it’s actually the same kind of forces that exist in rocket sound space. So if you look at the machines we use, they are actually things that could go up into space, there’s the same kind of technology. So it’s like a mini kind of rocket-looking machine. So within that is big, shiny bits of stainless steel, huge pumps to actually fabricate them. But we actually have three types of technology, three labs. One is the putting the atoms in place with these microscopes that are big and stainless steel-like.
The next one is a [inaudible] clean room where you see all the white suits and people going in and taking their chip through 50 different processes to turn it from a wafer into a chip with lots and lots of connections and your transistors defined inner ear. So that is a huge area with lots of different tools. Each tool, yes, a million dollars each, and they will do either chemistry or etching or deposition of different materials. So that that would look quite odd, I think, however long it is, and they’re looking at it. Lots of tools that are embedded in the ground made of metal and glass.
Then, finally, when we measure them, we will measure them on something called a dilution fridge. So our third lab is literally — we call it a cryostat. It’s a huge piece of stainless steel, it’s got lots of very fine metal connections that go through, we pump liquid through very small tubes. Very high tech, lots and lots of metal, lots of cables that come down, and then electronics racks, huge numbers of electronics racks passing these signals through.
So they would come and they would find a lot of hardware, a lot of stuff. And it depends on how they arrive at it, but if they didn’t know the technology, I can only imagine it will be fascinating. Or if they’ve gone well beyond that technology, they’ll be thinking, ‘God, look at what these guys used to do.’ So I could imagine that it would be fascinating, but at the moment we are at the forefront all of those areas to be —
DAN BOURCHIER: Perhaps they’ll also be thinking, ‘Wow, thank heavens that they were doing that.’ Because that’s might have been where it got us to. And the second part of that question —
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Was about —
DAN BOURCHIER: How important —
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Do I have trouble convincing people how important it is —
QUESTION: How hard is it to convince people of the value of your research?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Not hard at all. To be honest, I’ve not found it hard, because fundamentally, we are pushing the boundaries. And you can track with time, every time a new way of looking at the world has come along, the ability to see the human body and open it up, how that changed medicine. Every time new technologies come — the ability to see the stars and know that the planets go around the sun and not us. Every time we’ve found something, you’ve opened up the whole different way of looking at the world. The first transistor led to the computing age. And so this is a new technology, it’s very clear that we have some understanding about it, but it’s this big. And imagine what it would be if it was this big. So I think it’s not hard at all. You just have to believe in the fact that humans are great at ingenuity, and good things come from investing and doing new things.
DAN BOURCHIER: Now, I know we are out of time, but there was just one, might be a little question here. Just get you the microphone then.
QUESTION: Hi, I’m seven years old. I was wondering, what’s the most surprising discovery that you’ve made in quantum physics? And who do you play basketball against?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: So the most surprising discovery, and I’m trying to explain this and watch your face to see if you get it. If you imagine taking a wire, and if you pass electrons in, you expect the electrons to come out the other side, yes? So if you make that wire thinner and thinner and thinner, eventually, as the electrons come through, they get trapped, they can’t get there, because the edges of the wire stop it coming through to the other end, yes? And so that everyone knows, it’s called Ohm’s law. The thinner you make the wire, the harder it is to get the electrons through, yes? So we made a wire that was one or two atoms thick. And at the time we made it, we didn’t expect it to work because we thought the electrons are never going to make it through. And it worked, and actually it worked in a way that was if it was 10 atoms thick.
So the resistance didn’t drop. And at the time when we found that, it didn’t make any sense, it defied everything that was out there. We’ve now understood why it is and there’s lots of complicated reasons for that, but we can now make these wires very thin and companies like Intel have picked up on the technology that we use to make that wire, because all their transistors have lots of wires going through it. And I don’t know, if you found a computer, if you pick it up, it’s hot. So it generates a lot of heat, and they have fans in there to cool it down. It’s because those wires are so thin, they get resistive and they heat up.
Anyway, so a very thin atom wire was probably the surprise that we didn’t expect it to work. And basketball, so actually I used to play basketball in a men’s team with a bunch of American post docs that came over, and it was great. It was just a pick match every day and it was fantastic. I’d look forward to that game every day.
DAN BOURCHIER: Well, outstanding. Look, thank you so much for joining us here today. It’s been great to talk to you and also great across this year to learn more about your field of sciences, and perhaps opening the doorway to greater discussions and understanding of what it is and how it fits into our society. But thank you so much. Ladies and gentlemen, Professor Michelle Simmons.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Thank you.
DAN BOURCHIER: Thank you.
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–22. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 20 March 2019