MIT professor shares in $3 million Breakthrough Prize for quantum computing discoveries

An MIT professor who studies quantum computing is sharing a $3 million Breakthrough Prize.

MIT math professor Peter Shor shared the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics with three other researchers, David Deutsch at the University of Oxford, Charles Bennett at IBM Research, and Gilles Brassard at the University of Montreal. All of them are “pioneers in the field of quantum information,” the prize foundation said in a statement.

The 2023 Breakthrough Prizes are intended to honor fundamental discoveries in life sciences, physics, and math that are changing the world.

“The 2023 laureates have produced absolutely stellar science,” Anne Wojcicki, cofounder and chief executive of 23andMe, who is one of the prize’s founding sponsors, said in the statement. “The creativity, ingenuity and sheer perseverance that went into this work is awe-inspiring.”

According to the foundation, Shor invented “the first quantum computer algorithm that was clearly useful. Shor’s algorithm can find the factors of large numbers exponentially faster than is thought to be possible for any classical algorithm.”

“He also designed techniques for error-correction in quantum computers – a much harder feat than in classical computers, where simple redundancy will suffice. These ideas not only paved the way for today’s fast-developing quantum computers; they are now also at the frontiers of fundamental physics,” the foundation said.

“I’m very grateful to see the prize going to quantum information and quantum computation theory this year,” Shor, who has won numerous awards for his work, said on MIT News, the university’s news website. “My three co-winners were the most influential people in founding this field. I consider them friends, and they all clearly deserve it.”

“Peter set the stage for quantum computing to become the huge field that it is now,” Alan Guth, an MIT physics professor who is a former recipient of the Breakthrough Prize, told MIT News. “His algorithms took the world by surprise, and ignited the field of quantum computing.”

Quantum computers harness the laws of quantum mechanics to enhance their computations. Rather than using bits like classical computers, they use qubits, typically subatomic particles such as electrons or photons. Quantum computers are expected to solve problems that are beyond the most powerful supercomputers.

Quantum computers, which have seen a recent surge of interest from the tech industry and investors, are at a “very early stage of development, but even now, from a scientific perspective, the quantum computers we already have are empowering,” Caltech Professor John Preskill said in an interview in March on the university website. It will be “decades, or more than 10 years,” however, before the devices have widespread practical impact, he predicted.

Other founding sponsors of the Breakthrough Prize include Mark Zuckerberg, cofounder of Facebook; his wife, philanthropist Priscilla Chan; and Sergey Brin, cofounder of Google.

The foundation gave out five main prizes of $3 million, and smaller awards to early-career scientists, bringing this year’s total to $15.75 million.

Martin Finucane can be reached at [email protected].

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