Crossing Points: Michelle Simmons, Quantum Revolution

Scientia Professor; 2018 Australian of the Year; Director of the Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology

Life is full of ironies. In my south-east London home, when I was a little girl, my older brother Gary, whenever I got a little too annoying, used to joke with me: ‘One day I am going to buy you a one-way ticket to Australia’. As things turned out he didn’t need to, because in 1999 I came here of my own volition; and in 2007 I became an Australian citizen.

Out of a couple of hundred students in my year at my South-East London comprehensive school, only 16 did A-levels (that’s the equivalent of the HSC); and of those, only two passed.

Growing up in that time, in that part of England, you were not expected to go to university – let alone leave Britain and set up a life at the other end of the Earth.

For some reason, I always kept that plane ticket that brought me to Australia, and just a year ago I had it framed and sent to my brother for his 50th birthday. Ironically, and a little sadly for my father, my brother now lives in the US, and I live here – and I joke with Gary that I got the much better deal. Only it’s not a joke.

I want to share with you why I came here, and why I choose to stay. I also want to leave you with a sense of why Australia is well placed to realise the next revolution in computing – the Quantum Revolution.

Working at Cambridge University, in the semiconductor physics group, I learned to design, fabricate and measure electronics devices: three completely different skill sets, a unique combination that makes you the master of your own destiny. But there also came a point when I wanted to find a more ambitious project to work on than the very fundamental physics they were doing there. I was drawn to the technological challenge of trying to create new devices that had never been made before, where each atom had to be put in place to engineer a particular effect – in essence, to create electronic devices at the atomic scale.

It was this that brought me to Australia.

Back in the 1980s, IBM invented a new kind of microscope – a scanning tunnelling microscope – which for the first time enabled humans to ‘see’ individual atoms. These are fabulous tools: giant stainless-steel contraptions that fill a room with a vacuum inside akin to that in outer space. 

But seeing atoms was just the beginning. In the 1990s, IBM found a way to exploit this technology to actually move atoms around on a surface. But it’s one thing to push a few atoms around and make a logo; quite another to take that technology and create an electronic device where the active, functional component is a single atom.

It was in the hope of realising this dream that, in 1998, I applied for fellowships in Australia and in Cambridge, and for a faculty position at Stanford in the US. As a young academic you are taught that the prestige of the institution you work at is very important. However, when I was offered the Australian fellowship, I accepted immediately. It was a decision that perplexed not only my colleagues overseas, but also many Australians. When I arrived here, people would ask me, ‘Why on earth did you come?’ But the choice was easy.

I did not want to stay in the UK. The structure was too hierarchical, and research problems somewhat esoteric. I didn’t want to just answer a fundamental physics question, I wanted to build something – something that might turn out to be useful. At the time, the British research system seemed too peppered with pessimistic academics who would tell you a thousand reasons why your ideas would not work.

American culture was more appealing than this, but it too had its limitations. The US offered a highly competitive environment where you would fight both externally and internally for funds and be beholden to a senior mentor.

Australia offered the freedom of independent fellowships and the ability to work on large-scale projects with other academics from across the country.

To this day I am delighted with my choice, and firmly believe that there is no better place to undertake research. Australia offers a culture of academic freedom, openness to ideas, and an amazing willingness to pursue ambitious goals. 

When I moved to Australia, electronics research in silicon was dominated by the semiconductor industry and focused on Moore’s Law. Have you ever noticed that every year your computing devices are getting smaller and faster? Many years ago Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, noted that the number of transistors on a silicon chip was doubling every 18 months to two years. In practice, this meant that each individual transistor had to be decreasing in size at the same rate. This led to a prediction in the late 1990s that by 2020 we would reach the level of individual atoms.

In recent years, we have used scanning tunnelling microscopes here in Sydney to pioneer a unique strategy to build electronic devices in silicon at the atomic scale. We have created a stack of world-first atomic-scale devices. We have built the world’s smallest transistor, in which the active functional part is just a single atom, beating those industry predictions from Moore’s Law by nearly a decade. Following this we fabricated the world’s narrowest conducting wires in silicon, and all the elements of a quantum electronics integrated circuit. 

These achievements have not just been published in the usual scientific places. They have also made it into the Guinness Book of World Records – as my son discovered one day to his great surprise while sitting in his school library.

On the back of these research successes in pioneering the completely new field of atomic electronics, we have attracted to Australia some incredible young scientists from all parts of the world – from Europe, the UK, the US and Asia – some of whom have also decided to make Australia their permanent home. Most exciting of all, though, is that we are now on a mission to build a complete prototype quantum computer for which all the functional elements are manufactured and controlled at the atomic scale.

The significance of this for Australia should not be underestimated. Today there is an international race to build a quantum computer, and the field is highly competitive – it’s been called the space race of the computing era. Australia has established a unique approach with a globally competitive edge that has been described by our US funding agencies as having a two to three-year lead over the rest of the world.

Quantum physics is hard. Technology at the forefront of human endeavour is hard. But that is what makes it worth it. I strongly believe that the things that are most worth doing in life are nearly always hard to do.

When I was growing up in England, I liked doing things that were difficult – things that you had to try really hard to succeed at, but that gave you an immense feeling of euphoria when you did. So it’s interesting to admit now that I actually gave up physics at O-Level, because I also really enjoyed biology, chemistry, history and English literature. Shortly into my O-level year, however, I knew I had made an awful mistake.

The consequence was that I ended up doing physics outside school, and it took me a while to catch up. The lesson I learnt was that you can always do the things you enjoy and find easy outside work. But deep problem-solving based on long-term acquired knowledge and technical skills requires consistent effort and is not so easy to pick up in your free time. For me, it was better to do the things that have the greatest reward. Things that are hard – not easy. And things that will continue to challenge you throughout your life.

There’s a message here for our educators, our scientists and for all Australians. 

If we want young people to be the best they can be – at anything – we must set the bar high and tell them we expect them to jump over it. My strong belief is that we need to be teaching all students, girls and boys, to have high expectations of themselves.

The foundations of research in Australia are extremely strong. Having established highly competitive research fellowships and highly collaborative Centre of Excellence funding schemes, Australia has become an increasingly popular destination for ambitious research projects. Ultimately, while research is an international endeavour, I am grateful for that Australian readiness to give things a go, and Australia’s enduring sense of possibility. There will always be a bit of South London in me. I remain British as well as Australian. But I could not be happier to have made my journey all those years ago to live on the other side of the earth.