james whitfield.png
James Whitfield, an assistant professor of physics at Dartmouth College, recently joined the AWS quantum computing efforts as an Amazon Visiting Academic.
E. Burakian, Dartmouth College

A conversation with James Whitfield, Amazon Visiting Academic, on quantum computing

Dartmouth College professor is focusing on broader educational efforts with customers and other stakeholders.

Quantum computing has the potential to contribute to fields such as pharmaceuticals, data security, materials development, and more. This computational model takes advantage of the behavior of quantum particles. Quantum computers harness phenomena like superposition, entanglement, and quantum interference, and use them in computing.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is pursuing the development of quantum computers, and enabling researcher, educators, and enterprises to use quantum computers through its Amazon Braket service. Its AWS Center for Quantum Computing recently released an architecture paper, "Building a fault-tolerant quantum computer using concatenated cat codes", which described a new model for correcting errors in quantum computers.

James Whitfield, an assistant professor of physics at Dartmouth College, recently joined the AWS quantum computing efforts as an Amazon Visiting Academic (AVA). The AVA program is aimed at pre-tenure to newly tenured academics who seek to apply research methods to tackle complex technical challenges while continuing their university work.

Whitfield earned his bachelor of science degree in chemistry and mathematics from Morehouse College, graduating magna cum laude, and has a PhD in chemical physics from Harvard. Currently he is working in the AWS quantum computing effort focusing on academic and educational programs.

Amazon Science recently spoke with Whitfield about his interest in quantum computing and his work with Amazon.

Q. When and how did you develop an interest in quantum computing, and what is the concept behind the Whitfield Group at Dartmouth?

Before I began grad school, my PhD supervisor said, “Hey, read Quantum Computation and Quantum Information over the summer.” That book, by Michael Nielsen and Isaac Chuang, was one of the first on quantum computing. Back then, there were not many industry internships. There was no quantum industry, basically. It’s not at all like now, where there are many internships and non-academic quantum jobs.

James Whitfield explains what muons are

Before that, my interest in mathematics began with the objectiveness of grading and the peaceful solitude when problem solving.  When I was in college, my mother gave me her “Standard Mathematical Tables”. When I’d get really stressed, I would open the book, turn to a random integral, and solve it to confirm the solution given. There was something deeply personal and quieting about each of those experiences.

At the Whitfield Group, we’re working to understand the abilities and limitations of new and existing computers to perform physical simulations. In particular, we are interested in the role that quantum mechanics plays in computation, both in terms of quantum computers and classical models of quantum information. 

We're thinking about how to simulate fermions (specific kinds of subatomic particles) with quantum computers; about how electrons form, make bonds, and work in both classical and quantum algorithms; and about how we can push classical algorithms to the point where we might not need quantum computers.

Q. How has quantum computing  evolved in your 15 years of focus within the field, and what are some of the challenges in teaching the concepts of quantum computing to your students at Dartmouth?

It could not be more different. The very idea of a fault-tolerant quantum computer just sounded so far off. Now there are concrete proposals such as that developed by Oskar Painter (director of the Quantum Photonics Group at Caltech and head of quantum hardware at the AWS Center for Quantum Computing ). But it took a lot of work by the scientific community to get us here.

As to teaching, a lot of people come in as a blank slate, and they don't really know what they're looking for. I think one of the most exciting parts of teaching quantum computing — and doing research in quantum computing — is that there are so many facets to it.

It reminds me of the parable about the blind men and the elephant.  An elephant came to town and the men went to inspect it by touch. The first touched its trunk and said it felt like a thick snake. The next touched its ear and said it seemed like a fan.  Another touched its leg and said it felt like a tree trunk.

Quantum computing is like that. You can have a microwave engineer thinking about how microwave pulses are designed. A computer scientist will think about algorithms, a chemist will look at applications for chemistry, a physicist will think about novel materials and high-energy particles. So perhaps the biggest challenge of teaching quantum computing is understanding the perspectives and passion that each student brings, and then tapping into that passion.

It’s also important for people to understand the limits of quantum computers. Chemistry is one area where people say quantum computers can have an impact — one common area of discussion is using quantum computers to help synthesize fertilizers cheaply and easily. But there are so many people working in classical computing in chemistry that the minute you say, “This is a problem suitable for a quantum computer,” 50 developers will set out to show that’s not true, that classical computers can solve it. We’ve already improved a lot of classical algorithms by applying quantum principles to them.

Q. What do you hope to accomplish in your role as a visiting academic at Amazon?

As a visiting academic, the work I’m doing takes ownership of the broader educational efforts around quantum computing. The goal is to coordinate and execute AWS’s educational plans in quantum computing.

There’s a lot of interest from AWS customers, so I’m thinking about how to approach the educational needs of different customer groups, from students and teachers, to enterprise teams curious about quantum.

AWS has a variety of initiatives underway around quantum computing. My job is to help the team connect to key internal and external resources, so we can get leverage and accelerate learning in quantum computing for our customers. Another key aspect of the role is to help customers, such as cloud engineers and machine learning practitioners who already know about AWS, to better understand how they could apply quantum technologies to address some of their business needs in the future.

Research areas

Related content

US, WA, Seattle
Amazon internships are full-time (40 hours/week) for 12 consecutive weeks with start dates in May - July 2023. Our internship program provides hands-on learning and building experiences for students who are interested in a career in hardware engineering. This role will be based in Seattle, and candidates must be willing to work in-person. Corporate Projects (CPT) is a team that sits within the broader Corporate Development organization at Amazon. We seek to bring net-new, strategic projects to life by working together with customers and evolving projects from ZERO-to-ONE. To do so, we deploy our resources towards proofs-of-concept (POCs) and pilot programs and develop them from high-level ideas (the ZERO) to tangible short-term results that provide validating signal and a path to scale (the ONE). We work with our customers to develop and create net-new opportunities by relentlessly scouring all of Amazon and finding new and innovative ways to strengthen and/or accelerate the Amazon Flywheel. CPT seeks an Applied Science intern to work with a diverse, cross-functional team to build new, innovative customer experiences. Within CPT, you will apply both traditional and novel scientific approaches to solve and scale problems and solutions. We are a team where science meets application. A successful candidate will be a self-starter comfortable with ambiguity, strong attention to detail, and the ability to work in a fast-paced, ever-changing environment. As an Applied Science Intern, you will own the design and development of end-to-end systems. You’ll have the opportunity to create technical roadmaps, and drive production level projects that will support Amazon Science. You will work closely with Amazon scientists, and other science interns to develop solutions and deploy them into production. The ideal scientist must have the ability to work with diverse groups of people and cross-functional teams to solve complex business problems.
US, WA, Seattle
Amazon internships are full-time (40 hours/week) for 12 consecutive weeks with start dates in May - July 2023. Our internship program provides hands-on learning and building experiences for students who are interested in a career in hardware engineering. This role will be based in Seattle, and candidates must be willing to work in-person. Corporate Projects (CPT) is a team that sits within the broader Corporate Development organization at Amazon. We seek to bring net-new, strategic projects to life by working together with customers and evolving projects from ZERO-to-ONE. To do so, we deploy our resources towards proofs-of-concept (POCs) and pilot programs and develop them from high-level ideas (the ZERO) to tangible short-term results that provide validating signal and a path to scale (the ONE). We work with our customers to develop and create net-new opportunities by relentlessly scouring all of Amazon and finding new and innovative ways to strengthen and/or accelerate the Amazon Flywheel. CPT seeks an Applied Science intern to work with a diverse, cross-functional team to build new, innovative customer experiences. Within CPT, you will apply both traditional and novel scientific approaches to solve and scale problems and solutions. We are a team where science meets application. A successful candidate will be a self-starter comfortable with ambiguity, strong attention to detail, and the ability to work in a fast-paced, ever-changing environment. As an Applied Science Intern, you will own the design and development of end-to-end systems. You’ll have the opportunity to create technical roadmaps, and drive production level projects that will support Amazon Science. You will work closely with Amazon scientists, and other science interns to develop solutions and deploy them into production. The ideal scientist must have the ability to work with diverse groups of people and cross-functional teams to solve complex business problems.
US, MA, Westborough
Are you inspired by invention? Is problem solving through teamwork in your DNA? Do you like the idea of seeing how your work impacts the bigger picture? Answer yes to any of these and you’ll fit right in here at Amazon Robotics. We are a smart team of doers that work passionately to apply cutting edge advances in robotics and software to solve real-world challenges that will transform our customers’ experiences in ways we can’t even imagine yet. We invent new improvements every day. We are Amazon Robotics and we will give you the tools and support you need to invent with us in ways that are rewarding, fulfilling and fun. Amazon Robotics is seeking interns and co-ops with a passion for robotic research to work on cutting edge algorithms for robotics. Our team works on challenging and high-impact projects, including allocating resources to complete a million orders a day, coordinating the motion of thousands of robots, autonomous navigation in warehouses, identifying objects and damage, and learning how to grasp all the products Amazon sells. We are seeking internship candidates with backgrounds in computer vision, machine learning, resource allocation, discrete optimization, search, and planning/scheduling. You will be challenged intellectually and have a good time while you are at it! Key job responsibilities • Identifying creative solutions for challenging research problems in robotics and computer vision • Developing software solutions to test hypotheses and demonstrate new functionality • Prototyping concepts to collect data and measure performance • Writing code and unit tests and integrating code with other software and hardware components • Utilizing Amazon Robotics and Amazon engineering tools, processes and technologies • Delivering a final presentation to managers and engineers on the successes and challenges of their internship and the business value they have contributed
US, MA, Westborough
Are you inspired by invention? Is problem solving through teamwork in your DNA? Do you like the idea of seeing how your work impacts the bigger picture? Answer yes to any of these and you’ll fit right in here at Amazon Robotics. We are a smart team of doers that work passionately to apply cutting edge advances in robotics and software to solve real-world challenges that will transform our customers’ experiences in ways we can’t even imagine yet. We invent new improvements every day. We are Amazon Robotics and we will give you the tools and support you need to invent with us in ways that are rewarding, fulfilling and fun. Amazon Robotics is seeking interns and co-ops with a passion for robotic research to work on cutting edge algorithms for robotics. Our team works on challenging and high-impact projects, including allocating resources to complete a million orders a day, coordinating the motion of thousands of robots, autonomous navigation in warehouses, identifying objects and damage, and learning how to grasp all the products Amazon sells. We are seeking internship candidates with backgrounds in computer vision, machine learning, resource allocation, discrete optimization, search, and planning/scheduling. You will be challenged intellectually and have a good time while you are at it! Please note that by applying to this role you would be considered for Applied Scientist summer intern, spring co-op, and fall co-op roles on various Amazon Robotics teams. These teams work on robotics research within areas such as computer vision, machine learning, robotic manipulation, navigation, path planning, perception, artificial intelligence, human-robot interaction, optimization and more.
US, CA, Palo Alto
The Amazon Search team creates powerful, customer-focused search solutions and technologies. Whenever a customer visits an Amazon site worldwide and types in a query or browses through product categories, Amazon Search services go to work. We design, develop, and deploy high performance, fault-tolerant distributed search systems used by millions of Amazon customers every day. We’re seeking a Principal Scientist with a deep expertise in Search Science. Your responsibilities will include everything from developing and prototyping innovative machine learning, and deep learning algorithms to implementing, testing, and supporting full solutions in a production environment. We are looking for innovators who can contribute to advancing search technology on what’s scientifically possible while remaining committed to creating world-class products. Joining this team, you’ll experience the benefits of working in a dynamic, entrepreneurial environment, while leveraging the resources of Amazon.com (AMZN), Earth's most customer-centric company one of the world's leading internet companies. We provide a highly customer-centric, team-oriented environment in our offices located in Palo Alto, California. Key job responsibilities As a hands-on leader of this team, you’ll be responsible for defining key research questions, identifying relevant data, adopting or proposing innovative machine learning solutions conducting rigorous experiments, publishing results and working with the engineering team to deploy these solutions. As a strategic leader, you will identify investment opportunities, develop long term strategies, and propose, prioritize and deliver on goals. You’ll also participate in organizational planning, hiring, mentorship and leadership development. You will be technically fearless and with a passion for building scalable science and engineering solutions. You will serve as a key scientific resource in full-cycle development (conception, design, implementation, testing to documentation, delivery, and maintenance). About the team Starting in 2009, the Visual Search & Augmented Reality team has thus far launched many visual search solutions on the Amazon App that use computer vision and machine learning/deep learning to help customers complete their shopping missions more easily; multiple internal teams at Amazon (devices, Kindle, Seller services, etc.) also use our libraries and APIs to deliver solutions to their own customers. We are a full stack shop, and our team capabilities cover the whole solution spectrum, ranging across applied science, large scale engineering services, product management, UX design, and mobile app development for iOS and Android.
US, MN, Minneapolis
AWS Central Economics is an interdisciplinary team on the cutting edge of economics, statistical analysis, and machine learning whose mission is to solve problems that have high risk with abnormally high returns. Our team leverages the strengths of our scientists to build solutions for some of the toughest business problems here at Amazon AWS. We are looking for an exceptionally talented, seasoned, and motivated Economist to manage a team of economists and data scientists to drive the science for AWS. Key job responsibilities Manage a team of economists and data scientists to deliver actionable economic analyses to business leaders, provide leadership on the economics and science used in the analyses, and engage with business leaders to identify challenges AWS faces that call for in-depth economic analyses and to ensure the analyses have their intended impact.
LU, Luxembourg
&ltHire Relocation Requisition - not for posting> Provides insights to leadership on improving Supply Chain cost and Speed by using Data Science and Analytics techniques. Build Dashboards and models to industrialize these findings at scale.
US, VA, Arlington
The People eXperience and Technology Central Science Team (PXTCS) uses economics, behavioral science, statistics, and machine learning to proactively identify mechanisms and process improvements which simultaneously improve Amazon and the lives, wellbeing, and the value of work to Amazonians. We are an interdisciplinary team that combines the talents of science and engineering to develop and deliver solutions that measurably achieve this goal. We are looking for economists who are able to work with business partners to hone complex problems into specific, scientific questions, and test those questions to generate insights. The ideal candidate will work with engineers and computer scientists to estimate models and algorithms on large scale data, design pilots and measure their impact, and transform successful prototypes into improved policies and programs at scale. We are looking for creative thinkers who can combine a strong technical economic toolbox with a desire to learn from other disciplines, and who know how to execute and deliver on big ideas as part of an interdisciplinary technical team. Ideal candidates will work closely with business partners to develop science that solves the most important business challenges. They will work in a team setting with individuals from diverse disciplines and backgrounds. They will serve as an ambassador for science and a scientific resource for business teams, so that scientific processes permeate throughout the HR organization to the benefit of Amazonians and Amazon. Ideal candidates will own the data analysis, modeling, and experimentation that is necessary for estimating and validating models. They will work closely with engineering teams to develop scalable data resources to support rapid insights, and take successful models and findings into production as new products and services. They will be customer-centric and will communicate scientific approaches and findings to business leaders, listening to and incorporate their feedback, and delivering successful scientific solutions. Key job responsibilities Use causal inference methods to evaluate the impact of policies on employee outcomes. Examine how external labor market and economic conditions impact Amazon's ability to hire and retain talent. Use scientifically rigorous methods to develop and recommend career paths for employees. A day in the life Work with teammates to apply economic methods to business problems. This might include identifying the appropriate research questions, writing code to implement a DID analysis or estimate a structural model, or writing and presenting a document with findings to business leaders. Our economists also collaborate with partner teams throughout the process, from understanding their challenges, to developing a research agenda that will address those challenges, to help them implement solutions. About the team We are a multidisciplinary team that combines the talents of science and engineering to develop innovative solutions to make Amazon Earth's Best Employer.
US, WA, Seattle
The People eXperience and Technology Central Science Team (PXTCS) uses economics, behavioral science, statistics, and machine learning to proactively identify mechanisms and process improvements which simultaneously improve Amazon and the lives, wellbeing, and the value of work to Amazonians. We are an interdisciplinary team that combines the talents of science and engineering to develop and deliver solutions that measurably achieve this goal. We are looking for economists who are able to apply economic methods to address business problems. The ideal candidate will work with engineers and computer scientists to estimate models and algorithms on large scale data, design pilots and measure their impact, and transform successful prototypes into improved policies and programs at scale. We are looking for creative thinkers who can combine a strong technical economic toolbox with a desire to learn from other disciplines, and who know how to execute and deliver on big ideas as part of an interdisciplinary technical team. Ideal candidates will work in a team setting with individuals from diverse disciplines and backgrounds. They will work with teammates to develop scientific models and conduct the data analysis, modeling, and experimentation that is necessary for estimating and validating models. They will work closely with engineering teams to develop scalable data resources to support rapid insights, and take successful models and findings into production as new products and services. They will be customer-centric and will communicate scientific approaches and findings to business leaders, listening to and incorporate their feedback, and delivering successful scientific solutions. Key job responsibilities Use causal inference methods to evaluate the impact of policies on employee outcomes. Examine how external labor market and economic conditions impact Amazon's ability to hire and retain talent. Use scientifically rigorous methods to develop and recommend career paths for employees. A day in the life Work with teammates to apply economic methods to business problems. This might include identifying the appropriate research questions, writing code to implement a DID analysis or estimate a structural model, or writing and presenting a document with findings to business leaders. Our economists also collaborate with partner teams throughout the process, from understanding their challenges, to developing a research agenda that will address those challenges, to help them implement solutions. About the team We are a multidisciplinary team that combines the talents of science and engineering to develop innovative solutions to make Amazon Earth's Best Employer.
US, WA, Seattle
Amazon is looking for talented Postdoctoral Scientists to join our global Science teams for a one-year, full-time research position. Postdoctoral Scientists will innovate as members of Amazon’s key global Science teams, including: AWS, Alexa AI, Alexa Shopping, Amazon Style, CoreAI, Last Mile, and Supply Chain Optimization Technologies. Postdoctoral Scientists will join one of may central, global science teams focused on solving research-intense business problems by leveraging Machine Learning, Econometrics, Statistics, and Data Science. Postdoctoral Scientists will work at the intersection of ML and systems to solve practical data driven optimization problems at Amazon scale. Postdocs will raise the scientific bar across Amazon by diving deep into exploratory areas of research to enhance the customer experience and improve efficiencies. Please note: This posting is one of several Amazon Postdoctoral Scientist postings. Please only apply to a maximum of 2 Amazon Postdoctoral Scientist postings that are relevant to your technical field and subject matter expertise. Key job responsibilities * Work closely with a senior science advisor, collaborate with other scientists and engineers, and be part of Amazon’s vibrant and diverse global science community. * Publish your innovation in top-tier academic venues and hone your presentation skills. * Be inspired by challenges and opportunities to invent cutting-edge techniques in your area(s) of expertise.