Kitty Yeung PhD is responsible for some of the coolest Quantum Educational materials we have ever seen. Her comic book style format for learning about Qubits, Quantum gates and Quantum algorithms is insanely popular. We talk to her about her path to being SPM at Microsoft and how she has managed to combine her love of science, her artistry and flair for education.
QZ: What was your route to being a Senior Program Manager at Microsoft for Quantum Computing?
KY: It was a fun journey. I studied condensed matter physics for my undergrad (University of Cambridge) and PhD (Harvard University) and worked on various experiments including low-temperature physics and opto-electronics. My PhD thesis was on Engineering Plasmonic Circuits in 2-Dimensional Electron Systems. My first job was at Intel as a hardware component engineer on Silicon Photonics. But I had a lot of intra/entrepreneurial projects that gained me experience in building internal startups, making wearable technologies, doing UX design, making educational materials to teach technology, building my fashion brand, etc. I then worked as a UX designer for Intel’s Maker Group and a research scientist for Intel Labs, before moving to Microsoft as the manager and creative technologist of The Garage program in Silicon Valley. There I was building the innovation program and culture that supports employees’ projects from ideas to reality, while pursuing technical areas I’m interested in – fashion-tech and quantum computing. I started the Bay Area Quantum Computing Study Group where I invited experts in quantum computing to speak, gave lectures and learned with my colleagues. (You can read more about this here.) All these efforts were noticed by our own Quantum Systems group. Aligned with my personal move to Europe, they hired me to drive the global education effort for quantum computing.
QZ: Your background is unusual in as much as you have managed to combine fashion, art and Quantum physics. What is your first love, technology or the arts? You are both an artist and a Harvard educated physicist. How do you navigate the conflict if there is any? Or have you managed to fully integrate your passions into the one role at Microsoft?
KY: All of my past experiences are useful for this role. It feels like coming home since I started with studying the fundamental quantum properties of materials in the labs. I can also use my artistic skills to communicate with learners coming from all kinds of backgrounds with different reasons to learn quantum computing.
My first love is nature, which is both science and art. When I was a child, these two already could not be separated from my life. I felt enlightened when I first started learning Physics in middle school. Physics is the subject that describes how the universe works and how we construct things on Earth. And it helps me see the artistic beauty in nature. I decided to professionally pursue Physics, given the intellectually challenging academic training it requires, while doing art on the side. Science and art are pushing the boundaries of our understanding of the world, and inspiring practical fields like engineering and design. At the interface, we can make things that are loved and needed by people. I try to make sure that I work at this interface and my job allows me to pursue my passion. When it didn’t, I’d do it anyway.
QZ: We’ve seen these amazing comic strips for educating quantum computing concepts. Can you please tell us more about how this came into being? How can we get these fantastic comic books? When is the book coming out?
KY: Quantum computing is such a fascinating subject yet so many people are intimidated by the math and physics in it that there’s not enough scientific literacy among the population. When I first started learning the subject, I found many media posts that try to simplify the explanation of quantum computing to the point that they don’t actually explain anything and completely mislead the general public’s understanding. Then there are textbooks and papers that are written for professional academics, which are great, but difficult for laymen. This happens a lot in all scientific fields, partly also because we scientists are not doing a good job or have the time to engage with the public. I want to use what I’m comfortable with to help a bit – why not challenge myself to produce cartoons and explain the cutting-edge technology, which can be entertaining? I’ve been posting them on social media and giving a 30 min class every week on Hackaday.io. (You can find the collection and recordings here or on my social media and YouTube channel.) Would people like to have a printed book? I’d be happy to discuss with publishers.
QZ: Quantum Computing and its concepts can seem really tough to comprehend, so we applaud the effort to make learning about science specifically Quantum technologies more amenable. How did you come up with the idea of a comic strip?
KY: I’ve always been drawing (see Kitty’s portfolio here) so a comic strip is a natural medium for me. I believe there’s a trinity for studying physics – words, equations, and illustrations. To test if we really understand physics, we need to be able to translate equations into words, condense words into illustrations, and capture illustrations with equations. With any of these lacking, teaching is ineffective. I try to avoid the common clichés which mislead and quickly give people what they need to know to get started with using a quantum computer. So far, I’ve finished the introductory concepts, hardware examples and started explaining algorithms. People have been sending me their quantum programs written in Q# (I use in the class the Quantum Katas Microsoft developed). I’m glad to see it has been helpful for people’s learning.
QZ: What is next for you? You’re doing some amazing stuff making Quantum Computing reachable for many people. Do you want to do more education alongside all the other projects you’re involved in?
KY: My day job is to educate about quantum computing. We’ve just produced the first two learning modules on Microsoft Learn:
- Create your first Q# program by using the Quantum Development Kit
- Solve optimization problems by using quantum-inspired optimization
I’d recommend people give them a try and see how easy it is to learn quantum computing. The comics project was a fun personal effort. Coming from a research scientist’s background, my projects are always exploring things people haven’t done, so they always have educational aspects to them.
QZ: We are all excited by the prospect of Quantum Computing, what are your predictions for the next 5 years? Predictions are hard, but perhaps you can tell us where you see the field heading? Do you think we’ll see new algorithms invented/discovered?
It’s not my prediction, but many industries are already looking into leveraging quantum computing to solve their problems. It also takes traditional industries 10-20 years to adapt new technologies and change the way they currently solve problems. So, it is a good time to already start the process now. There has been a lot of developments in both hardware and algorithms. The algorithms are mostly specialized to solve specific problems, while the hardware is accessed through the cloud. You can learn more about both on the Azure Quantum website.
QZ: What are some of the more difficult concepts in QC that people are having trouble with? Can you give us insight with what people are finding is most difficult to grasp and what people find surprisingly easy.
KY: Quantum computing is much easier than quantum mechanics. In fact, to start learning, one doesn’t have to know much about the latter. Quantum computing makes uses of three concepts from quantum mechanics: superposition, interference and entanglement (and the last two are results of superposition). Unfortunately, these concepts have not been well-explained by most public exposures. We often hear superposition being described as “0 and 1 at the same time”. No, it is a linear combination of quantum states |0> and |1>, which means a qubit has a certain probability of being in state |0> and a certain probability of being in state |1>. “Interference” is often not mentioned, while it is the reason for our measurement to show 0 or 1 with a certain probability. As a superposition of all possible states each has an amplitude with positive, negative or complex phase, constructive and destructive interference can happen. “Entanglement” is often explained as “when two qubits are entangled, if you change one, the other one will instantaneously change even if they are separated infinitely far apart”. No, entanglement means the measurement results of these entangled qubits are correlated. When you change one, the other does not instantaneously change. There is no “distance” involved, so of course, the effect is not altered when they are separated apart. If the words above are difficult to understand, you can look at my comics that show you visually what they mean. There are a lot more misconceptions, you can find a good list here.
Once these confusions are cleared, then we use math (linear algebra) to describe qubit interactions. This can be a barrier for learners, but it really doesn’t need one to be well-versed in linear algebra. It is mostly matrix multiplications and complex numbers. I think here it is more about mental barriers than actual ability to understand. (If a leaner doesn’t believe they can understand, even a comic strip is no help.)
Then there’s the algorithms that could make people get lost in the math. One must develop a habit of zooming out to see intuitively what the algorithms are trying to do, i.e. how they are using interference and entanglement. Usually it’s hard the first time. People need to practice deriving some equations, drawing some pictures, and writing some code. If they can approach the algorithms from different angles, it helps with understanding. People can use my class and comics for help.
Hardware is the only aspect that really requires training in condensed matter physics. But with some electrical engineering background, one could also have a sense of how a qubit can be made. A general idea is sufficient unless the learner is pursuing hardware specifically. I have a class on hardware people can watch.
QZ: Any advice for people wanting to get into the Quantum Computing field? Should they study a STEM subject?
KY: Yes, any of the STEM subject could help. I think the above answer also addresses the first question.
You can find more about Kitty and her projects on Quantum Computing and venture into the intersection between Art and Science.
Thank you to Kitty for proving such wonderful insight and inspiration to a whole generation of people wanting to learn more about Quantum Computing.