Nadia Carlsten drives Amazon’s quest for a quantum breakthrough


When Nadia Carlsten joined Amazon three years ago, she didn’t expect to be working on quantum computing. In fact, at that time the company hadn’t publicly disclosed its quantum research program. But she has always followed her intellectual interests, which is why joining Amazon appealed to her.

“I knew it was going to be a place where I was never going to be bored intellectually,” Carlsten says. “One of our Amazon leadership principles is ‘learn and be curious.’ That definitely resonated with me, because I feel like that’s how I make most decisions in my life.”

Nadia Carlsten: 10 things to know about quantum computing

As head of product at the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Center for Quantum Computing, Carlsten is at the forefront of a potential change in the processing and transmission of some kinds of information. While earning her doctorate degree in engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, however, she was focused on more traditional chip fabrication technologies, to develop complex micro-electro mechanical systems.

How did she get interested in quantum computing?

“Like all things quantum, it was a little bit counterintuitive,” she says.

Driven by interests, not labels

Carlsten likes building things, which is what led her to design and fabricate microchips as a grad student at UC Berkeley after earning dual bachelor’s degrees in physics and chemistry at the University of Virginia.

“I really enjoyed being able to actually see something I built with my own hands,” she says. Curious about the commercial applications for the chips she was creating, she started taking classes at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, which was right across the street from her lab. She did so well in a class with professor Henry Chesbrough, known for coining the term “open innovation,” that he encouraged her to take more business courses.

She followed his advice, taking MBA-level classes by day and finishing her dissertation by night — a decision that ended up shaping her career. Instead of pursuing a postdoc research position as planned, she took a consulting job working for Accenture, launching a career at the intersection of emerging technology and business.

From then until now, Carlsten has never let labels or perceived roadblocks hold her back.

“I just always did what I was interested in doing,” she says. “As long as I thought it was a learning opportunity, I wasn’t interested in whether that fit into a box or not, and I wasn’t afraid that I would fail at it.”

A leap toward quantum

Carlsten gained more exposure to quantum computing — a hot cybersecurity topic because of its potential to disrupt current cryptography methods — at the Department of Homeland Security. She joined the agency as a program manager for cybersecurity in 2016, later becoming director of commercialization.

At the 2019 DHS Science and Technology Directorate Innovation Showcase, where she spoke about commercializing emerging technologies, she was approached by Amazon about potentially joining the company. In April of that year, she accepted a role as head of strategy and operations for the AWS ISV Acceleration Team. In that capacity, she helped AWS customers with unique technology requirements, such as regulatory or security considerations, in adopting and implementing AWS products.

But quantum computing remained a passion. She continued learning about it on her own time and periodically asked about Amazon plans to get into quantum, eventually learning about internal efforts to build Amazon Braket. The AWS service, which offers access to different types of quantum computers, is designed to help accelerate scientific research and software development for quantum computing.

Carlsten joined the Braket team as senior technical product manager in February 2020 to shape the product for quantum customers and to prepare for launch as a generally available service. Last year, she took on her current role focusing on Amazon’s more long-term strategy for quantum technologies.

A decade ago, she says, conversations about quantum computing were largely confined to the realm of scientists and engineers.

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“Now quantum computing is visible enough in the business sphere that people who are interested in practical applications are paying attention to it and investing in it,” she says, “whether it’s making a financial investment or just learning more about it to build up that internal expertise.”

Part of Carlsten’s job is figuring out those practical applications for quantum computing. For example, quantum computers could potentially simulate intricate natural phenomena such as the behavior of molecules. That capability would be relevant to pharmaceuticals and materials development.

But scenarios like that are years away because today’s quantum computers are still imperfect machines. Carlsten’s team is working on the holy grail of quantum computing: a fault-tolerant quantum computer, which will make it possible to run the complex algorithms required for commercial applications of quantum computing. This involves two primary challenges, Carlsten explains. One is scaling up the number of qubits — the quantum equivalent of a bit on a classical computer. Another is increasing the quality of those qubits to reduce the device’s error rate.

Qubits can be made from particles in nature, like photons, or built from superconducting materials. Qubits are also far more prone to disruption from interactions with anything that surrounds them.

Amazon’s quantum computing approach

Researchers at the AWS Center for Quantum Computing, which is on the campus of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, are working to address quantum error rates in two ways. One is by building better qubits; the other is quantum error correction, which detects and fixes errors as they happen so that they do not accumulate during a calculation.

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Many subsystems are involved in this effort, from the qubits themselves to the software that controls the computer to a cryogenic system that keeps the qubits at around 10 millikelvin — colder than outer space, at -460 °F.

“There’s going to be many different technology milestones that need to happen before we can get to a commercial scale fault-tolerant quantum computer,” Carlsten says. “As a product manager, that’s really exciting, because it requires a very ambitious product roadmap.”

AWS re:Invent 2021 – The path to a fault-tolerant quantum computer

Where that roadmap leads for quantum is more open-ended than it would be for a more traditional product, but that’s part of why Carlsten likes the work. She has always thrived with ambiguity, in part because of her ability to translate very complex technology into business value.

A technology as cutting-edge as quantum computing poses a unique twist to Amazon’s company-wide mandate of customer obsession.

“With quantum, you have to think about what the applications of the future are going to be, because customers can’t tell you exactly how they’ll use a quantum computer at this point,” Carlsten says. “Thinking about those more strategic long-term possibilities is what really keeps me passionate about this role.”

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