Professor Swamit Tannu receives 2024 NSF CAREER Award

“The technical challenges and the potential to make a big, lasting impact—those are the two things that drove me towards quantum computing,” says Tannu.

Assistant Professor Swamit Tannu, an expert in quantum computing systems and architectures, was recently honored with the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award for his proposal “Enabling Scalable and Resilient Quantum Computer Architectures through Synergistic Hardware-Software Co-Design.” Tannu joins dozens of other Computer Sciences faculty to have been distinguished through the NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program in the department’s history.

“The CAREER Award is for junior faculty who are just starting their career. [Receiving] it signifies that, as a department, we’re doing the right things,” says Tannu, who joined the department in 2021. “It’s an important marker that junior faculty in UW-Madison Computer Sciences can be successful.” 

It’s also encouraging feedback as a researcher. “It’s exciting for me personally. I work in an area historically dominated by physics,” Tannu continues. People tend to focus on the “quantum” — which is to say physics — side of quantum computing, he says, but the “computing” component is just as vital. 

As for what the field may look like moving forward, Tannu’s CAREER Award research offers a few ideas.

Defining the role of the computer scientist in quantum computing

“The most frequently asked question is, ‘What is the role of a computer scientist in quantum computing?’” says Tannu, a researcher in programming models and architectures. “The answer is slightly tricky.” 

It’s easy to say that computer scientists can assist in designing the software and hardware that inevitably make up quantum computers, but for Tannu, this doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. “Quantum computers have two components: quantum devices that hold information, and conventional control computers manipulating that information by moving quantum pieces to execute a program,” he explains. “As a computer scientist, you can contribute to building the control computer and the software that runs on it.”

UW-Madison, home to a leading Department of Computer Sciences and ground zero for Wisconsin’s first-ever quantum computer, was the perfect place for Tannu to begin that highly interdisciplinary work. “I talk to a lot of physicists because they’re our end consumer,” says Tannu, describing his research process. “Wisconsin has a really thriving Department of Physics, where they’re building quantum platforms. I’m also part of the Wisconsin Quantum Institute, where I meet with physicists both formally and informally.” Tannu is also a regular collaborator with researchers from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, where quantum computing is gaining traction. Today, there are several small experimental quantum computers on campus.

Yet like all emergent technologies, there exists a profound gap between where we are now and where leading minds see us going (in this case, a place where quantum computers solve the world’s greatest problems). Tannu’s research offers a bridge. In his CAREER Award-winning proposal, he suggests that quantum computer architectures can be improved through two key approaches: integrated hardware and software design, and development of software tools compatible with current and future quantum hardware.

NSF CAREER Award unlocks novel research and well-rounded curricula

By design, the NSF CAREER Award is forward-thinking—according to the NSF website, it indicates “early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.” Firmly entrenched in mentorship, it emphasizes the role of the teacher-scholar.

To that end, Tannu credits much of his success to senior members of faculty like Aws Albarghouthi, Karu Sankaralingam, and Loris D’Antoni, who advised him while writing the grant, along with his students in the QUEST (Quantum and Emerging Systems and Architecture) research group, whose thought-provoking discussions eventually led him to many of the questions outlined in his proposal. “Although the award is in my name, there were a lot of people contributing to this,” says Tannu.

Accordingly, students will play a prominent role in the work funded through the NSF CAREER Award proposal: “How do we design accessible curricula for, say, a sophomore student who knows how to program in Python? Can they learn about quantum computing using the programmatic tools we’re building?” he asks. “Ultimately, it’s computer scientists and engineers who will be building parts of quantum computers. We really need that workforce.” Currently, Tannu teaches Introduction to Computer Architecture (CS/ECE 552) and Quantum Computer Architecture (CS 758). 

Developing new quantum computing curricula will also create a pipeline of computer scientists interested in quantum computing — an essential goal as the field grows across disciplines. “It’s a really good way for undergrads to understand how this area is flourishing,” Tannu says. In spring 2025, he’ll unveil Quantum Computing Systems (CS 639), a one-of-a-kind topics course introducing undergrads to quantum computing, teaching them how to build quantum software, and exploring quantum computer programming.

Congratulations again, Dr. Tannu!