Dr. Pedram Roushan, from going to underground schools in Iran to Google’s quantum processor

By The Free Iranian Staff

On Wednesday, October 23rd, Google announced that, it has reached a milestone in computer research and by using quantum computers they have carried out a specific calculation in a few minutes, a calculation that would take even the best classical computers 10,000 years to complete.

Nature Magazine corroborated the Google’s claim in an article on Wednesday, the announcement follows a leak of an early version of the paper to the media.

This important news was a good reason to conduct an exclusive interview with Pedram Roushan, one of Google quantum computer project scientists.

Pedram Roushan was born in the 1977 in Saari, in north of Iran to a Baha’i family. After studying in the Baha’i underground university, he entered the US in 2001 and earned his graduate degrees rapidly.

Roushan, as a child, in Saari. Following the Khomeinist revolution, both his parents lost their job, just for being Baha’i.

He finished his postdoctoral research in quantum computing at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and since 2014, he has been working for Google as a research scientist, and a member of Google’s quantum hardware group.

Mr. Roushan talked about his job, life, and being deprived of education in Iran due to his religious faith.

Pedram Roushan was about two years old at the time of the Islamic revolution, and as Baha’is, his family was very worried about what would happen to them after the Islamists took power. They fled Saari and went to live in a remote village, for fear of being arrested.

“My childhood years were not peaceful years, my aunt’s husband had been arrested, half of the family had escaped Iran, the other half was in Iran…another family member was then executed.”

Ten, or fifteen, years after the revolution, the situation became more peaceful, and then it was time for Pedram Roushan to start attending school, where he discovered his interest in math. He explains: “I read math books outside of the school’s curriculum, and to be honest, I didn’t study physics that much in those years, I was more interested in trigonometry and geometry.”

Pedram Roushan does not have bad memories of his classmates mistreating him because of his religion, but he does remember “coordinated pressure” from the school’s faculty.

“During middle and high school years, they told us that we had to participate in congregational prayer (Namaz’eh Jamaat), and they ignored the fact that we were of a different faith. There were problems registering for school in other cities; refusing to register some Baha’i students, but not for me at that time. For the scientific Olympiads however, it was different. If you gained enough science credits and you had to travel to another city for a competition, they would undoubtedely delete your name.”

Roushan was in his third year of high school when he participated in a science competition, where he won first place for his school. He recalls: “The winner would go to the next level of the competition, between two school regions, and they had written the five first winner’s names. My name was the first, and when time came send the students on the list, they didn’t send me; they just deleted my name…they were at an impasse. On the one hand my name was on the board, and on the other hand, they didn’t want to send me with the team and were forced to remove me…they had made such mess and they had cornered themselves.”

Dr. Roushan describes the unity among the Baha’i community in the face of suppression after the Islamic revolution. After ten years of Baha’i students being deprived of educational opportunities, the Baha’i community decided to establish an underground university. “The university consisted of fired university professors, and those who were knowledgeable and had the ability to teach. The university gradually found its place among the families,” he says.

Roushan believes that the academic ban on Baha’is caused his community to show “constructive resistance” and to “try to find a way to meet the youth’s needs.” He also expresses his disappointment in the face of pressure and his firm belief in the Iranian Baha’i community: “I am very optimistic about Iran’s future. We believe that we should adhere to our beliefs in order to build Iran’s future. This is one of the reasons why many Baha’is do not leave Iran, or prefer to stay there and have a direct role in the reconstruction of Iran.”

Regarding the regime’s treatment of Baha’i youth, Roushan recalls the situation in 2005 and says: “Since then, no one has wanted to take the university entrance exams, but the policy of the Islamic regime was to allow a limited number of Baha’i students to enter universities, and after a while expel them on false pretexts, or even allow some of them to finish their studies for propaganda purposes, and to show that the Islamic regime allows the Baha’is to study…yet it is they themselves who are uninterested, who don’t study or…any old story, just to confuse young Baha’is.”

He describes Islamic regime’s failure creating apathy and confusion within the Baha’i community: “My parents lost their jobs as experts at the Natural Resources administration of the Agriculture Agency of Mazandaran province, like other Baha’i families, and they had to start other jobs. The economic pressure on the Baha’i community was across the board. They faced academic exclusion, systematic abuse, and yet they were never a depressed community, and this is important.”

The spiritual resistance, as it concerns higher education, is manifested in the Baha’i youths’ opportunity to enter the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education.

“the regime tried to depress the Baha’i youth, disappoint them and prevent them from higher education and progress; but when I finished high school, the Baha’i university was almost ten years old, and was known among the Baha’i youth, the university and what it offered was our only choice, so my generation didn’t feel the educational deprivation in that sense.”

However, the issue of education is different from finding a job after graduating from a university that can’t issue an acceptable(admissible) degree; Pedram Roushan didn’t have that problem, because he left Iran after finishing his education, but he mentioned that a lot of his classmates are still in Iran, and living with such difficulties.

The establishment of the Baha’i university was another issue that Roushan explains. He said that from 1993 to a few years later, the intelligence agencies of the Islamic regime, were seemingly not hard on this matter, for unknown reasons… “the classes were held at homes, we would attend the classes very quietly and would leave one by one, the classes were often held in Tehran and other big cities, the classes were held very carefully and measuredly, and the regime authorities showed restraint for some reason…”

The situation didn’t continue as it was, Pedram Roushan’s guess is that when the first group of students graduated and were able to apply for a university in Canada, the regime found out that, because of the quality of the scientific education at the university, graduates could apply to universities abroad: “On September 29, 1998, they tried to close the university… I think that the classes and programs were suspended for three to six months, and after that, the institution had its ups and downs.”

Roushan explains that the school did not have a building; the classes were held in different places, in different areas of Tehran. “We would get depressed when we received our curriculum. The physics courses were held in the Tehran Pars district, other courses were in the Shahrak’eh Gharb district. How could we attend classes from the east of the city to the west?”

In this underground university, ten fields of study (majors), including Chemical engineering, civil engineering, medical sciences and humanities were taught. Following his studies in civil engineering, algebra and physics, he became interested in quantum physics and wave-particle duality. “I wouldn’t stop studying this field (quantum physics) and as the courses in the senior year of engineering studies moved towards projects, workshops and the basics of construction. I was focused on the issue of the fundamental sciences, to the point where when I moved to the US in 2001, I had no doubt that I wanted to study math and physics.”

Pedram Roushan’s immigration to the US was facilitated by an organization founded after the WWII, to help Jews and other minorities immigrate to the US. At first, Mr. Roushan went to Austria; after that the US, and the University of Pittsburgh. “When I entered university, I explained my academic situation and experience. They asked me the name of the university and I said that it was the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education. They searched their database and said that there was no such university on their list. When I asked who had given them the list, they replied that the list had been verified by the Ministry of Sciences of Iran. So I reiterated my explanation, saying that they do not allow Baha’is to enter universities in Iran and you search their list for the name of this university?”

Eventually, Roushan was able to enter the university. “I spent one semester in that college; after that, I took the Complex Numbers course in math, and my professor said remarked that he realized that know the material. I asked him to explain the matter to the university officials. I also convinced a few other professors that I knew the subjects; after that they made an exception, and I could choose my courses the way I wanted, with their support.”

Quantum theory, Roushan’s field, is a hundred years old and during these years the physicists have been occupied with understanding the “Superposition Principle” and “Entanglement Principle.” He explains: “When you throw a ball at a wall it bounces back and doesn’t make a hole in the wall; but in our line of work this happens at every turn in quantum dimensions. It could be said that since 1980, under the influence of physicists such as Richard Feynman, these issues have been viewed as philosophical. But can it be used? In 1985, they reached the conclusion that they should create processors that are able to process a special series of algorithms through quantum systems. In my job, I make, calibrate, adjust and control those processors. These processors have a very short quantum leap, and get out of control in a very short time, about thirty or forty microseconds.

Dr. Roushan elaborated on the application of quantum computers to today’s life and the future: “For instance, if you mix atom X and atom Y, will there be a new molecule or not? These questions become much more complex when the numbers of these atoms multiply, and because we don’t know the answers to these questions, we use primitive theories (methods). We spend too much energy because we don’t know how to produce new materials and how to mix the elements in the periodic table. So in order to perform such calculations, super computers are used. We predict that our processors will be able to perform such calculations in the next three to ten years.”

These are not the only applications of such advances; according to Roushan, another dimension of quantum mechanics is its philosophical aspect. He says: “Now we don’t talk about the philosophical aspect, but it was common forty or fifty years ago. Now, we can study them, and understand them in a better way; so, we can consider a wide variety of applications for that, from the philosophical point of the matter, to the matters related to Chemistry.”

Members of Google’s AI quantum team, from left: Charles Neill, Pedram Roushan, Anthony Megrant and team leader John Martinis.Credit: Matt Perko/UCSB

Pedram Roushan has worked at Google since 2014, and he is involved in the same research that he was doing for his post-doctoral studies.

He says: “If someone is very interested to know my job and position, the correct title is Research Staff, but the less formal title is Research Scientist of Experimental Quantum Physics.”

Predicting the future from the standpoint of a young scientist is very interesting, although Roushan considers the audience for his predictions to be teenagers and adolescents.

“The twentieth century was the century in which we formulated, made, and to a limited degree, understood quantum mechanics; it is one of the greatest achievements of mankind. The twenty-first century is the century of quantum mechanics engineering; it is a century in which we either deal with the philosophical issues of the matter or not, but we will find the application of quantum mechanics used more and more in our daily lives. It is a century during which we will engineer the platforms of quantum mechanics, and so we’ll need plenty of mechanics and quantum mechanics in the not so distant future.”