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Charleston Gazette-Mail | Pulitzer Prize-winning West Virginia news | W.Va. native at forefront of computer technology

Photos courtesy ROD VAN METER

Williamson native Rod Van Meter teaches quantum computing and networking at Keio University’s Shonan Fujisawa Campus in the city of Fujisawa, Japan. He is among a handful of quantum computer architecture researchers worldwide.

Rod Van Meter poses with his family in Kyoto in 2011 — wife Mayumi Arai (center) and their daughters Sophia and Esther.

Photo courtesy ROD VAN METER

Van Meter lectures around the world on quantum computing. He is seen here at the 2011 Asian Internet Engineering Conference in Thailand. At left are two graduate students, and at right are computer science professors from Thailand.

If the counselor at Williamson Junior High School had simply tossed the letter she got back in the mid-1970s into the trash can, Rod Van Meter might not be the world-traveling, cutting-edge professor he is these days.

But she didn’t.

“Johns Hopkins had a program at the time that was called the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth,” recalled Van Meter, now 48.

“And they sent out letters to counselors at all the junior high schools within, like, a six- or eight-state area and said, ‘If you’ve got smart students, have them take the SAT, and if their scores are good enough, we’ll have them up for a program for gifted students.’

“I was really fortunate that the counselor at Williamson Junior High didn’t just throw the letter away. If she had thrown it away, my life would have been completely different.

“But she saw the letter and two or three of us took the test at the time. I was the only one who qualified for the program. So, I got to spend a couple of summers at Johns Hopkins studying math at an accelerated rate, compared to what other kids were doing. And that helped me graduate from high school at 16.”

And at 16, he went straight into Cal Tech, a university at the forefront of science and technology. A class he took his senior year with Richard Feynman, who shared a 1965 Nobel Prize in work on quantum electrodynamics, would help to focus Van Meter’s own career.

“The class was ‘Potentialities and Limitations of Computing Machines.’ It was sort of this set of lectures across whatever set of topics happened to interest him in terms of what it means to physically compute,” Van Meter said.

“That class really changed the way I think about what it means to actually compute something. We talked about the idea that you could compute using billiard balls as well as using electrical switches like transistors and things like that.

“And we also studied artificial intelligence and we studied some of the ideas that later became quantum computing. Feynman was one of the people who actually created the field of quantum computing and he was actually writing research papers about that around the time I was taking the class from him.”

Van Meter now teaches computer architecture, operating systems and quantum computing and is a quantum computer researcher at Keio University’s Shonan Fujisawa Campus in the city of Fujisawa, about an hour southwest of Tokyo.

He got his Ph.D. at Keio with a work titled “Architecture of a Quantum Multicomputer Optimized for Shor’s Factoring Algorithm.” There he also met and married Mayumi Arai, with whom he has two teenage daughters.

He tries valiantly to explain for a general audience what it is, exactly, that he does these days.

“With what we call a classical computer, which is basically every computer anybody has ever used and touched at this point, they operate on what we call binary data, just numbers that are zeros and ones, bits of data at a time. You can do that using a variety of technologies but the normal technology we use these days is transistors made out of silicon.

“With a quantum computer, that data will no longer be just standard zeros and ones. But it’s more like a wave that’s actually passing through the devices that you’re using. And when you can control those, you can use quantum effects to compute differently than you do with standard classical computers.”

It was a good effort. But the truth is, to really understand this stuff, you might need your own advanced degree.

Suffice it to say it’s literally the wave of the future. And a guy who hails from Williamson is on the cutting edge, one of a small number of people in the world who will shape the changes to come.

Van Meter is currently taking a year off to work at Duke University, collaborating with Jungsang Kim, who is trying to build quantum computers.

“There are people who are starting to talk about what we call the Quantum Internet. So, a lot of my research in the last few years has been about how we can actually go from having one link that allows you to teleport data from one point to another point, to how we can get to a network where we can have a million quantum computers or a billion quantum devices connected.”

None of this is likely to change the things the way you interact with Google or Travelocity or Facebook, Van Meter said.

“But Google and Travelocity and Amazon and Facebook may be using quantum computers behind that to improve what you see.

“So, what you will see, when this becomes economically feasible for somebody like Google to use, is the result of your searches will get better. Or voice recognition will get better,” he said. “Those services will continue to improve in classical systems and at some point those big companies will just kind of switch on using a quantum computer for some of their stuff. And regular everyday users won’t see the difference except that the services continue to get better.

How close are we to seeing a functioning quantum computer?

Van Meter laughed.

“People ask me that a lot. My answer to that is, five to 10 years from the time Intel decides to put a billion dollars into this. There’s a lot of research money being spent all around the world, where ‘a lot’ is a few hundred million dollars here and there. Maybe a billion dollars all around.”

Van Meter is among a small number of researchers working on quantum networking and earlier this year published a book of that title which he thinks is the only one out there on the topic.

“The idea of using technology to make the world a better place and the idea of sort of reinventing yourself once every five years, those are sort of two of the things that I carry with me all the time. The university I’m at, Keio, that’s a lot of what we’re about, that’s a lot of what we’re trying to do.

“In terms of my own research, in one sense I would say it’s kind of future-proofing technology. We’re trying to make sure the technological advancements that we depend on every day don’t stop happening.”

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017. Follow him on Twitter at @wvville.

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