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Published on 04/12/2024
Last updated on 06/18/2024

Quantum Research Head, Reza Nejabati, envisions a future where quantum networks are essential


Reza Nejabati, Head of Quantum Research at Cisco Research at Outshift, sees a seamless future—one where quantum networks are as integral to our daily lives as smartphones in our pockets. 

“I’m very excited to be here to use the strength and power of Cisco, including its excellent researchers and engineers, to implement my vision for the quantum network as a real-life solution that can impact the future internet ecosystem,” Nejabati says. 

Prior to joining Cisco, Nejabati served as a Chair Professor of Networks and Head of the High-Performance Network Group in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Bristol, where his research focused on quantum and classical network infrastructure for the future internet.

Leading the development of Cisco’s Quantum Research Lab, Nejabati is tasked with bridging the gap between quantum and classical networking and computing and establishing close partnerships with universities and academic groups, which is vital to bringing his vision to life. 

In the following Q+A, Nejabati discusses his goals for a quantum network powered by Cisco’s networking solutions and the importance of collaboration in technological innovation. 

Can you share an overview of your professional background and what initially sparked your interest in quantum technologies? 

My quantum network interest started early when I did my Ph.D. on optical communication networks. I was one of the first to design, experiment, and demonstrate that it was possible to create a fully optical packet switch network where the routing of information is all done optically. This was fundamental in the development of my scientific and engineering competency for using optical networks and photonic technologies to process and transport information. Later in my career, this was fundamental in my success in pioneering state of the art in quantum network technologies.

After I completed my Ph.D., I got an academic post, and I started to work on the optical communication networks and optical networks for the future internet infrastructure. 

My work received a lot of industry attention. My group was one of the pioneers in developing the concept of the software-defined optical network, where a software programmer or engineer who doesn’t have a background in the optical domain or physical layer can build, control, and manage an optical network. The concept became very popular, and I won the IEEE Charles Kao Award for my work.

After my time at university, I spun out a startup based on my research on software-defined optical networking. I dedicated my time, for a couple of years, to the company and built a technical team and product line, and as a director and vice president of technology. 

Then, I went back to the University of Bristol and started to build quantum networking activities to complement their strong research in quantum technology and quantum security. There, I was one of the pioneers in quantum networking and my group in Bristol did a lot of first-time demonstrations and hero field trial experiments for application and use cases of quantum networks. We pioneered the development and application of quantum networks for 5G security and quantum networks for distributed quantum computing.

What led you to join Outshift as the new Head of Quantum Research?

Last year, I was invited to give a talk about quantum networking during a Cisco Research Quantum Summit. I talked to Ramana Kompella, Head of Cisco Research, and saw his presentation on the view of Cisco for the future quantum network, and I thought, that’s perfect; it fits all the boxes. Cisco is a company with a vision for quantum networking, and they have the capability, knowledge, and infrastructure to build a real-life version of it. After that, I saw that Cisco was looking for someone to lead their quantum initiative, so I told Ramana that I was interested and applied. 

What is your primary goal for Outshift’s quantum endeavors in the coming future? 

At Outshift, my plan is to build the science and engineering fundamental groundwork to create a useful and practical quantum network that goes beyond quantum security and quantum-safe networking. Whatever we develop will support quantum-safe networking as a byproduct, but we aim to go well beyond that. 

We aim to establish a scientific foundation and develop hardware and software technologies for a fully-fledged quantum network. This network will connect quantum computers, scaling them to capacities of practical use. Additionally, we plan to construct a quantum network that connects quantum sensors, thereby achieving unparalleled sensing capabilities and accuracy through distributed quantum sensing. This infrastructure will also be equipped to deliver ultimate and scalable quantum-safe security for next-generation telecommunications networks, including 6G.

How do you believe that Outshift has fostered a culture of innovation with its embrace of quantum research?

We have excellent researchers and scientists, and they focus on solving problems that can make a real-life impact, and they’re solving problems that are imminent.  We find the topics that are important and try to build prototypes or solutions based on that, and hopefully, we can pass them on to other parts of Cisco so they can be deployed by Cisco users and the community. 

As Cisco prepares for the future, what steps do you believe will be critical to take to best integrate and benefit from quantum information processing?

Quantum technology brings immense benefits to humanity. Quantum Networks will be a part of daily life and the future of the internet. Connecting quantum computers and sensors together to scale and connecting them to people and applications to provide services is an essential part of the future internet. This means you need a quantum network. We at Cisco are focused on building a useful and practical quantum network.

I believe Cisco has always been a pioneer and a leading authority in providing new networking solutions for future applications and use cases. Quantum computing and quantum sensing technologies are commercially emerging. Cisco is the best to provide a practical and useful quantum network solution for creating quantum computing and quantum sensing as a service. 

How do you anticipate Outshift’s role in the quantum information processing landscape growing?

Outshift is a startup community, and quantum technology, specifically the quantum network, is really in startup mode where people are trying to develop the technology. Outshift brings experts from computer science, physics, and engineering all in a single platform in a single community where they can all work together to build and co-design the perfect solution for the quantum network.

As collaboration is critical in innovation, how do you envision collaborating internally within Cisco and with external university partners?

In Outshift, we have some of the best teams across different topics critical for the development of a quantum network. All of the teams work together very closely, but the quantum team not only works with all of the Outshift teams but also with various business units and product units within Cisco that can potentially benefit from what we do. We can also get feedback from them. For example, we work with the security and the optical business units. It’s very important to have a close relationship with them. Some of their team members regularly participate in discussions with our teams and contribute to our development roadmap. 

The quantum team at Cisco has a limited number of people. Quantum topics are big, and we need a large team that goes beyond ourselves, so we collaborate very closely with the best research groups in academia. We establish a relationship with them and draw from their expertise to help us.

Also, Cisco Research has something that I haven’t seen at any other research-orientated tech company. We regularly have open calls for proposals that we will fund worldwide. Anyone that has a good research idea for one of our topics can put a proposal together and we will support them to develop the research in that area.

With the rapid advancements in quantum technologies, what excites you the most about the potential of this technology?  

It’s my dream to use Cisco colleagues and their expertise and competency to create a quantum data center of the future. Now, we go to a data center and use computing resources as a service. It’s a fundamental building block of modern daily life. In the same, I envision building a quantum data center, that allows quantum computing to be used as a service to allow many users and all societies to benefit from it. To do so, you need to build a very flexible and advanced quantum network, which I envision to be Cisco’s quantum network.  

World Quantum Day highlights the significance and awareness of quantum technologies. As we celebrate this day, what message do you feel is the most important to communicate about the future of quantum technologies and its potential impact on our world? 

We have a serious problem with workforce development. We need a diverse workforce with more women scientists and engineers in the quantum domain. We need to train students in high schools and universities.  

I would like to see more grassroots education in high schools and universities that dispel myths that quantum is just for physicists and that you just do the quantum mechanics formula in a room by yourself. All of that has to be done and is still very valid, but quantum is becoming a part of daily life and is becoming useful for solving real problems. We need engineers and scientists to focus on implementing and creating solutions utilizing quantum technologies. 

Are you ready to dive into the cutting-edge world of quantum? Cisco Research forges connections with Cisco engineers and world-class academic researchers to explore innovative technologies. Visit Cisco Research to learn more about their scholarly publications, current projects, and open RFPs. 

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