What's ahead for Professor Michelle Simmons, Australian of the Year?

31 Jan 2018
Michelle Simmons

When Scientia Professor Michelle Simmons, UNSW Science, was announced as the 2018 Australian of the Year on 26 January, her world changed. Already somewhat accustomed to being under the spotlight as a result of her scientific achievements, being named as the nation’s pre-eminent citizen has resulted in her email being flooded with many positive responses from everyday Australians about her messages on doing the hard things and the inevitable requests to speak at all sorts of events.

Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T), Simmons leads a team of over 200 researchers across eight universities, with the aim to build the world’s first quantum computer and developing a quantum information ecosystem in Australia. Her role as Australian of the Year will evolve as she seeks to encourage younger Australians to be the creators rather than the users of technology, but she is clear her primary focus will continue to be her team and their research. With $83 million of new commercial backing, and a new partnership with recently formed company Silicon Quantum Computing Pty Ltd, Professor Simmons wants to produce a working prototype quantum computer within the next five years. 

So why is a quantum computer important? The speed at which a quantum computer solves problems is expected to be millions of times faster than conventional computers. Quantum computers will change our use of technology and therefore society. Practical examples showcasing the reality of quantum computing include: improved weather forecasting and climate change predictions; artificial intelligence and vastly improving machine learning; faster and personalised drug development; online security with data encryption becoming obsolete and even controlling the flow of traffic. Simply put, quantum computers analyse the entire picture at once while a standard computer looks at a problem one step at a time. Michelle said: “Quantum computing will change the world as we know it, and we are determined to be at the forefront of this technology.”

Although Professor Simmons’ primary goal is to focus on this revolutionary work, her other key objectives as Australian of the Year are to champion science education within Australian schools, encourage younger people to take on hard challenges, to build industry partnership and encourage greater collaboration across Australia and the States for scientific research, and of course to raise the profile of UNSW’s research and opportunities abroad. As 2018 Australian of the Year, however, she realises that she must remain focused on her day job at CQC2T at UNSW in building the quantum computer.

A celebration for Michelle will be held on campus in the coming weeks.

To read about Professor Simmons’ research and the award, please visit the UNSW newsroom. Her Australian of the Year Award acceptance speech has been transcribed ‘Look into your own heart and your own land.’ In addition to Professor Simmons’ award, a number of individuals from UNSW were awarded Australia Day Honours and the community congratulates all of its honourees for their awards, respective research and engagement, and subsequent impact on the Australian community.