People of ACM - Catherine McGeoch

May 1, 2014

Catherine McGeoch is the Beitzel Professor of Technology and Society at Amherst College. She has been the Editor-in-Chief of  The Journal of Experimental Algorithmics and is currently a member of the ACM Publications Board. She is the author of  A Guide to Experimental Algorithmics. In 2013 she published one of the first detailed benchmarks of the D-Wave's Quantum Computer (billed as the world's first commercially available quantum computing system) versus conventional software.

McGeoch has 25 years of experience setting up experiments to test various facets of computing speed, and is one of the founders of experimental algorithmics. Her research interests are in algorithms and heuristics for NP-hard problems; experimental algorithmics, including methodology, statistics, and data analysis; and lately, experimental analysis of quantum annealers and adiabatic quantum systems. She earned her MS and PhD degrees from Carnegie Mellon University, and graduated summa cum laude from Butler University.

How would you describe the impact of your recent benchmark research report on the D-Wave machine, and why is this equipment classified as a quantum computer?

Our work was really just one small piece of a bigger picture that has yet to be fully sketched out. A lot more research is needed to understand what these chips can and cannot do. As to why it should be classified as a quantum computer: maybe the more interesting question is why is there so much debate about how to classify it? The design approach is so unusual that it doesn't really fit into the standard categories.

As you take a leave of absence from Amherst College in May to work full time for D-Wave Systems, what challenges do you face during this sojourn in the commercial world?

Some friends think I'm crazy to leave my relatively peaceful job in academia to join this rapidly-moving field. And there's the question of what it will be like to work remotely (for the most part): I'm a little worried that the bandwidth of the internet might be too narrow to support the right level of technical discourse. It's hard to know what to expect.

As a diehard Boston Bruins fan, do you detect any connection between the skills required for advancing computing and the characteristics of a winning hockey team?

Well, since you ask, I do think there is something about experience on a sports team that can bring out a person's ability to shrug off setbacks and ignore that fear of failure. I guess you'd call it perseverance. Go B's.

As a renowned researcher, innovator and leader in algorithms and computation theory, what advice would you give to young people considering careers in computing?

Don't give up after the first (or fifth) setback. Don't worry so much about meeting other peoples' definitions of success. Find out what you enjoy doing, and you'll be fine in the long run.