Women of Quantum Technology: Laura Thomas of Infleqtion
The quantum industry brings together people of all different backgrounds, enriching the perspectives and community within the industry. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Laura Thomas, the Chief of Staff at Infleqtion (previously known as ColdQuanta), who transitioned from the CIA. Because of her intelligence community background, Thomas is focused on how quantum technology can affect international relations and competition between countries. “A determining factor of whether the world becomes more democratic or authoritarian over the next 20 years will be the results of the great power competition with China,” explained Thomas. “And technology is at the crux of that competition. Quantum is one of the emerging technologies that has the potential to move the needle as far as democratic or authoritarian values.”
Thomas hopes to use her expertise in international relations and government to develop this next-generation technology in an ethical way. “I think it’s incredibly important that we get this right,” she added, “for not only the United States but also in concert with our like-minded partners. The stakes of getting it wrong are of profound impact to our national and economic security and to the world.”
With an academic background in international affairs and foreign languages, Thomas began working on intelligence-related issues in 2005. She joined the CIA as a case officer working in foreign countries, and worked her way up through the ranks, leading CIA field locations and major programs. “A case officer is the person who recruits and handles foreign individuals, known as ‘assets’ or ‘sources,’ to provide sensitive information that informs decisions by U.S. policymakers, including the President.” To lead programs focused on collecting intelligence, Thomas explained that one must understand current technologies and their unintended consequences. “It is a very sacred obligation for CIA officers to ensure that their assets and the families of their assets remain safe. To do that, they have to be aware of threats from many angles,” Thomas added.
To learn more about these possible threats, Thomas began questioning the impact of quantum computing on encryption in 2016. Learning that a powerful quantum computer could eventually break most encryption, Thomas began “talking to a number of experts beyond the hyped headlines,” she said. “I discovered quantum is a lot bigger than just quantum computing, it’s also quantum sensing and quantum communications. It’s a technology that has the potential to shape our future in a profound way that can be both wonderful for human flourishing, and as with many other things, it can be a double-edged sword if not wielded correctly or if authoritarian governments wield it first.” As an expert in assessing both threats and opportunities in her environment, Thomas found her skills translated perfectly to a role in the quantum industry.
“Joining the quantum industry is a change in path for me, not a change in mission,” Thomas commented. “Ultimately, I chose Infleqtion, then-ColdQuanta, because it has longstanding work with the U.S and allied governments. After a career in the CIA, Thomas finds that her role as Chief of Staff in many ways parallels her role in the intelligence community. “I help our CEO think through second and third-order effects of decisions and get things done,” Thomas said. “A good way to say it is that I’m responsible for telling people what they need to know, not necessarily what they want to hear.” Thomas said that she is used to operating amid high levels of ambiguity, “It’s the same in emerging technology, where there is rapid change. You have to be decisive but also open-minded enough to change your mind because facts on the ground shift and you should be constantly recognizing past blind spots.” In the fast-paced environment of the quantum industry, Thomas feels she is able to help do all of those things.
With her passion for getting things done, Thomas hopes to inspire others to help make the quantum industry more inclusive and believes this starts with education. “You have to start young and get more children interested in STEM,” she added. “That’s also easier said than done because there are a lot of family factors at play. If home life is such that a child doesn’t even have time to think about anything school-related because of family stressors, then that child isn’t going to know about a wide range of career options, much less which steps to take to make those options possible. There’s a lot of privilege that comes with growing up in certain environments, studying certain things, and that’s not extended to so many members of our population.” Thomas has already seen her own company help with this issue, as Infleqtion has given lectures at middle and high schools, and collaborates with non-profits like Pretty Brainy to mentor female university students in Colorado.
Seeing Infleqtion set an example for diversity initiatives, Thomas hopes other quantum companies will follow, “The first step is making statements. A lot of companies are already doing that,” Thomas added. “Then you have to actually do something. You have to walk the walk. For women specifically, I’m a big believer that ‘if you can see her, you can be her,’ and we need to be inspiring future generations in this way. As an example at Infleqtion, we invited Dawn Meyerriecks to our Board of Directors. Dawn was the former Deputy Director of Science and Technology at CIA, and she also has extensive tech industry experience. This is an example of an excellent choice that young women and many others can look to and say, ‘Infleqtion is more than just statements about diversity.’”
It will be no surprise to see a leader like Infleqtion continue to push forward in making strides for diversity. Infleqtion’s Director of Engagement, Brittany Mazin, has been at the forefront building Infleqtion’s community efforts. She added, “We are focused on diversity, equity and inclusion – we see the bigger picture and are thinking ahead to reach future generations and underrepresented communities in a meaningful way.”
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a staff writer at Inside Quantum Technology and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). Her writing beats include deep tech, the metaverse, and quantum technology.