Even though quantum computing is in its nascent phase, the promise of the technology remains undisputed: a problem that takes the most powerful classical computer today hundreds of thousands of years to solve, a universal, fault-tolerant quantum computer would be able to solve within a matter of hours or days.
But there still needs to be a big leap in science and engineering before we can harness the quantum advantage – the inflection point at which quantum computers can solve problems that classical computers cannot. While this advantage has been proven in a research setting, industry applications still have some way to go.
There are several reasons for that. There is a lot of work to be done on the quality of quantum bits or ‘qubits’ themselves. Their very nature makes them rather fragile and susceptible to external interference. Currently, it takes 10,000 qubits to stabilise and use a single qubit for computational purposes. Then there is the issue of scalability. To see an advantage, we would need a quantum computer with at least 500 to 1,000 qubits, but we’re yet to reach this milestone.
Why, then, are we talking about quantum computing today? And what are the repercussions, if any, both for CTOs and other industry leaders who might still be sitting on the fence about it?
While major efforts are underway by governments and quantum technology providers to achieve a quantum advantage in an industrial setting, experts also see a great push by industry end-users to understand the technology and steer its evolution.
This is down to several factors. A breakthrough can happen at any time and several of them have already occurred ahead of schedule. Another element that adds urgency to the issue is simply the limited resources both in talent and quantum machines. Christophe Jurczak, managing partner at the venture capital fund Quantonation, believes that a squeeze in demand is inevitable. “Now’s the right time to look at the technology before quantum advantage is proven. The challenge here is that the day we identify one or several use cases that are worth running on quantum computers, there won’t be enough machines,” he comments.
He says that today there are no more than 100 machines globally and those who have established relationships with vendors will benefit first. Everyone else would have to wait. This wait, thinks Matt Langione, a partner at Boston Consulting Group, can have existential repercussions for businesses.
“The opportunity cost for not investing in quantum could be existential. Imagine a pharma company that can search the entire relevant span of chemical space. With a quantum computer, once it comes online, they could simply discover all sorts of drugs, patent them and effectively corner the market, clearing the field of competitors,” he explains. “Quantum computing has the potential to be, if not winner-takes-all, a winner-takes-most kind of technology.”
Jurczak, who also has a PhD in quantum physics, explains that despite the massive potential of the technology, it would be naive to think that quantum computers would be the panacea to all our computational problems. Instead, executives would benefit from keeping an open mind and seeing how the technology works in synergy with other approaches for best results.
Andrew Foreman, the former CTO for the US Army Europe and Africa, echoes this, having looked at quantum computing right before his retirement last year. He has reflected on how it may work alongside other technologies, like AI and machine learning. “As a CTO, when I look at problem-solving and specifically at emerging technologies, I’m looking at what they can produce in the five- to 10-year mark, not in the near term,” he comments. To look beyond the hype, he emphasises the need to talk to different stakeholders both in industry and academia.
“You can’t just go to a single source and ask where we are going to be in five years because they’re going to tell you what suits them. When I look at emerging technologies, I reach out to about five or six different companies and look for where these overlaps come together,” he says.
The final step is to rally all your stakeholders behind the idea. For this, you need to lay out a phased plan that will clearly demonstrate the business benefits at different milestones.
Langione reckons that we’d be able to prove the quantum advantage in an industrial setting sometime between 2023 and 2025 which can produce around $5bn (£4.4bn) in value for end users. Between 2025 and 2030, the industry would look at scaling the volume of qubits, which is expected to produce $20bn to $50bn in added value. Once we crack error correction, which Google estimates will happen by the end of this decade, we can unlock exponential gains in the realm of hundreds of billions of dollars.
Both Jurczak and Langione see finance as the industry which stands to benefit first, although Jurczak also sees great potential in chemistry especially when it comes to drug and material design. Langione, on the other hand, sees automotive and aerospace as the runner-up industries followed by oil and gas and energy. He says that any business that faces a large sparse matrix problem can capitalise on advances in quantum.
The world is data hungry, so much so that classical computers are coming to a standstill in their capacity to process it. Quantum computing is offering a much-needed helping hand, but the technology needs time to mature.
That said, anyone who isn’t looking at the technology today risks being left behind tomorrow. Time estimates are a rough guide when we are in such uncharted territories. Here, playing the waiting game can mean playing the losing game. Whether you’re looking to gain a competitive advantage or simply protect your IT infrastructure from future encryption vulnerabilities, experts agree that now is the time to look at quantum.