Updated: Jul 22, 2022
This piece provides an overview of the current status of quantum computing for those just starting to look at the field. For those interested in learning more, we recommend viewing the video of a recent panel session from the recent HPE Discover 2022 event in Las Vegas, Nevada. Besides myself, other members of the panel included Kirk Bresniker, HPE Fellow, VP and Chief Architect, Hewlett Packard Labs, Yehuda Naveh, co-founder and CTO of Classiq, and Dr. Shini Somara, moderator and TV technology journalist.
So, is quantum computing ready to take off and disrupt industries as we know them? As an analyst and publisher about all things quantum, I hear variations of this question every day. My response is to fall back on the decades-old “Amara’s Law,” which states that: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”
In other words, I’m excited about the prospects, but cautious about overpromising revolutionary breakthroughs anytime soon.
First, what exactly is quantum computing? It’s an emerging technology that uses quantum mechanics to run calculations. Quantum computers leverage the quantum mechanical phenomena of superposition, entanglement, and interference that allow the creation of new types of algorithms that can perform certain calculations much faster than classical computers.
Governments are taking notice. China has announced plans to invest $15.3 billion in quantum computing over the next five years with the E.U. and U.S. are putting up more than $7.2 billion and $1.9 billion, respectively. Other countries, including Japan, the U.K., India, and Canada are also funding quantum technology with over a billion dollars each. Investors are, too. Investments in quantum startups crossed $1.4 billion in 2021, more than double the year before figure, according to McKinsey.
Entering the ‘Quantum Ready’ Phase
Although the current generation of quantum computers are not yet powerful enough to surpass the capabilities of classical computer for commercially relevant applications, quantum technology is advancing very rapidly, and we do expect that a few quantum applications to become viable in the next 2-3 years. Many companies are seeking a competitive advantage in their industry by initiating quantum programs now in order to get familiar with the technology and take advantage of it when the more powerful processors are available. A study last year of over 500 corporate managers by Classiq, a quantum software company, found that 89.8% believe IT departments should have a budget specifically for quantum computing technologies, and 61.9% report that their company has already allocated a budget for quantum computing.
A critical challenge with quantum computing technology lies in the relatively high error rates associated with the quantum qubit gates due to their extreme sensitivity to disturbances from the outside environment. Researchers are working intensely to combat this and the industry views that quantum computing development will fall into two phases.
The current phase is called NISQ, standing for Noisy, Intermediate Scale Quantum. Although engineers cannot completely eliminate the noise that causes inaccuracies in the system, they are developing techniques to reduce it. And clever programmers are developing algorithms that can produce useful solutions to certain application problems despite the remaining level of noise. We expect that there will be a few commercial applications that will become viable soon with NISQ-level computers.
The next phase is called Fault Tolerant Quantum Computing where engineers develop error correction algorithms that will effectively eliminate the problem of errors for the programmer so they can develop many more commercial quantum applications. Creating these fault tolerant quantum computers is still a difficult challenge and will require much larger processors than exist today. However, we do expect that several organizations will succeed and make these machine available by the end of the decade.
Where Quantum Computing Can Make a Difference
Although quantum computers won’t do much for common consumer applications like email, web browsing or accounting, there are still many exciting applications where it should make a difference.
Quantum computing will only be commercially useful when it can solve certain types of problems that are impossible or extremely difficult for a classical computer to solve, a situation we call “Quantum Advantage.” Using a quantum computer to simulate quantum-level chemical reactions is a very natural and extremely important class of applications. Applications of this type include drug discovery, material design, and key problems associated with climate change like carbon capture and solar energy conversion.
Optimization will be another major type of applications where quantum technology can provide benefit. Many industries will find they can better optimize their company’s operations through quantum computing. For example, the financial industry will be able to develop improved portfolio optimizations, credit risk analysis, Monte Carlo modeling, and trading strategies. Any organization that deals with logistics will be able to use quantum technology for things like vehicle routing, network optimization, or optimizing process and manufacturing flows.
And a third type of application will be in quantum machine learning capabilities. Quantum can potentially provide significant speed-ups or improvement in accuracy versus a classical computing approach for various machine learning problems. These can include such things as fraud detection and money laundering protection for financial companies, image recognition, and training neural networks.
Quantum and Classical Computers Will Be Used in Tandem
Will quantum computers ever replace classical computers? Not likely. Although quantum computers may eventually displace some high-performance classical computers, there are a great many tasks that a quantum computer is not well suited for, such as reading email, running a website, maintaining a financial transaction database, browsing the internet, calculating bank balances, and most of the other tasks we perform on computers today.
In fact, many people believe that most quantum computing will be accomplished with quantum and classical working together. They believe it will be similar to how GPU’s are used today as coprocessors that support the main classical processor.
Quantum’s Encryption Issue
One issue people are talking about today is a threat quantum computing could pose in the distant future. As quantum computers gain more power, experts believe they’ll be able to break the RSA encryption computers use on the internet today. This won’t happen right away, but it could occur 10-15 years from now. This poses a problem for data that has a long shelf life – like medical records. There are solutions called Post Quantum Cryptography (PQC) and QKD (Quantum Key Distribution). Corporate leaders should start planning for this because they may have to upgrade thousands of systems in their organization to make them quantum resistant.
Developing a Quantum Work Force
While work still needs to be done on quantum’s hardware, software, algorithm and system designs, skills development also needs to be put high on the priority list. The lack of availability of trained people could be the thing that limits the growth of the industry. Luckily, governments and private industry groups are starting to introduce solutions to the problem and get people trained.
A number of organizations, including the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the White House Quantum Coordination office and the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C) all have programs for helping to build up a quantum work force. I work on a QED-C initiative designed to inspire students to get involved and help professors put together curricula. It will take a lot of work, but progress is being made.
While quantum’s true impact is still likely a few years away, there are things IT managers can do to prepare for a quantum future.
Prepare for the RSA break: Even though it’s purely a defensive move, IT managers should start a program right now. Just converting systems to become quantum resistant from using RSA-based encryption to using a new approach will take many years. It will take a large enterprise 5-10 years to find all systems and convert them to make them quantum resistant.
Take inventory of IT systems: Find out what data you need to protect that will have a long shelf life and find out what systems work with that type of data.
Identify quantum use cases: Survey all the various IT processes within the organization and see which ones might be amenable to being accelerated or improved by using quantum technology.
Upgrade quantum skills: As quantum computers develop, IT managers will need skilled operators. Start scoping out job roles for a quantum environment and look for candidates to fill those rolls. Also, evaluate whether it makes sense to bring in outside consultants who can help you on your journey to implement quantum technologies within your organization.
To the quantum enthusiasts who hope the computers will change the world right away, here’s my advice: Be patient. Quantum is coming. We’re seeing incremental breakthroughs every year, and dollars are being invested to advance the technology. Also, don’t underestimate its future impact. Start making moves today to take advantage of a technology that will be very helpful tomorrow.