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The quantum computing race: How and when will quantum technology impact businesses?

quantum computing
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Today, we are in the midst of a “quantum race”. Government investments, such the UK, US, China, Japan and the European Commission, are in the 20s of billions of US dollars into developing the technology in the last decade. There is a boom of start-ups in the area attracting venture capital, and large-scale players such as IBM, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Alibaba and NTT are intensifying their early work. Some have also moved on to offer cloud services for the community to experiment on small-scale quantum computers. A recent Elsevier report tracking publications in the field also found that since 1994, there has been a steady increase in quantum computing and nearby technology research, resulting in more than 48,000 publications. The study also showed that from 2015 onward, there has been a much steeper rate of publication. Echoing this rise, quantum computing has dominated headlines in recent years — from Google’s 53-qubit quantum computer “Sycamore” claiming quantum supremacy, to most recently the IonQ a start-up from the University of Maryland and Duke University has become the first publicly traded pure-play quantum computing company.  

Quantum computing and broader quantum technologies are high-risk, high-reward research areas. They have the potential to impact everything from cybersecurity and AI to weather forecasting and drug development. Quantum computing and the broader quantum technologies are an area of strategic national importance,  and there are a growing number of collaborative industry initiatives like the Pistoia Alliance Community of Interest. But where will we actually see quantum computing put to use? And is it worth investing in now? The answer to those questions seems clear. As the technology comes into fruition and new applications are found, it is likely that companies not yet exploring quantum computing, or even watching the technology developments, will fall behind those that are.

Five applications quantum computing could transform  

There are a variety of areas touted to feel the biggest impact from quantum computing technology, but in the near to medium term we are likely to see it make impactful changes to the following data-heavy fields: 

  • Logistic optimization problems: Commercial quantum computers could help to optimize real-time dynamism and improve speed and accuracy in operational problems in the logistics industry. It is also likely to improve self-driving car technologies and could be turned to predicting and preventing traffic congestion. 
  • Financial modeling: Here it is being investigated in order to optimize risk management and compliance, enhance trading models, and improve targeting and prediction. Quantum technologies could also have wide-reaching impacts for consumers by helping to shorten and transform credit scoring processes and customer onboarding for banks. 
  • Drug discovery: Developing new drugs still requires a lot of trial and error, which can be both expensive and risky. Quantum technologies could remove this by helping us to understand more about drugs and their reactions in humans. It could also assist with extracting more information on chemical structures, expediting the drug discovery process. 
  • Computational chemistry: The immense potential power in quantum computing could enable machines to successfully map molecules and solve traditionally challenging issues – like removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere for a better climate or even help to create solid-state batteries to solve many current energy storage problems. Interestingly ideas on quantum computing emerged around using one type of quantum system, that could be manipulated in the lab, to study the behavior of other less easily manipulated systems. 
  • Encryption and cybersecurity: These are among the most commonly discussed areas quantum computing will impact, as it may solve computationally hard problems such as prime number factorization, the difficulty of which forms the basis of current internet encryption. However, it may also be able to advance the industry through the creation of quantum cryptography, which could theoretically solve public key infrastructure issues. Quantum cryptography, or quantum key distribution has already been implemented commercially for specific applications. 

When will quantum computing come to fruition? 

The potential, as we can see, is significant. But the field is still in a nascent stage. While the long-term goal of quantum computing is to build a large-scale quantum computer it must be stated it is still challenging. The quantum analogy of a classical digital “0” or “1” bit – the quantum bit or qubit, realized with individual Ions (charged atoms), in special semiconductor circuits, so-called superconductors or in other systems are very fragile to external disturbances or noise. The more qubits you put together to build a quantum computer, the more fragile and error-prone it gets. This fragility to external disturbances, or noise, tends to wipe out all the potential computation power a quantum computer may have. Hence, a lot of work has gone into finding ways to correct for errors due to noise. As such, we are now in the stage of so-called “noisy intermediate-scale quantum computing” (NISQC) where the community are seeking out near term applications on medium size quantum computers, of which there indeed seem to be quite a few. For example, at IBM’s Quantum 2020 roadmap discussed the ambition to build a 1000-qubit quantum computer by 2023. Other quantum technology areas, such as for secure communication and sensing do not rely on using many quantum bits and are hence more mature.

The recent developments, notably in solid-state quantum computing using superconducting technologies as well as in miniaturizing ways to trap and manipulate individual atoms to use as quantum bits and in software for quantum computing are helping the industry make strides towards quantum computers being commercially available. Building on this, as mentioned some early-stage quantum computers are now accessible via the cloud which lowers the barriers to entry for small companies looking to experiment in the area. However, we must also be mindful that quantum technologies may follow a similar course to AI, which has gone through periods of excitement and disillusions. This means we could see a quantum winter, if some of the current excitement and early promises cannot be realized fast enough.

The future of quantum will rely on collaboration 

As the area is still an emerging technology it is imperative there is a solid foundation of funding from governments. Hence, we see government initiatives, such the EU quantum flagship initiatives, US initiatives such as US Department of Energy's quantum computing centers, the National Quantum Initiative and the Japan Moonshot program. China has also demonstrated impressive work in quantum communication, set up a national quantum lab, and in a policy speech in October 2020 Chinese Prime Minister Xi Jinping stressed the crucial role of quantum technologies for the country. In terms of strategic technologies and protectionism, we have seen in the EU framework program discussions mentions of excluding the UK, Switzerland and Israel from programs on quantum (to keep research within EU member states) – as well as on space technologies. However, looking at past data collected and the research performance of these nations in quantum technologies and space, it would seem wise to keep collaborations open.

Quantum is now shifting toward enabling real-world uses. So, when applications truly take off it will be much harder for firms who didn’t ‘get in on the ground’ to understand the technology or use cases to catch up and stay in the quantum race. Ultimately, organizations should work together pre-competitively in exploratory projects to progress quantum computing hardware, software and explore use cases. When experimenting with any new technology, considerable amounts of data and access to specialist skills are required to answer the many challenges they will face. Addressing these challenges, lowering costs, increasing the chances of success, and widening the skills, will be far easier if organizations work together.

Dr Anders Karlsson, Vice President of Global Strategic Networks, Elsevier