Is your business “quantum ready”?

As governments race to get the leading edge in quantum computing, how much time and energy should enterprises invest in the technology, and getting “quantum ready”?

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Quantum computing has been creating a buzz amongst the scientific community and IT specialists for many years. That excitement is now starting to transfer to a wider community thanks to a range of milestone achievements and multimillion dollar investments.

The potential of quantum computing

Quantum computing has captured hearts and minds due to its massive, untapped potential. Sector experts believe it could have a wide-ranging impact on everything from drug and material development through to cybersecurity and weather forecasting, which could help in our fight against climate change.

“With technology improving, applications emerging and serious funding from governments and corporates, it’s entered into the mainstream as a key disruptive technology that cannot be missed out on,” says Dr Anders Karlsson, Vice President of Global Strategic Networks at science and technology publisher Elsevier.

Quantum computers can potentially solve problems that are difficult or would be completely out of reach on even the fastest classical computers, says Karlsson. This could range from logistic optimisation problems to quantum chemistry for drug discovery and computationally hard problems such as prime number factorisation, the difficulty of which forms internet encryption security.

How quantum computing works (the short explanation!)

The building blocks of quantum computers are quantum bits, or qubits, which can exist in multiple states at the same time. This is called superposition.

“A single qubit can be in two states at the same time; 0 and 1,” explains Dr Heike Riel, IBM Fellow, Department Head Science and Technology. “Two qubits can thus create two times two (22) which equals four states, three qubits can create two times two times two (23), which equals eight states, and so on.

“So for every qubit we add, we double the number of states in the superposition. This is what’s meant by exponential increase of computing power using quantum. Amazingly after just 60 qubits there are more states than can be stored in the world’s largest classical supercomputer, and after a few hundred qubits there are more states than the number of atoms in the entire visible universe.”

Now’s a particularly exciting time for the technology, as Tony Uttley, President of technology firm Honeywell Quantum Solutions, expects quantum computing to eclipse classical computers’ computational abilities in the next 12-18 months.

“In this timeframe we expect to see more frequent examples of quantum computers doing something that’s impossible on a classic machine,” he says.

In the midst of a quantum race

In its recent report on emerging trends in quantum computing, Elsevier states that the world is in the midst of a “quantum race”, with the UK, US and European Commission (EC) each investing over $1bn into the technology. Its potential makes it of national strategic importance, as any country that gets the leading edge in quantum computing hopes to use this as a potential next generation flagship IT industry.

But it’s not just governments that can benefit from early investment points out Matthew Brisse, Research VP at analyst firm Gartner.

“Those who invest now are getting an early start and in the future they’ll have a competitive advantage over their peers, or change their industry through new quantum or hybrid-based innovations. Key business advantages include competitive differentiation, and business or industry transformation,” he notes.

Where are we at right now?

It’s still very, very early days for quantum computing, particularly regarding real-world applications. Right now the focus is on better understanding and ensuring trust in the technology.

Uttley notes that we’re currently in a very small window of history where it’s possible to check a quantum computer’s solution against that of a classical machine. “In another 18 months or so we’ll surpass our ability to classically simulate it, so this period is really about building trust by validating the answers quantum computers give us. Once past this point, organisations will simply have to believe that these computers are generating the outcome they think they are.”

While the majority of research is taking place within academia, some technology companies, including as IBM, Microsoft, Google and NTT, have been investing in this area for a long time, while others, including Intel, Amazon and Alibaba, are increasingly active with significant investments, says Karlsson. Organisations from a variety of industries are now collaborating with these specialists, using their fleet of quantum computing systems to see how the technology might affect and/or benefit them.

“On the user side, BMW is working with Honeywell, and IBM has reported 100 corporate users including Delta Airlines, Daimler and JP Morgan Chase and Co,” says Karlsson. “Users are looking at quantum computing today to both understand the longer-term implications of the technology and when to consider adoption as a competitive differentiator; be that in terms of logistics optimisation, battery development or in the finance industry. In the pharma sector, 17 companies have formed the QuPharm group to work together on quantum computing technology for real-world life science problems.”

Getting “quantum ready”

Today, organisations are talking about the “quantum advantage” and the big trend is around getting “quantum ready”, says Riel.

“This means making quantum computers accessible and building up skills around the world. Accelerating research and developing applications, as well as learning and education, are crucial. This is why IBM has developed an open-source software tool called Qiskit, which allows anyone from students to professionals to learn how to write code and develop programs for quantum computers,” she says.

Analysts estimate that small advantages will appear over the next five years, but that real quantum advantage and commercial use cases won’t appear for another 10-15.

They also note that if, or when, quantum computing applications do take off, it will be much harder for organisations to catch up with those that engaged early, which is why they recommend organisations begin to look into the technology now.

“But do not do quantum computing for quantum computing’s sake,” advises Brisse. “It should be thought of as a tool, much like AI was 10-15 years ago. Those who invest in understanding and developing quantum algorithms today will have a significant advantage over those who wait.

“CIOs should start their quantum journey today. Determine if there are any possible use cases that might, in the future, offer business value. Hire quantum physicists into new roles. They’re smart and relatively easy to hire, but this won’t be the case in the long-term – just like we saw with AI.”

“Having access to this community of people is incredibly important right now,” agrees Uttley. “We also recommend that companies at least build up a small team that understands quantum physics and mechanics. They don’t need to able to build their own quantum computer or algorithm, just understand how those algorithms can be applied to their use cases.”

Quantum computing is an exciting technology that could have a wide-ranging impact on a number of sectors. Enterprises may not need not join today’s quantum race but they should be watching closely, as they have their own competition to become quantum ready and they won’t want to be last across the finish line.