Today, we are in the midst of a “quantum race.” Government investments, such as those from the UK, US, China, Japan and the European Commission, amount to US$20 billion in technology development in the last decade. There is a boom in startups in the area attracting venture capital, and large-scale players like IBM, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Alibaba and NTT are stepping up their seed work. Some have also moved on to offer cloud services for the community to experiment with 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 onwards, there has been a much steeper posting rate. Echoing this rise, quantum computing has dominated headlines in recent years, from Google’s 53-qubit quantum computer “Sycamore” claiming quantum supremacy, to the more recent IonQ, a University of Maryland startup. and Duke University, which has become the first publicly traded university. pure quantum computing company.
Quantum computing and broader quantum technologies are high-risk, high-reward areas of research. They have the potential to impact everything from cybersecurity and AI to weather forecasting and drug development. Quantum computing and broader quantum technologies are an area of strategic national importance, and there are a growing number of collaborative industry initiatives such as the Pistoia Alliance Community of Interest. But where will we actually see how quantum computing is used? And is it worth investing now? The answer to those questions seems clear. As the technology becomes a reality and new applications are found, companies that have not yet explored quantum computing, or even watched technological developments, are likely to fall behind those that do.
Five applications that quantum computing could transform
There are a variety of areas touted to feel the greatest impact from quantum computing technology, but in the short to medium term we are likely to see impactful changes in the following data-heavy fields:
- Logistics optimization problems: Commercial quantum computers could help optimize dynamics in real time 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 used to predict and prevent traffic congestion.
- Financial modelling: Research is being done here to optimize risk management and compliance, improve business models, and improve targeting and prediction. Quantum technologies could also have far-reaching impacts for consumers by helping to shorten and transform credit scoring and customer onboarding processes for banks.
- Drug discovery: New drug development still requires a lot of trial and error, which can be costly and risky. Quantum technologies could eliminate this by helping us understand more about drugs and their reactions in humans. It could also help extract more information about chemical structures, speeding up the drug discovery process.
- Computational Chemistry: The immense potential power of quantum computing could allow machines to successfully map molecules and solve traditionally challenging problems, such as removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere to improve climate or even help create solid-state batteries to solve many current energy storage problems. . Interestingly, ideas about quantum computing arose around the use of a type of quantum system, which could be manipulated in the laboratory, to study the behavior of other systems that are less easy to manipulate.
- Encryption and cybersecurity: These are some of the most commonly discussed areas where quantum computing will impact, as it can solve difficult computational problems such as the factorization of prime numbers, the difficulty of which forms the basis of current internet encryption. However, it can also move the industry forward through the creation of quantum cryptography, which could theoretically solve public key infrastructure problems. Quantum cryptography, or quantum key distribution, has already been commercially implemented for specific applications.
When will quantum computing become a reality?
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 should be noted that it remains a challenge. The quantum analogy of a classical digital bit “0” or “1”: the quantum bit or qubit, made with individual ions (charged atoms), in special semiconductor circuits, the so-called superconductors or in other systems are very fragile to external disturbances . or noise. The more qubits you gather to build a quantum computer, the more fragile and error-prone it becomes. This brittleness to external disturbances, or noise, tends to eat up any potential computing power a quantum computer might have. Therefore, a lot of work has gone into finding ways to correct errors due to noise. As such, we are now at the stage of so-called “intermediate-scale noisy quantum computing” (NISQC), where the community is looking at short-term applications in medium-sized quantum computers, of which there seem to be quite a few. For example, IBM’s Quantum 2020 roadmap discussed the ambition to build a 1,000-qubit quantum computer by 2023. Other areas of quantum technology, such as secure communication and sensing, do not rely on the use of many quantum bits. and, therefore, are more mature.
Recent developments, particularly in solid-state quantum computing using superconducting technologies, as well as in ways of miniaturization to trap and manipulate individual atoms for use as quantum bits, and in software for quantum computing, are helping the industry move toward the commercial availability of quantum computers. Building on this, as mentioned, some early-stage quantum computers are now accessible via the cloud, lowering the barriers to entry for small businesses looking to experiment in the area. However, we should also keep in mind that quantum technologies may follow a similar course to that of AI, which has gone through periods of excitement and disappointment. This means we could see a Quantum Winter, if some of the current excitement and early promises can’t be realized fast enough.
The future of quantum will depend on collaboration
As the area is still an emerging technology, it is imperative that there is a solid funding base from governments. So we see government initiatives, like the EU Quantum Flagship Initiatives, US initiatives like the US Department of Energy’s Quantum Computing Centers, the National Quantum Initiative, and the Japan Moonshot program. China has also shown impressive work in quantum communication, establishing a national quantum laboratory, and in a political speech in October 2020, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping highlighted the crucial role of quantum technologies for the country. In terms of strategic technologies and protectionism, we have seen in discussions of the EU framework program mentions of excluding the UK, Switzerland and Israel from quantum programs (to keep research within EU member states), as well as on space technologies. However, looking at the data collected in the past and the research performance of these nations in quantum technologies and space, it would seem prudent to keep collaborations open.
Quantum is now moving towards enabling real-world uses. So when applications really take off, it will be much harder for companies that weren’t ‘on the ground’ to understand the technology or use cases to catch up and stay in the quantum race. Ultimately, organizations must work together precompetitively on exploratory projects to advance quantum computing hardware and software and explore use cases. When experimenting with any new technology, considerable amounts of data and access to specialized skills are required to respond to the many challenges they will face. Addressing these challenges, lowering costs, increasing the chances of success, and expanding skills will be much easier if organizations work together.
Dr. Anders Karlsson, Vice President of Global Strategic Networks, Elsevier