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29 November, 2021

What is quantum computing and how will it impact the future?

Most people in business know that quantum computing is going to change their future, but few know what a quantum computer is capable of. Investment Monitor explains just how the technology can change the world.

By Lara Williams

Quantum computing is to classical computing what space travel is to the horse and cart. Comparisons have even been made to the cognitive awakening of early man. Then again, every generation believes they are in the grip of advanced and unparalleled technology. This may be true, but despite the incredible scientific breakthroughs of past centuries, we still don’t really understand how vast swathes of our world works, including our own bodies. Quantum computing has the potential to address these myriad gaps on a granular level as never before.

Some predict that this novel technology will create whole new families of drugs and diagnostic processes, new industrial and chemical processes, new ways to address climate change, new methods of logistics and transport, advanced space exploration, surveillance and monitoring… the list goes on.

Most estimations put working quantum computers within a future window of between five and 20 years. GlobalData predicts quantum supremacy – when quantum computers surpass classical computers in computational power and accuracy – will be achieved within five years, but this timeframe will deliver intermediate quantum computers that offer an advantage for specific optimisation applications rather than a full spectrum of use cases. The important milestone, however, is that the technology has left the lab and is on the cusp of commercialisation: early adoption and exploration by businesses is already under way.

What is quantum computing?

Today’s classical computers are based on information stored on binary bits, which are transistors represented by either 0s or 1s. The computing power is linear and increases with the number of transistors. This means that the main limitation of classical computing is a finite level of processing power that can be held on a chip. All calculations are deterministic with the same input resulting in the same output, and all processing is carried out in sequential order.

Instead of classic computing’s binary processing, quantum computing uses the properties of quantum physics: the counterintuitive behaviour of subatomic particles that results in the quantum states of superposition and entanglement. Quantum computing bits are called qubits and have the ability to represent 0 and 1 simultaneously. By increasing qubits, the computational power grows exponentially, not linearly.

For example, think about the problem of finding a way out of a complex maze where there are millions of possible exit routes. A classical computer using binary processing would check each escape route one after the other in a linear manner until it found a correct solution. A quantum computer, on the other hand, would test all possible escape routes simultaneously and come up with a solution in a fraction of the time. This means the theoretical limits of quantum computing are endless and its computational power is in order of magnitudes greater than classical computing. According to IBM, if you wanted to find one item in a list of one trillion and each item took one microsecond to check, a classical computer would take a week to complete this task versus only a second for a quantum computer.

How will quantum computing change the business world?

According to Markets and Markets, the quantum computing market is expected to reach $1.77bn by 2026, up from $472m in 2021. This level of investment in such an unproven technology demonstrates a consensus about its potential for disruption. Mass commercial applications could transform everything from drug discovery and disease diagnostics to calculating financial risk and refining industrial processes.

Potential applications include:

  • pharmaceutical industry: drug discovery, disease diagnostics and personalised medicine through gene sequencing and analysis
  • optimisation problems: supply chain logistics, delivery fleet optimisation, mapping, traffic/air traffic control and transport systems
  • climate change: forecasting, climate modelling and carbon capture technologies (the UK Met Office is already investing in quantum computing to help improve weather forecasting)
  • financial services: forecasting financial risk with complex financial modelling
  • machine learning: the convergence of quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to be a game changer. The ability to analyse huge quantities of data using quantum computing will provide the information needed for high-performance AI.

Where is quantum computing’s global centre of gravity?

The US and China are locked in a battle for global quantum supremacy. The US launched its National Quantum Initiative in 2019, pledging $1.2bn over five years. In 2020, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, together with the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, announced a fund of $1bn to establish 12 AI and quantum information science research centres nationwide.

Similarly, in 2016, China’s 13th five-year plan included the aspiration to become the pre-eminent global quantum computing and communication superpower. Indeed, China leads in quantum communications via satellites and long-path optical fibres, launching the world’s first quantum satellite, Micius, in 2016. China is also building a Quantum Information Sciences National Laboratory with initial funding of $1bn.

Patent data from GlobalData demonstrates that the US and China are at the global forefront of the sector’s technology development.

The UK, however, punches above its weight as a pioneer in the quantum computing sector. The National Quantum Technology Programme (NQTP) was established in 2013 with an estimated public and private sector investment of £1bn by 2024, according to the NQTP’s 2020 strategic intent report. Promising start-ups include Cambridge Quantum Computing and Oxford Quantum Circuits, with a major sector hub evolving around Oxford University.

Global quantum computing hubs of note have also developed in Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Russia, Singapore and South Korea. All global hubs have the backing of policymakers and have been the beneficiaries of concerted efforts by governments recognising the need to stay abreast of this emerging technology. Public funding of quantum technologies is said to have reached $24.4bn globally by mid-2021 in an estimate by quantum resources and careers company Quereca.

The quantum computing private sector is seeing significant growth, with deal size and numbers increasing. According to Pitchbook, private investment in quantum computing companies reached $1.02bn by September 2021, more than the combined figure for the previous three years. Consolidation is beginning, which indicates a maturing of the sector. Deal activity demonstrates this flood of private investment, with the US at the forefront.

Quantum threats and challenges

For all the potential advantages, the technology behind quantum computers has many hurdles to clear before it becomes ready for market. A quantum computer is still prohibitively expensive for most companies or organisations to own. For now, exploration is taking place in the cloud with shared services the preferred way to access the technology.

Common standards are still being worked out and possible qubit architectures are still in formation (with five main quantum computing architectures in contention). These various methods are being used by start-ups and tech giants alike and most look promising, but none have dominated the market. For example, Google is leading in the area of superconducting qubits, Silicon Valley based start-up PsiQuantum is pioneering photonic qubits and UK start-up Cambridge Quantum Computing uses trapped ion qubits. No matter the qubit architecture, until the high error rates in quantum computing outcomes are fixed, the technology will not be widely used for real-world problems. Quantum computing companies are also struggling to attract and retain talent, and this will be a significant future challenge for the sector.

The greatest risk quantum technology poses is its potential to decode all current cryptography. Businesses need to become alert to the security risks that are likely to ensue with quantum supremacy. However, according to the Global Risk Institute, it will be at least ten years before such attacks are feasible.

While most industry insiders believe quantum supremacy will be achieved within a decade, public perception of the risk timeline is somewhat out of step and therefore businesses are lagging on mitigating potential risks. A survey from the Global Risk Institute assessing the quantum risk timeline found that 90% of respondents indicated the quantum threat timeline was nearer the 20-year mark.

GlobalData’s prediction of five years for quantum supremacy comes with caveats. Even when the hardware and software are available, businesses still need to know how to use quantum computing and understand that it may not be a panacea for business problems. The analyst says the technology will be exceedingly useful but initially for a narrow and well-defined set of problems. For now, IT departments should keep abreast of developments, but it is other parts of the company that will need to be prepared for problems that are amenable to quantum computing solutions. No business needs to have a quantum computer just yet, but early-mover exploration is accessible in the cloud and it is time to start thinking about the possibilities.

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