by Karl Rettino-Parazelli
It became a field of research almost forty years ago, and now it’s becoming a reality. More than ever, quantum computing (QC) is attracting attention and billions of dollars in investments from around the world, carrying the hope of revolutionizing computer science and many sectors of the global economy. The revolution is under way, enthusiasts say, but it’s only the beginning.
A lot has happened since the early 1980s, when pioneers like the American theoretical physicist and co-Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman first proposed using quantum mechanics to implement a new kind of computer capable of solving problems conventional computers could not. Big companies (Google, Microsoft, Intel), powerful governments (United States, China) and prestigious universities (MIT, Yale, Oxford) now invest massively in QC, attempting to take the lead in what could soon become a multi-billion dollar industry.
According to a recent report by the Computing Community Consortium (CCC), a branch of the Computing Research Association, “although the basic theoretical underpinning of quantum computing has been around for some time, it took until the past five years to bring the field to an inflection point: now, small and intermediate-scale machines are being built in various labs, in academia and industry.”
“Quantum computing is moving quickly from research labs to real-world applications. It has the potential to unlock significant value for companies in the next decade,” wrote Boston Consulting Group (BCG) researchers Massimo Russo, Anant Thaker and Suhare Adam in their 2018 article.
In fact, BCG expects that productivity gains produced by quantum computing, both in savings and revenue opportunities, will surpass $450 billion annually in the coming decades.
According to the Institute for Quantum Computing, of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, quantum computing “is essentially harnessing and exploiting the amazing laws of quantum mechanics to process information”. While conventional computers work with digital bits of 0 and 1, quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, which can take any value between 0 and 1. This important difference enables quantum computers to potentially run a huge number of operations at once, instead of managing them one at a time.
“Think of this as the difference between a coin at rest on a table, displaying heads or tails, vs. one spinning, ballerina-like, on its edge. The result: Superposition allows qubits to store vast amounts of data compared with regular bits,” summarized Fortune magazine senior writer Robert Hackett in an article published last summer. This theoretical advantage means that, in certain circumstances, quantum computers could provide exponential speedups: where a conventional computer would take 365 days to solve a given problem, the quantum computer could find the answer in less than 20 days.
The promising development of quantum computing opens the door to breakthroughs in a wide array of sectors. In finance, QC could allow banks and investment companies to better manage risks and opportunities. In pharmaceutical, it could perform the colossal task of simulating all the possible interactions between molecules, which could accelerate drug discovery and decrease unintended side effects. According to BCG, quantum simulations in the pharma sector alone could represent an addressable market of up to $20 billion by 2030.
Quantum computers could also be useful in training the neural networks used in machine learning, in optimizing supply chains, improving large-scale weather and climate forecasting technologies, and finding compounds for better solar cells and more efficient electric car batteries.
As Vijay Swarup, Vice-President of Research and Development at Exxon Mobil told Fortune magazine, “Quantum computing can take our understanding of nature and chemistry to a granularity that has never been able to be done before because the computations are just too hard.”
On the other hand, this new technology has the potential to redefine data security as we know it. “One frightening aspect of QC development is the certainty – not merely the potential – that quantum computers will be used to crack previously undecipherable codes and breach previously unhackable systems,” stated Duncan Stewart, Deloitte Canada Director of Technology, Media and Telecommunications Research, last year. “Organizations in the automotive, military and defense, power and utilities, health care, and financial services sectors are today deploying long-lived systems that are not quantum-safe, exposing them to significant liability and financial overhead in the future.”
A “huge gap”
All these possibilities exist, but most experts agree that there is still a long road ahead. “There is a huge gap between the problems for which a quantum computer might be useful and what we can currently build, program, and run,” wrote Margaret Martonosi and Martin Roetteler in their 2018 report sponsored by the CCC.
In most sectors, the commercial value of quantum computing isn’t clear yet because the current technology is flawed. First, quantum systems are extremely fragile: “To maintain their quantum behaviour, qubit chips are enclosed in sealed boxes fitted with vacuum pumps to remove stray air molecules, or cooled to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. More qubits means more fridges, more connections and more expense,” explains Sabine Hossenfelder, Research Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies in an opinion letter published in The Guardian in August. “Worse, these devices are exquisitely sensitive to the smallest disturbances – even footsteps can send them awry.”
Second, quantum computers are big – really big – which means they can’t fit in your laptop or smartphone, at least for now. And third, qubits are very expensive: about $10,000 each, according to Hossenfelder. That’s the main reason why Stewart predicts that quantum computers will not replace classical computers for decades, if ever, and that the quantum computer market of the future will not exceed around US$50 billion. In comparison, the market value of classical computing devices, including smartphones, computers and supercomputers, is expected to reach at least US$1 trillion this year.
The quantum computers currently built contain around 20 qubits, but experts say they will have to be multiplied by 5 or even 10 to achieve commercially useful, general purpose quantum computing. These numbers aside, QC enthusiasts now focus on one thing: reaching what they call quantum supremacy, or quantum superiority, which refers to the moment when a quantum computer will be able to perform a task no classical computer can. And this could happen as soon as this year, with Google apparently being well-positioned to claim the record.
“Businesses and technologists will look at that and realize it’s not just some promising technology in the future, but something powerful working right now,” said John Martinis, who leads Google’s quantum efforts, in an interview with Fortune magazine. But not everyone agrees. According to Deloitte’s Stewart, “Although quantum supremacy will mark a conceptual turning point, the reality is that quantum computers will still be, at least in the near term, difficult to build, awkward to house, and challenging to program – and therefore not ready for the commercial market any time soon.”
“Quantum supremacy will be a remarkable achievement for science,” agreed Hossenfelder in her op-ed, going on to echo Stewart’s remarks: “It won’t change the world any time soon.”
Sharing a similar view, BCG experts expect the quantum computing market to evolve over three generations: the development of non-universal quantum computers designed for low-complexity simulations until 2028, the creation of usable applications like molecular simulations and software development between 2028 and 2039, and the possibility of performing advanced simulations for commercial use with significant advantages over classical methods between 2031 and 2042.
“In the future, hybrid systems consisting of classical computers that call on their quantum cousins for assistance will solve problems that are intractable today,” the BCG predicts.
At the starting line
“Although the QC market will take years to arrive, will not replace classical computers, and will be worth US$50 billion rather than trillions of dollars in the 2030s, [...] QC will be one of the largest ‘new’ technology revenue opportunities to emerge over the next decade. In fields where quantum supremacy has been achieved, whole industries will be transformed,” concludes Stewart.
To put things in perspective, Director of Quantum Hardware at Intel Jim Clarke, compares the work his company and other players do with the space missions of the last century. “We’re not trying to meet some short-term, flashy goal, we’re trying to build that rocket ship to the Moon,” he told Fortune magazine. “Nobody can quite agree on when the industry will see liftoff, but this could be the year scientists start the countdown.” In other words – those of Sabine Hossenfelder: “Quantum supremacy will be a landmark for computing, but it is where the hard work starts, not where it ends.”