Quantum Computing is unlikely to start emerging as a business opportunity for at least another five years. Nonetheless, some industrial R&D departments, the finance industry, and security vendors should start playing with it in case they still haven’t.
A wonderful world
Quantum Computing is a product of Quantum Information Science, a field of research inaugurated by physicists in the early Eighties.
Along with Quantum Communication (of which the Chinese satellite Micius gave a practical demonstration in 2017), it is a wonderful and promising research area, which in recent years has been enriched by tools and environments to encourage learning as well as the sharing of findings and experiences.
In commenting these praiseworthy initiatives from IT vendors like Google, IBM, Microsoft or Rigetti, the trade press has come to believe that quantum computing be within reach, and is spreading signals that confuse the IT industry and its clients all along.
At present, however, the quantum computing potential only regards scientists and R&D people in selected industries.
What are the experts saying?
And quantum computing faces many challenges, both practical and theorical.
For example, nobody has of yet demonstrated that quantum computers can complete a task that is intractable on classical computers.
And nobody has insofar created a quantum computer that carries out at least one practical task more efficiently than any classical computer.
John Preskill, the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech, involved in quantum information science since a quarter century, wrote in January 2018:
«We may feel confident that quantum technology will have a substantial impact on society in the decades ahead, but we cannot be nearly so confident about the commercial potential of quantum technology in the near term, say the next five to ten years».
Another, and much bigger, problem is that quantum computing’s calculations and logic are error-prone due to electronic noise. Strategies are being devised to solve this, but successful implementations of Quantum Error Correction for computers with more than a handful of qubits are not here yet, and may not be seen for many years.
Intermediate stage of R&D
That’s why the current stage of quantum computing is labeled NISQ, Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum computing.
And will NISQ be of use for business applications? Hear Preskill, again: «Physicists are excited about this NISQ technology, which gives us new tools for exploring the physics of many entangled particles. It might also have useful applications of interest to the business community, but we’re not sure about that».
As an example, we are far from a quantum computer that can challenge today’s cryptography. According to the recently published and meticulously informed Quantum Computing – Progress and Prospects (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2019):
«To create a quantum computer that can run Shor’s algorithm to find the private key in a 1024-bit RSA encrypted message requires building a machine that is more than five orders of magnitude larger and has error rates that are about two orders of magnitude better than current machines [mid-2018, Editor’s note], as well as [building] the software development environment to support this machine».
Furthermore, due to unique challenges like the novel programming techniques needed and the special environmental conditions required, quantum computers are unlikely to be useful as a direct replacement for classical computers, and would rather appear as embedded accelerators within them.
Quantum computing is a wonderful discipline and a challenging subject for some of the world’s most brilliant minds and best high-tech enterprises.
But it is still developing in the labs and likely to continue like that for a decade at least (in fact, nobody knows).
Who is to be concerned
- If you are a curious reader and wish to follow the unfolding of quantum information science, stay tuned to solid sources, of which some I have offered you here. You may also want to play with the ingenious sandboxes that IT vendors maintain.
- If you sell into the scientific or military space, you’re probably already getting used to the basics at least. The opportunity is not near, but its potential is such as to deserve your prolonged attention. Future practical applications are being envisaged in areas that would be facilitated by quantum simulation, like developing drugs, new materials, superconductors, and chemicals. But the prospects are unclear with NISQ.
- The existence, some day, of full-scale, error-free and powerful quantum computers will not mean the end of online security. Post-quantum cryptography systems (and standards) are being developed; and there will be quantum cryptography, which was the main subject of the above-mentioned Micius. If you are in the financial or security industries, you should already be following these innovations.
- If your interest in quantum computing is limited to business applications, and you operate outside of R&D departments, the military, or security, come back in five years at least.