Can Quantum Computing One Day Solve All Of Our Business Problems?

Can Quantum Computing One Day Solve All Of Our Business Problems?

Autonomous cars that can avoid traffic jams. A computer that can create life-saving drugs. A robot portfolio manager that can predict and avoid risky investments. It sounds like Minority Report-type sci-fi, but these advances could become reality sooner than you think.

These are the developments that could be possible with quantum computing, a fast-developing hardware technology that promises computing speed and power that would be an exponential jump over today’s computers. 

“The potential of quantum computing is mind-blowing,” said Brian Hopkins, VP and principal analyst at Forrester, which placed quantum computing among its emerging technologies to watch in 2018. “For certain types of problems, quantum computers will be able to solve problems that we can’t solve today or even imagine.” 

More immediate applications will be found in functions such as chemistry and pharmaceutical research. More marketing-related functions, such as a machine learning and predictive analytics, will require entirely new computational models and will be further out in terms of mainstream use.

But now's the time for brands to gain an understanding of the possibilities.

“It’s easy to miss the fact that the baby steps we’re taking today are bigger than the baby steps we were taking yesterday,” Hopkins said.  “The speed with which quantum computing is accelerating and the potential to go much faster means we cannot afford not to be smarter about it today.”

First, the Techie Stuff

The quantum computing market is expected to grow about 25% annually during the next five years, from $93 million in 2019 to $283 million by 2024, according to a report by MarketsandMarkets. Notably, the report also forecasts the market for quantum computing as a service will grow from $4 million to $13 million, putting the expensive computers within reach.

The quantum computing industry marked a tipping point in 2018, according to most experts. Gartner chose the technology as one of its Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2019. And at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, manufacturers showed the first commercial-use quantum computing processors, making available to business a technology that only large research and academic institutions had access to before.

“It’s almost mind-boggling the progress we have made in a single year,” said Tommy Moffat, TKS Activator at The Knowledge Society (TKS), a Canadian tech incubator. While presenting his own work at the South by Southwest conference this spring, Moffat noted that one Canadian startup, Xanadu, is developing light-based quantum computing that could possibly make those computers portable.

Quantum computing uses quantum bits, or qubits, instead of the binary bits made up of zeros and ones used in traditional computers. Think of a qubit as a spinning coin and a binary bit as a coin toss: While the toss can either be heads or tails, the quantum principle of superimposition lets a spinning coin be a measure of both. Another principle of quantum physics, entanglement, lets qubits join together to create code. A third principle, interference, lets a programmer manipulate the qubits so the computer can perform the functions the user wants.

So, instead of yes or no questions that lead the binary computer to a final result, a quantum computer can test all possible answers at once—a quantum leap in speed. Researchers working at the University of New South Wales recently reported they had built a new quantum computer 200 times faster than earlier-generation models, but noted that even the older computers could solve problems in hours that could take binary processors centuries to compute. 

Another cool fact: Right now, at least, quantum computing requires a cryostatic chamber—basically a refrigerator for subatomic particles, where they are kept colder than outer space. The quantum particles are the source of the qubits that perform operations inside the chamber, and the results are transmitted to a reader outside.

Brass Quantum Tacks

So what does quantum computing mean for organizations? Among the promises, the ability to cut big data down to size, speed calculations so artificial intelligence can think like a real human, and test everything from alternatives to fossil fuels to new drugs and chemicals faster than any lab can do today.

“Some of the initial aims are in the scientific realm, i.e., discovering cures to deadly diseases, exploring solutions for climate change, etc.,” said Brian Solis, principal analyst at Altimeter. “Also, because of the scale of quantum, we’ll see advancements in cryptography, complex business and computer modeling, sophisticated data analytics, forecasting, automation, AI, financial services, and supply chain and logistics.”

Though experts estimate quantum computing is a decade away from mainstream use, many companies industrywide already are looking into what it can do for their organizations.

Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, for example, are investigating how to adopt quantum computing into systems to spot fraud and assess investment risk, where myriad variables need to be applied at once. Automakers including BMW and Volkswagen are exploring quantum technology for everything from self-driving cars to traffic control systems that can predict flows and ease congestion, just as the aircraft manufacturers Airbus and Boeing are studying ways to apply it to designing planes that can fly faster and more efficiently.  

In addition, pharmaceutical companies such as Biogen are already investing and experimenting with quantum computing to test drug reactions and possible uses for existing drugs. Traditionally, it takes decades of research and millions of dollars to discover one drug, much like going down every different path in a maze. But a quantum computer can solve a maze by running all the possible paths simultaneously, said TKS’s Moffat, who is working with Rigetti Computing, a provider of quantum cloud services, in developing molecular simulations—the first step in discovering drugs. Moffat explained how researchers could review all possible drugs available and find a cure for a disease they weren’t even thinking about.  

Those molecular models can also aid in the search for new energy sources and solutions to global climate change. Vijay Swarup, VP research and development at Exxon Mobil, told the audience at CES this year that the oil company is using quantum computing to look for new energy solutions, including optimizing the power grid and improving refining processes.

Scaling carbon capture to reduce emissions requires a material that can be efficient enough to do it at scale, Swarup explained. Making molecular models with quantum computing will make those efforts viable, he explained.

Making Quantum Strides

A number of companies are racing to become providers of quantum computing for businesses that want to take the next computing step forward. Some of the major tech companies are assigning researchers to find new use cases for it. At CES this year, IBM introduced what it called the first commercial-use quantum computer. And just last week, Google published an article about its recent experiment that performed a quantum computation “in 200 seconds, (that) we determined...would take the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years to produce a similar output.” (IBM responded with this healthy dose of skepticism.)

“What’s most promising about the path to quantum computing is that industry leaders are opening programs to work together to accelerate development,” Solis told CMO by Adobe. “They’re making incredible strides.”

Even the government has taken notice. Last year, while introducing a bill to spur research into quantum computing, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) noted quantum computing could affect the economy and national security, from speeding research into new drugs to sorting complex data sets to solve logistics problems.

“Quantum computing is the next technological frontier that will change the world, and we cannot afford to fall behind,” she said. 

For now, the expense—around $15 million per computer—and sophistication of quantum computing keeps it out of everyday use. Thus, businesses will likely adopt quantum computing as a service instead, using cloud-based quantum computing to enhance their traditional IT, said Forrester’s Hopkins: “Unless you’re NASA, you’re going to rent quantum computing space in the cloud to solve problems.”

It’s important to separate hype from practical applications, he added. Quantum computers will be able to solve problems such as actuarial and risk calculations in the next three to five years, while customer predictive analytics could take a decade to adapt to quantum at today’s pace of development. But that pace could pick up, so now is the time to learn, he advised.

“If you don’t understand quantum computing now … then by the time quantum computers are here, you will be behind the curve,” he said. “You can’t say: ‘It’s all hype’ and come back in five years.”

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