As recently as two years ago critics said quantum computers weren’t buildable. Today, there are already commercial customers of quantum technology...
Quantum technology comprises quantum computing, quantum cryptography, quantum networking (the Quantum Internet) and quantum sensors. All of these sectors of quantum technology are already generating revenues today. Apart from quantum sensors, all are interrelated in important ways, with the prospect of commercial quantum computing driving much of the investment in the emerging quantum technology market. Quantum sensors use the sensitivity of quantum devices to increase the effectiveness of medical imagining, global positioning and other applications. They are real and with us today.
Quantum Computing: State of Play
As recently as two years ago articles were appearing from serious critics saying that quantum computers weren’t buildable in practice. Today, much of that skepticism has dissipated; tier-one firms are investing in quantum computing.
Quantum computers or their components/access networks have already been developed by Alibaba, Amazon, IBM, Microsoft, Google, Honeywell, and Intel. Also playing in this market are well-funded newer companies such as Rigetti, ionQ and D-Wave.
The involvement of household names like IBM, Google or Amazon not only adds credibility to quantum computing but also spreads its fame. With such firms involved in this market, it is easy to get quantum computers onto the home pages of news outlets that ordinarily don’t cover advanced physics or supercomputing.
How quantum computers work and the applications they can solve:
This seems like a good place to attempt an explanation of how a quantum computer works. A full explanation is well beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that quantum computers perform calculations based on the probability of an object’s quantum state before it is measured. This is compared to what a classical computer does — calculated on the basis of deterministic 1s or 0s.
At the practical level, this translates into quantum computers being able to process orders of magnitude more information than classical computers can in the same period of time. So quantum computers embody a promise that quantum computers can solve problems that classical problems cannot solve in a reasonable time period.
Although quantum computers are already in use, there is some agreement that there are, as yet, no practical problems that can be solved by a quantum computer that cannot be solved by a classical computer. This is a very controversial issue – but this so-called quantum advantage has supposedly been demonstrated for classes of theoretical problems. The areas where quantum computers have been found to be especially useful to date have been in optimization programs, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, and in simulation.
None of this is intended to imply that progress in quantum computing technology will be easy. While the capacity of quantum computers is measured in qubits (not bits like classical computers), the quality of the qubits is also important. It is difficult to maintain the quantum states of qubits as they are prone to quantum decoherence. Quantum computers require significant error correction since they are more prone to errors than classical computers.
Some of the firms mentioned above are making quantum hardware and selling them to end-users. Some are selling access to their computers over a dedicated cloud, making the otherwise enormously expensive quantum computers ($10 million -$15 million) accessible to thousands of users. There is also a slew of companies (including Intel) that are developing processors for future quantum computers.
Banks, Investment and Quanta
Probably the biggest markets for quantum computers in the past few years have been R&D and government (including the military and the intelligence community). This is typical of new computing products. But in the view of Inside Quantum Technology, the market where we think quantum computing will first find big commercial success (the “killer app” for quantum computing?) is in the financial services sector (banks, insurance companies, investment firms, etc.)
We are particularly bullish about this sector for several reasons. First, in the largest banks, quantum computing is already fairly well established. What we are seeing there is the actual usage of quantum computers right now not just trials. Some major banks are even hiring quantum computing experts to help deploy quantum technology throughout their organizations — JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs are examples. Also making financial services a high potential market is there are a lot of large banks and other financial services businesses that could use the power of a quantum computing.
This is not true of all banks, of course, we have heard many medium-size banks say about quantum computing that its fascinating but more than they needed right now, but this might change over the next five years or so.
Pharma: a profitable use for quantum computers
Another area where we see high potential for quantum computers right now is in the specialty chemical and pharma industries. These two areas are similar in that they are both trying to create complex materials. Quantum computers let the chemical and pharma companies bring products to market quicker through simulations and optimizations.
The importance of time to market in the pharma business hardly needs to be explained in this era of COVID-19. Examples of how this sector of the quantum computer market is evolving was the recent investment of BASF Ventures in Zapata Computing. Meanwhile, most of the largest firms in the pharma industry (Roche, for example) have started to trial how quantum computers can help them in their drug discovery procedures.
An application to be feared: QKD and the quantum Internet
More efficient banks, pharmaceutical companies would be considered by most people to be a good thing. However, one type of application that quantum computers appear to promise is to be feared; the ability to break popular key encryption (PKE) techniques. Although quantum computers won’t be a threat for quite some time. However, long-lasting information – medical records and plans for aircraft – need protection now because they can be stolen now and decoded when a sufficiently powerful quantum computers become available.
As a result of all this, the encryption community is hard at work producing so-called Post-Quantum Cryptography (PQC) algorithms, which are currently being standardized by NIST. PQC algorithms are intended to be less vulnerable than conventional public-key encryption (PKE) algorithms to being broken by quantum computers. Another way to protect the information in the quantum era is to send it over a quantum network that carries qubits, not bits. This can happen through the use of the quantum key distribution, which encodes the keys in PKE as qubits. When a hacker tries to steal the key, the information the hacker is trying to grab dissolves into a state of decoherence.
The much-fabled Quantum Internet as currently being conceived is first and foremost a quantum key encryption network to be developed in stages with various novel quantum encryption features.
— Lawrence Gasman is president of Inside Quantum Technology