Is quantum computing ready for action?


Quantum computing is becoming a business reality, according to a survey published on Wednesday, with nearly a quarter of executives claiming they are working with the technology or planning to do so. But a prominent researcher wrote this week that he is “disturbed” by the hype around quantum computing, and warned that it is unlikely to have practical applications in the near future. This mismatch reflects a fitting degree of uncertainty around quantum computing’s readiness for commercial deployments.

Quantum computers, like this IBM machine, promise much faster processing than classical counterparts. (Photo courtesy IBM press office)

A survey of 847 business executives by IT services provider Capgemini found that 23% are working with quantum technologies or planning to do so. One in ten expect quantum computing to be available for use in at least one major application within three years, and 2% say it is.

“Our research confirms that more and more organisations are getting educated about the technology and experimenting with real-life quantum technology applications,” says Pascal Brier, chief innovation officer at Capgemini. “In the past two years, we’ve seen leaders emerge in the financial industry and a lot of traction in automotive, in particular.”

However, this view of the commercial viability of quantum computing doesn’t chime with that of eminent physicist Professor Sankar Das Sarma, director of the Condensed Matter Theory Center at the University of Maryland and a leading expert in quantum systems.

“I am as pro-quantum-computing as one can be: I’ve published more than 100 technical papers on the subject, and many of my PhD students and postdoctoral fellows are now well-known quantum computing practitioners all over the world,” Das Sarma wrote in an article for MIT Technology Review this week. “But I’m disturbed by some of the quantum computing hype I see these days, particularly when it comes to claims about how it will be commercialised.”

For businesses considering investments into quantum systems, identifying viable use cases which make commercial sense will be key.

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Are businesses jumping on the quantum computing bandwagon?

Quantum computers represent information in quantum form using qubits, rather than the bits which power a classical machine. So whereas they represent data as a one or a zero, quantum data can simultaneously be a one and a zero. This means a working quantum computer could process information much faster and more efficiently than a classical machine.

This week saw the latest announcement of a financial services company exploring quantum’s potential, when HSBC revealed it is working with IBM to accelerate its quantum readiness. But while advances have been made in demonstrating quantum computing’s power, transferring this into a commercial setting is a different matter.

In his article, Das Sarma argued that commercial use cases for quantum computing remain a distant prospect. “There are proposals to use small-scale quantum computers for drug design, as a way to quickly calculate molecular structure, which is a baffling application given that quantum chemistry is a minuscule part of the whole process,” he wrote.

“Equally perplexing are claims that near-term quantum computers will help in finance,” Das Sarm wrote. No technical papers convincingly demonstrate that small quantum computers (…) can lead to significant optimisation in algorithmic trading or risk evaluation or arbitrage or hedging or targeting and prediction or asset trading or risk profiling. This however has not prevented several investment banks from jumping on the quantum computing bandwagon.”

This has not stopped some businesses investing heavily in quantum systems. Twenty-eight per cent of enterprises polled by software company Zapata in its Enterprise Quantum Adoption report, published in January, say they have allocated a budget of $1m or more for quantum investments.

Capgemini’s survey found that China and the Netherlands have the highest proportion of businesses that are working on quantum computing implementations, while telcoms and public sector (including defence and space tech) is the most advanced sector.

Is quantum computing overhyped?

The Capgemini report acknowledges that quantum computing is at an early stage, and that “most problems solvable using current quantum computers can also be solved more quickly and cost-effectively using conventional computers”.

Steven Schuchart, analyst at GlobalData, says many businesses don’t understand quantum and how it will be used when it comes to maturity. “It’s a very young technology and what’s driving the idea that it may be ready soon is that a lot of companies have spent a lot of money on this because they’ve been told this is the next big thing,” he says. “They want to earn their money back. I don’t necessarily disagree that it will be a big thing, but perhaps not in the way a lot of people think it will be.”

Quantum computing providers have attracted significant investment lately. US quantum developer Rigetti Systems went public in October last year, and in February another business, D-Wave Systems, announced it is going to float at a planned valuation of $2.1bn. Meanwhile in the UK, which has been a hub of quantum innovation, one of the leading companies, Cambridge Quantum, merged with Honeywell’s quantum division last year to create a new business, Quantinuum.

But this does not mean there are commercial applications ready to deploy, Schuchart says. “We’re seeing companies doing IPOs, we’re seeing some mergers and acquisitions and we’re seeing business happening, but we’re not seeing the actual use cases,” he says.

The hype around quantum, Schuchart argues, is being driven not just by vendors but also by tech leaders who want to be seen to be investing in the latest systems. “If you ask a CIO about a buzzy technology, of course they’ll say they’re investing in it or it’s on their roadmap,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t have any practical application.”

Schuchart believes it is likely to be five to ten years before commercial quantum computing use cases emerge, as the technology is currently poorly understood. “That’s the thing most people don’t get,” he says. “These quantum computers are things which will need to be asked very specific questions that you can’t answer in a reasonable amount of time with standard computing. Right now it’s tough to do that.”

How should tech leaders plan quantum computing investment?

Schuchart says he believes most companies will eventually access quantum computing from the hyperscale cloud providers. Amazon, Microsoft and Google have all made investments in quantum while IBM, which is increasingly focusing on cloud services, has been the most active big tech company in the quantum space.

“Most companies will only need occasional quantum computing, or quantum computing here and there,” he says. “They will need a few hours a day at most. So doing this through Microsoft’s Azure Quantum or AWS Bracket or any of the other quantum computing services is the smart way to go.”

Tech teams need to work closely with their colleagues in R&D to identify use cases suitable for quantum computing, he argues. “Technology leaders need to go to their R&D departments and the lines of business that will use quantum and say ‘I want to be ready for when you’re ready to use this’,” he says. “If you’re going to contact a vendor, they need the mathematicians, material scientists, coders and the IT team to sit down and talk about these things.

Schuchart adds: “I don’t think [quantum computing] will be the IT department’s problem, especially if it’s in the cloud. You need a maths and physics background, and in a lot of cases I think IT will be providing the secure pipe, for want of a better phrase, and thinking about things like security, so that the R&D guys can handle it.”

Read more: Towards a quantum internet


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