In Douglas Adams’ 1979 science fiction comedy novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a supercomputer called Deep Thought takes 7.5 million years to answer the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Unlike Adams’ monolithic supercomputer, quantum computers will be like today’s fiber broadband compared to 1990s dial-up internet. Google’s quantum computer can perform a calculation 158 million times faster than classical computers.
Quantum computing’s sped-up computations could reshape nearly every industry. But it also has strange quirks that make it hard to use in ways that beat classical computer abilities.
At least, that’s how things are today. Businesses that value innovation are throwing their hat in the quantum ring to ensure they’re ready for sweeping change. Should your business get involved – and if so, how?
In Insight Story Season 2 Episode 3, I discuss quantum computing’s relevance to business with Dr. Oliver Thomson Brown (UK,) Chancellor’s Fellow at EPCC (formerly Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre,) University of Edinburgh and Dr. Henning Soller (Germany,) Partner and Director of Quantum Research, McKinsey & Company.
What is quantum computing?
Quantum computers are the next step up from the powerful supercomputers that often power AI applications today. They’ll be part of our computing future but have a starting role today.
Quantum and classical computers are very different beasts – in fact, they can’t even communicate with one another. Quantum data is different, too – for example, you can’t copy it. Some quantum computers must be kept at very low temperatures in purpose-built fridges.
These features may not sound encouraging, but quantum computers have potential to do some things much better and faster. These abilities could be game-changing in many sectors, including finance, chemicals and logistics.
How could business use quantum computing?
Despite quantum computers currently being about as sophisticated as the classical computers of the mid-20th century, business is interested.
Henning advises companies throughout Europe and the Middle East on large-scale IT and data transformations. He’s confident quantum’s impact will be huge. “We haven’t yet proven a case where quantum computers outperform classical computers, but we’re certain this technology will be the major disruption for the business in the coming decade. We estimate economic potential of at least several trillion US dollars.”
Oliver’s research focuses on the interaction of quantum and high-performance computing. He says quantum could help with problems where the solution is a sequence of binary numbers. “That might include logistical problems around deciding where things go. For example, how do you fill beds in a hospital ward? Or flow- or network-type problems, like traffic management. Quantum computers may also have advantages when finding the best configuration for a molecule, like in drug discovery.”
Quantum might also work well for problems that scale poorly on classical computers. “We’re looking at problems in aviation and genomics. Genome assembly scales factorially – with a quantum computer, we may be able to reduce that by a lot.”
Henning adds, “We could use it for experiments that we need humans or animals for today. We could test chemicals much faster and transact money in different but completely secure ways. Some banks are using it for derivative pricing and Monte Carlo simulations.”
It’s something of a hammer looking for a nail, he says. “It’s not about having an advantage today, but being able to exploit the advantage tomorrow.”
Oliver says, “Adoption will be driven by how easy they are to use.” But today, quantum computers aren’t easy to use. “You have qubits, and multiple qubits form a register. Then you set up quantum gates in a circuit that apply to that qubit register and transform it – hopefully – into a state representing the solution to your problem.”
If you didn’t understand that, don’t worry – classical computers don’t get it either. That’s one of the biggest challenges that must be overcome for quantum to go mainstream, says Oliver. “You have results stored as quantum information on qubits in your qubit register, but you can’t read that out directly into a classical computer. So what do you do with it?”
And that’s not all. “You can’t copy quantum information. That’s great for security but terrible for computing,” says Oliver.
With technology this imperfect – and let’s face it, confusing to anyone without a computer science PhD – the business benefits are less obvious. Henning suggests looking at the bigger picture.
People ask, can we do better derivative pricing on a quantum or classical computer? At this stage, it’s on the classical computer. But what’s the stakeholder and shareholder value in having a better outlook on innovation?
Dr. Henning Soller, Partner and Director of Quantum Research, McKinsey & Company
“There is value in investing in quantum computing already, but not in profit and loss terms.”
Is quantum a security threat?
A 2022 study claimed that it will soon be possible to crack the most established crypto algorithm by combining classical and quantum computing.
It comes down to the role giant prime numbers play in encryption. Oliver says, “The first big quantum computing application was for factoring large prime numbers. It has no practical use except that we use large prime numbers for encryption. But security people now know it’s not a good base for security, and they’re looking at alternatives. It must be something quantum computers are bad at.”
Dr. Amin Hasbini, Head of Research Centre Middle East, Turkey and Africa for Kaspersky’s Global Research and Analysis Team agrees the cybersecurity industry is one step ahead.
Current cryptography looks stone-age compared with quantum processing, but we’re already developing quantum-proof encryption.
Dr. Amin Hasbini, Head of Research Centre Middle East, Turkey and Africa, Global Research and Analysis Team (GReAT,) Kaspersky
“Quantum computing will also make encrypted data harder to hack, but hackers will find ways to adapt as they always have.”
Henning sees the need for improved encryption as a quantum business opportunity. “Quantum cryptography is a whole new industry. It’s a major area of active investment.”
He doesn’t see hackers accessing quantum tech just yet. “This is elaborate technology – not something you can steal and easily operate.”
Oliver thinks one quantum quirk might foil decryption attempts. “The error rate for quantum computers is huge compared to classical computers. You’re likely to hit an error with any big circuit. You’d need a very large quantum computer, and we’re nowhere near that.”
What will quantum computing’s future look like?
What are the next steps to unlocking the potential of quantum computing? Henning says, “The first machines will be hybrid by design because programming them will require a classical computer. Several technologies will need to come together to operate them successfully. They must intelligently break down a problem into what suits each technology and then put the overall result together.”
He suggests business leaders embrace the future. “This revolution is coming – not tomorrow, but in a foreseeable timeframe. It may make sense to set up a smaller team to scout the technology and identify use cases. Look for opportunities to partner with quantum startups. Your business can bring the knowledge of problems that need solving.”
Oliver agrees it’s not about having all the expertise in-house. “Build partnerships with specialists who understand how to get the most of it.”
Quantum computers can’t do much today, but their potential is undeniable. Businesses exploring this new realm are investing in a reputation for innovation and the possibility of solving today’s hard problems. Difficulty accessing and using the technology should keep hackers at bay for now, but cyber researchers are working on new encryption methods that quantum computers can’t crack.