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Quantum Computing Gets Real But IS Not Ready for Prime Time

Quantum computing continues to captivate imaginations. The technology takes advantage of quantum mechanics to deliver exponentially faster speeds by being able to process an almost infinite amount of parallel compute threads delivered as qubits and quantum gates. As Jim Clarke, director of quantum hardware for Intel Labs, describes it, “by harnessing quantum mechanics, quantum computing systems promise an unprecedented ability to simulate and analyze natural phenomena, significantly accelerating the ability to process information and answer questions that would require prohibitive amounts of time even for today’s supercomputers.”

But how close is it to practical business applications? Quantum is still mainly in an experimental state and it’s unclear whether most working efforts will be in the cloud or integrated into system CPUs.

The major vendors have been leading the way. Amazon recently launched a quantum-as-a-service offering called Amazon Braket, intended to help customers gain experience with the technology. Microsoft launched Azure Quantum, a set of quantum services that ranges from pre-built solutions to software and quantum hardware. Developers also have access to an open source Quantum Development Kit.

IBM, which unveiled a commercial quantum computer in early 2019, launched Qiskit for developers invested in open source technology, and IBM Quantum Experience for developers and users who want access to all the latest technology on the cloud. The vendor even took things a step further when it announced that it is working with more than 100 organizations—including Anthem, Delta Airlines, Goldman Sachs, and Wells Fargo—through its Q Network, which offers cloud-based access to the vendor’s Quantum Computation Center.

‘MILE ONE IN A MARATHON’

With the largest technology vendors announcing quantum computing capabilities, and even “quantum as a service,” does this mean quantum computing is becoming part of mainstream application offerings anytime soon? Industry observers say it’s still too early for businesses to start to leverage this powerful new form of computing. “Quantum computing is advancing in leaps and bounds, but it is still in its early stages of development and not quite ready for mainstream enterprise adoption,” said Dan Garrison, master technology architect in Accenture’s Quantum practice. Accenture anticipates the first enterprise applications leveraging quantum computers to be widely incorporated into businesses in the next 2–5 years, he said.

At this point, “the industry is at mile one in a marathon toward commercialization of quantum computing,” said Clarke. “While there have been a lot of articles and announcements about quantum systems and capabilities, these services run on relatively small quantum systems.” Moving from lab-scale quantum test systems to real-world applications for quantum systems will require demonstrating quantum practicality, Clarke noted. To reach that level, this transformative technology will need to make the leap from research to commercial viability in applications such as drug development, logistics optimization, natural disaster prediction, and more, he added.

There are likely to be some industries that will see quantum computing implementations sooner than others. “These implementations will be ones that supplement existing processes, versus betting a whole corporate strategy on the outcomes,” said Garrison. “What will be interesting to watch for is if any organization leverages quantum in such a way that it provides them a distinct competitive advantage against their peer group.”

Industries likely to be ahead of the curve include insurance—for underwriting and member satisfaction—as well as retail—to facilitate hyper-personalization, predicted Prasad Kothari, vice president of analytics and client solutions for The Smart Cube. Additional leaders may include the healthcare sector, which will employ quantum for more personalized treatment, and life sciences, which will use it to boost drug discovery and commercial analytics, he added.

Anis Uzzaman, CEO of Pegasus Tech Ventures, sees quantum computing targeting the biggest problems in industries such as healthcare and energy. Both hardware and applications related to quantum will be emerging this year, he predicted.

CLOUD OR ONSITE?

For the most part, quantum computing will initially be available through cloud-based services. On-premise offerings are impractical “largely due to the intricate cooling systems required to operate quantum devices,” said Clarke. He doesn’t rule out on-premise systems in the future, however, as quantum computing research and development continues to progress. “Intel is exploring the possibility of raising the operating temperature of spin qubits in silicon, which would dramatically reduce the complexity of the cooling and control systems required to enable quantum computing.” From a hardware perspective, Intel recently introduced Horse Ridge, an integrated control chip for qubits. 

Still, the cloud is the most feasible path to quantum due to the technology’s cost and complexity. “Not many companies will invest in their own quantum computers, given that they could cost millions of dollars,” said Garrison. “Because quantum addresses very specific, niche mathematical problems, we anticipate that most companies will ultimately leverage the processing power of quantum via the cloud. Cloud companies, such as Microsoft and Amazon, are already enabling this, providing the front end for companies to access quantum computing capabilities from other providers on the back end. Cloud will ultimately make it easier and more affordable for companies to access and experiment with quantum.”

"The challenge in setting up on-premise quantum computes are incredible, including the need to achieve temperatures close to absolute zero in isolation from interference so I think this will favour centralized servers offered as a cloud service. Governments will run their own, probably everybody else will timeshare," agreed Guy Harrison, DBTA columnist and director and CTO of Southbank, which he founded in 2016. 

The timing for the arrival of quantum-enabled commercially available applications is about 3–5 years, according to Tom Petrocelli, research fellow at Amalgam Insights. “The basic concepts have been tested and are being built out as commercial offerings. That doesn’t mean that it will be a replacement for general-purpose computing. Initially, I see quantum computing used for cryptography and AI. Both of those use cases are well-tuned to the probabilistic nature of a quantum computer.”

Nonetheless, expect to see more talk of quantum—and more tangible offerings—emerge over the coming year. “While we may still be years away from widespread use cases, the number of initial applications will skyrocket in 2020 as companies like Google and IBM join smaller outfits like Quantum Thought in beginning to commercialize their quantum abilities,” said Matthew Halliday, co-founder and vice president of product at Incorta. “As a result, 2020 will bring heavy investments in quantum computing applications from venture capitalists and major enterprises alike. The upside is simply too great to ignore.”

Money is flowing to quantum initiatives, Uzzaman concurred. “Venture capital firms have already dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars toward reshaping the future,” he said.

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