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The Executive’s Guide To Quantum Computing: What you need to know for your strategy today

This guide captures key concepts and the status of major quantum computing research initiatives in a way meant to serve the needs of operational decision-makers. Our goal: inform you about the near future so you can make the right changes to your strategy today.

After a review of some key quantum computing concepts we will provide an update on some of the most promising research initiatives and key use cases being explored. We then conclude with insights you can use for your strategic approach and a list of resources for further research.

Key Quantum Computing Concepts Executives Should Be Tracking

  • What is quantum computing? It is the leveraging of quantum effects to solve problems that cannot be solved by traditional computing. Today’s computers are built on circuits of transistors that can calculate on the simplest of math. Information is processed using addition and subtraction and memory of 1’s and 0’s. This state of information, the 0 or 1, is called a bit. 8 of those is a byte. With quantum computing, the quantum mechanical properties of single atoms, sub atomic particles and superconducting electrical circuits are used to calculate over matter that can exist in more than just an on or off state. So a value that is being calculated on can be assumed to hold a value of 0 or 1 or even both! This new type of value is called a qubit.
  • What is entanglement? One of the most bizarre theoretical concepts and later observations of quantum theory is entanglement. It is a way that the state of two small particles can stay entangled even when separated and at a distance. The state of one of these particles can depend on the state of another. This ability of two separate objects to share a state is what Einstein colorfully called “spooky action at a distance.” Don’t ask anyone to explain it. But it has been proven to work even from Earth to a satellite in space. The challenges are that these entangled particles are very small and hard to manage, manipulate and measure.
  • Why all the errors? Quantum computers do work, in labs. But every approach tried to date comes with errors. That is to be expected when working on things at this scale. No matter what the approach, qubits are unstable. To be effective, researchers have concluded that quantum computers must have an error rate of less than 0.5 percent for every two qubits. Every researcher is trying to find ways to drive down current error rates below this. This requires work on software, control electronics and even processor design.
  • What is Quantum Supremacy? This is a term the community has coalesced around to reflect the time when a computer based on quantum effects can do something, anything, better than a traditional computer. Many researchers believe this is far off, with the guess being that largely due to current error rates it could take a 100 qubit computer. After achieving quantum supremacy, it will be pretty clear that quantum computers on on a path to doing something functionally useful.
  • What Really Works? Most of the info above could have been written in 1981 when Richard Feynman conceptualized the field of simulating physics using computers. But since then research activities by governments, academia and industry have been making advancements in the study of quantum effects for computing and fantastic demonstrations of potential have been made. At the time of this writing, no true quantum computer has been used to solve any real world problem. There have been promising accomplishments in the lab, but error rates in measuring and computing have just been too large to deliver real results.
  • How do you program a Quantum Computer? A great deal of research has gone into how quantum computers can fit into today’s architecture. IBM and Microsoft both offer APIs to their approaches to quantum computing (more on those below).
  • What is Shor’s Algorithm and Gover’s Algorithm? These are two of the most talked about algorithms in the quantum computing domain because the consensus is that once a quantum computer can use these then almost all asymmetric encryption can be broken. The will enable quantum computers to factor large prime numbers and also invalidate the purpose of cryptographic hashes. This poses a great danger to current approaches to security.

Who are the leaders in quantum computing?

In terms of money being spent and numbers of researchers being applied to solve quantum challenges, we see the leaders in pursuit of real world solutions as IBM, Microsoft, Google, and the Chinese Communist Party controlled Chinese Academy of Sciences.

  • IBM has been investing in quantum computing for decades. They have built out an ecosystem that includes academia and business partners that cover a wide range of functions including training on concepts and development of algorithms that will work in quantum computing. Their approach is to build a processor that can be managed in a low error way (errors are a huge challenge in all current quantum computing approaches). Their architecture is based on a super conducting “inductor” that is kept as cold as humans can make it (0.015 Kelvin), then use the effects of those inductors to measure artificial atoms held in small capacitors. All of that is connected to circuits that can then be leveraged by traditional software stacks for human control. This is a 50 qubit architecture. There have been plenty of promising breakthroughs, but no real problems solved by the new ways of calculating, due largely to error rates. For more see: IBM-Q
  • Microsoft has also been investing in quantum computing for decades, leveraging a global network of laboratories supported by funded research in academia. Their goal will be to deliver quantum computing via Azure. Potential use cases they highlight include quantum chemistry. Their approach, they are focusing on something called the Quantum Hall effect. This is an ability for electron systems that are very cold in in strong magnetic fields to take on and hold new packets of energy. For more see Microsoft Quantum.
  • Google has been investing in quantum computing for several years and was in early user of the quantum device from D-Wave systems. Now they are funding their own approach. In March 2018 they announced they have a 72 qubit quantum computer processor they called Bristlecone. For more see: Bristlecone
  • Alibaba and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. There is also a great deal of research in China. Some of the most widely known is being done by Alibaba. They are working with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (controlled by the Communist Party of China) to form the Alibaba Quantum Computing Laboratory. Its public mission is to “undertake frontier research on systems that appear the most promising in realizing the practical applications of quantum computing.” They are known to have an 11 qubit computer. Security experts in the U.S. are quick to point. Out that China will likely be the first country to successfully use quantum computing to break encryption, since that seems to be a national objective. This makes it critical for governments and companies to make their communications quantum safe today.

Use cases of note

  • Chemistry: predicting the properties of atoms and then complex molecules will help design more effective medicines, optimize manufacturing, build stronger and lighter materials and engineer more resilient crops to feed the world.
  • Machine Learning and AI: Training AI by use of quantum computers will make big advancements in the state of the art around computer vision, pattern recognition, voice recognition and one day perhaps even cognition.
  • Business process optimization: Being able to hold many solutions in place at one time will help solve complex optimization problems that current computing just can’t even address
  • Planning: Quantum computing will speed through problems of design and then computer simulation of solutions.
  • Security: The use of quantum computers in security can include algorithms that more quickly assess adversary intentions and help guide humans to take defensive measures, or, in some cases, take automated action. Quantum computers can also aid in examining a target’s attack surface to look for weaknesses and vulnerabilities that should be mitigated to strengthen against attack. Note: some quantum effects that are not quantum computing are being used to improve security by creating encryption methods that are quantum safe. For example, see QuintessenceLabs.
  • Weather: weather predication models are complex and as we all see on a daily basis very unreliable. New quantum computing approaches hold great promise to enabling more accurate predictions further out, enabling better decisions.

The So-What for your Strategic Planning

Every firm is different of course, but it is clear a few strategic recommendations will apply to many forward leaning organizations. Here are key considerations:

  • Make your data comms and data stores safe for the quantum age: Solutions are available today that will protect your data from being broken in the quantum age. The problem is that data you encrypt today may still be valuable to you in the future. Since storage is cheap many adversaries are known to be interceptions and storing data for breaking in the future. So you should be moving to be quantum safe today.
  • Imagine what unconstrained computing could do for your business: At this point computing is very constrained. But soon new powers will be unleashed and accessible to organizations like yours via cloud services and APIs. When that occurs, what would you want to use new computing powers to do? Fire up your imagination now and you can begin working with your tech team to see which use cases are more realistic for the near future.
  • Ask your development teams to evaluate the Microsoft and IBM software development kits and APIs: Their final approaches to quantum computing are not available yet, but you can program to them and even simulate how they will work in your computing environment. Having your developers familiar with these architectures may be a hedge that will pay off in the near future
  • Be ready to separate the hype from the real: There is a great deal of hype around quantum computing. But there is also valid research and years of consistent improvement in the ability to leverage quantum effects for computing in labs.  OODA will do our best to help you separate the real from the hype so ensure you are signed up to our Daily Pulse report for our latest cut.

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Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of OODA LLC, the technology research and advisory firm with a focus on artificial intelligence and cybersecurity which publishes OODALoop.com. Bob is the co-host of the popular podcast The OODAcast. Bob has been an advisor to dozens of successful high tech startups and has conducted enterprise cybersecurity assessments for businesses in multiple sectors of the economy. He was a career Naval Intelligence Officer and is the former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Find Bob on Defcon.Social