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 NISQ? NISQ is an acronym that describes the current era of quantum computing. It stands for Noisy Intermediate Scale Quantum computing. This is the the NISQ era. We do not expect many useful functions of NISQ era computers, error rates need to decrease and the number of Qubits need to increase. We are on the path to this but timelines are uncertain.
- 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, error rates need to be driven down. This requires work on software, control electronics and even processor design.
- 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.
- What is quantum tunneling? At a quantum scale, sometimes particles can appear to move across boundaries. This effect has been known to science for 100 years and is accounted for in modern microelectronics (many devices count on this feature to function). Quantum tunneling is also responsible for the nuclear fusion that powers our sun, so is a very good thing for us! This capability is important to some security devices that use quantum tunneling to generate high entropy encryption keys.
- 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. Google made a claim of quantum supremacy, but in reality their claim was not for compute on a useful purpose. Still it was exciting and helped prove that research is making progress.
- 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 (we also track many other firms including Amazon and Quantinuum on our Quantum List).
- 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, 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. At the time of this update IBM us running a 433 qubit processor named Osprey. There have been plenty of promising breakthroughs, but no real problems solved by the new ways of calculating, due largely to error rates.
- 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. We captured some big breakthroughs in this report on their announcement of proof of some calculations being able to be performed on quantum computers far better than on traditional computers. Google’s quantum computers currently run 70 operational qubits, far fewer than IBMs but Google claims to have ways to reduce errors making their approach more powerful. Time will tell if this is so.
- 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 Amazon and 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.
For Additional Insights See
- Quantum Computing and Quantum Security Sensemaking: A reference to key OODA research on all things quantum.
- The Executive’s Guide to Quantum Security: A reference to steps to take now to ensure quantum security including protecting against Harvest Now Decrypt Later attacks.
- Is Quantum Computing Ushering in an Era of No More Secrets?: Context from OODA’s Matt Devost on the very near future of quantum computing.
- What To Do About Quantum Uncertainty: Guess what, besides uncertainty at a quantum level there is great uncertainty among business and policy makers regarding Quantum Computing.
- AI, quantum computing and 5G could make criminals more dangerous than ever, warn police: Quantum is one of many emerging technologies that law enforcement professionals are tracking
- Intel offers AI breakthrough in quantum computing: This article is more about quantum simulations for AI, but shows the ecosystem that is developing around the technology
- Quantum Computing That Can Crack Modern Encryption More Than a Decade Away: When we see reports like this we wonder what qualifies the experts to say this. But in this case the experts are the National Academies of Sciences.
- Could quantum computers render current bitcoin and most blockchain cryptography powerless?: There is a worry that new algorithms that could run on quantum computing could attack blockchain and asymmetric encryption.