The quantum race is already underway. Governments and private investors all around the world are pouring billions of dollars into quantum research and development. Satellite-based quantum key distribution for encryption has been demonstrated, laying the groundwork for a potential quantum security-based global communication network. IBM, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and other companies are investing heavily in developing large-scale quantum computing hardware and software. Nobody is quite there yet. Even so, business leaders should consider developing strategies to address three main areas: 1.) planning for quantum security, 2.) indentifying use cases for quantum computing, and 3.) thinking through responsible design. By planning responsibly, while also embracing future uncertainty, businesses can improve their odds of being ready for the quantum future.
Quantum physics has already changed our lives. Thanks to the invention of the laser and the transistor — both products of quantum theory — almost every electronic device we use today is an example of quantum physics in action. We may now be on the brink of a second quantum revolution as we attempt to harness even more of the power of the quantum world. Quantum computing and quantum communication could impact many sectors, including healthcare, energy, finance, security, and entertainment. Recent studies predict a multibillion-dollar quantum industry by 2030. However, significant practical challenges need to be overcome before this level of large-scale impact is achievable.
Quantum versus classical
Although quantum theory is over a century old, the current quantum revolution is based on the more recent realization that uncertainty — a fundamental property of quantum particles — can be a powerful resource. At the level of individual quantum particles, such as electrons or photons (particles of light), it’s impossible to precisely know every property of the particle at any given moment in time. For example, the GPS in your car can tell you your location and your speed and direction all at once, and precisely enough to get you to your destination. But a quantum GPS could not simultaneously and precisely display all those properties of an electron, not because of faulty design, but because the laws of quantum physics forbid it. In the quantum world, we must use the language of probability, rather than certainty. And in the context of computing based on binary digits (bits) of 0s and 1s, this means that quantum bits (qubits) have some likelihood of being a 1 and some likelihood of being 0 at the same time.
Such imprecision is at first disconcerting. In our everyday classical computers, 0’s and 1’s are associated with switches and electronic circuits turning on and off. Not knowing if they are exactly on or off wouldn’t make much sense from a computing point of view. In fact, that would lead to errors in calculations. But the revolutionary idea behind quantum information processing is that quantum uncertainty — a fuzzy in-between “superposition” of 0 and 1 — is actually not a bug, but a feature. It provides new levers for more powerful ways to communicate and process data.
Quantum communication and quantum computing in action
One outcome of the probabilistic nature of quantum theory is that quantum information cannot be precisely copied. From a security lens, this is game-changing. Hackers trying to copy quantum keys used for encrypting and transmitting messages would be foiled, even if they had access to a quantum computer, or other powerful resources. This fundamentally unhackable encryption is based on the laws of physics, and not on the complex mathematical algorithms used today. While mathematical encryption techniques are vulnerable to being cracked by powerful enough computers, cracking quantum encryption would require violating the laws of physics.
Just as quantum encryption is fundamentally different from current encryption methods based on mathematical complexity, quantum computers are fundamentally different from current classical computers. The two are as different as a car and a horse and cart. A car is based on harnessing different laws of physics compared to a horse and cart. It gets you to your destination faster and to new destinations previously out of reach. The same can be said for a quantum computer compared to a classical computer. A quantum computer harnesses the probabilistic laws of quantum physics to process data and perform computations in a novel way. It can complete certain computing tasks faster, and can perform new, previously impossible tasks such as, for example, quantum teleportation, where information encoded in quantum particles disappears in one location and is exactly (but not instantaneously) recreated in another location far away. While that sounds like sci-fi, this new form of data transmission could be a vital component of a future quantum internet.
A particularly important application of quantum computers might be to simulate and analyze molecules for drug development and materials design. A quantum computer is uniquely suited for such tasks because it would operate on the same laws of quantum physics as the molecules it is simulating. Using a quantum device to simulate quantum chemistry could be far more efficient than using the fastest classical supercomputers today.
Quantum computers are also ideally suited for solving complex optimization tasks and performing fast searches of unsorted data. This could be relevant for many applications, from sorting climate data or health or financial data, to optimizing supply chain logistics, or workforce management, or traffic flow.
Preparing for the quantum future
The quantum race is already underway. Governments and private investors all around the world are pouring billions of dollars into quantum research and development. Satellite-based quantum key distribution for encryption has been demonstrated, laying the groundwork for a potential quantum security-based global communication network. IBM, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and other companies are investing heavily in developing large-scale quantum computing hardware and software. Nobody is quite there yet. While small-scale quantum computers are operational today, a major hurdle to scaling up the technology is the issue of dealing with errors. Compared to bits, qubits are incredibly fragile. Even the slightest disturbance from the outside world is enough to destroy quantum information. That’s why most current machines need to be carefully shielded in isolated environments operating at temperatures far colder than outer space. While a theoretical framework for quantum error correction has been developed, implementing it in an energy- and resource-efficient manner poses significant engineering challenges.
Given the current state of the field, it’s not clear when or if the full power of quantum computing will be accessible. Even so, business leaders should consider developing strategies to address three main areas:
- Planning for quantum security: Current data encryption protocols are vulnerable not only to future quantum computers, but also to ever-more powerful classical computers. New standards for encryption (whether classical or quantum) are inevitable. Changing over to a quantum-secure architecture and supporting infrastructure for data security will require planning, resources, and quantum expertise. Even if quantum computers may be a decade away, waiting until then to adapt would be too late. The time to start the process is now.
- Identifying use cases: Nobody could have predicted the myriad ways that classical computers impact every aspect of our lives. Predicting quantum applications is equally challenging. That’s why, in order to fully tap into the potential of quantum computing, business leaders and experts in different sectors such as health, finance, or energy must connect with quantum researchers and hardware/software engineers. This will facilitate the development of industry-specific quantum solutions tailored for currently available quantum technologies or for future scalable quantum computing. Interdisciplinary expertise and training will be critical to building and growing the quantum app store.
- Thinking through responsible design: Who will develop and have access to quantum technology, and how will users engage with it? The impact of AI and blockchain has demonstrated the need to consider the social, ethical, and environmental implications of new technologies. It’s early days for the quantum industry. That provides a rare opportunity to embed inclusive practices from the start and build a responsible and sustainable roadmap for quantum computing.
The rapid growth in the quantum tech sector over the past five years has been exciting. But the future remains unpredictable. Luckily, quantum theory tells us that unpredictability is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, two qubits can be locked together in such a way that individually they remain undetermined, but jointly they are perfectly in sync — either both qubits are 0 or both are 1. This combination of joint certainty and individual unpredictability — a phenomenon called entanglement — is a powerful fuel that drives many quantum computing algorithms. Perhaps it also holds a lesson for how to build a quantum industry. By planning responsibly, while also embracing future uncertainty, businesses can improve their odds of being ready for the quantum future.