January reader favorite: Despite increased interest, quantum computing is still years away
It hasn’t hit most CIO’s radar screens yet, but there is a new game-changing technology on the horizon. Quantum computing, which has the potential to dramatically alter the business computing landscape, is likely to receive a lot of attention in 2018.
Quantum computing theory has been around since the late 1970s, and a commercial system has been available for a decade. But persistent technical problems have impeded the widespread adoption of this potent new approach to data processing.
Now, however, the technical dam is breaking, and outfits ranging from research labs, like Sandia National Laboratories, to government agencies, such as NASA and IT giants including Google, IBM and Microsoft are pressing hard to make quantum computers a practical reality. In lockstep, a startup ecosystem is emerging, as firms like D-Wave Systems and QC Ware attract of hundreds of millions of investment dollars.
Why the big push?
Quantum’s potential benefits are enormous, according to Forrester Research analyst Brian Hopkins, who authored a recent report on the subject. Among them:
- Extreme supply chain optimization that recalculates the best price for every component part minute-by-minute, taking into account any fluctuations in demand.
- Ever more sophisticated robots that use deep-learning and computer vision to recognize and react to objects in real time.
- Computer modeling and research capabilities suited to solving problems like the discovering new molecules and designing electric car batteries that don’t depend on extremely rare and expensive elements.
- Powerful security measures capable of decrypting RSA-encrypted data and protecting against hostile attempts to do the same.
Quantum computers work with subatomic physics and qubits—units of information that are not limited in value to a one or a zero like their digital counterparts—which gives them their vast computing potential. Working with qubits, however, requires a whole new field of computer science, including new hardware and software that can take advantage of the supercooled metals and subatomic particles like photons on which quantum computing depends.
A furious pace
Despite all the excitement and hype that the field is beginning to attract, solving these technical issues means universal quantum computing is still at least ten years out. Still, breakthroughs are being made at a furious pace, and the first commercial quantum computing applications are beginning to emerge.
A case in point is QC Ware, which is developing quantum-based applications and domain-specific libraries for financial risk management and transport, logistics and engineering problem solving. The software developer also plans to help firms use quantum computers for data mining, voice, object and pattern-recognition-type machine learning techniques.
Cloud services are also on the way that will give businesses an affordable way to begin experimenting with Quantum solutions. IBM was the first out of the gate, with its IBM Quantum Experience, but D-Wave Systems, Google and Microsoft have similar plans.
All this, Hopkins notes, sets the stage for companies in select industries to seize a first-mover advantage.
“In the race to digital,” he points out, “even a one percent advantage—for example, in energy production costs or customer acquisition costs—can help a company overwhelm the competition. Using specialized quantum processors available through the cloud, a few first movers will seize advantages to achieve these smaller but significant gains over the next five years.”
CIOs in the energy, manufacturing, life sciences, healthcare, retail and financial services sectors, Hopkins says, should all be alert for early quantum applications specific to their industries.
“For example,” he says, “more efficient quantum chemistry algorithms will let courageous pharmaceutical companies bring revolutionary drugs to market, and quantum-assisted optimization may boost the value of firms that provide renewable energy resources.”
Such specialized solutions, he adds, could be less than 24 months away.