The Business World’s Race Toward “Quantum Supremacy”
Scientists and futurists have described quantum computing as the next stage of data processing since at least the early 1980s. While these next-generation machines are already here, quantum computers have generally been experimental devices — making bigger splashes in the laboratory than the boardroom.
IBM has said that won’t last long. The high-tech giant announced at its Think Summit in Taipei this year that IBM quantum computers would be commercially available in the next three to five years and “mainstream” by the end of that window.1
The race has already started for “quantum supremacy.” And the goal goes beyond counting petaflops, the measuring stick for traditional supercomputers. Quantum computers will soon perform more and more activities that are not feasible with classical computers.
An article in the journal Nature illustrated the stark difference when Google pitted the two different types of computers against each other. The quantum computer was able to finish a calculation in 3 minutes and 20 seconds. It would have taken a classical supercomputer almost 10,000 years to crack that same problem.2
A number of high-tech companies, including Alibaba, IBM, Google and Microsoft, have also been experimenting with quantum computers for more than a decade. These organizations have generally used the enhanced computing capability for cybersecurity, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Now some organizations are looking at how quantum computing could maximize bidding strategies in online advertising markets.
Companies outside of the technology industry are also exploring the possible benefits of quantum computing. For example, Volkswagen used D-Wave’s quantum computer to build a concept traffic management system that might one day route vehicles more efficiently and potentially reduce traffic congestion. The company collected anonymized traffic data from thousands of taxis in Beijing, converted them into mathematical algorithms and mapped them on quantum hardware. Volkswagen was able to route 418 cars to the airport without any of them encountering slowdowns.3
The financial services industry has also been active in this area, with companies such as JPMorgan Chase and Barclays studying ways quantum computers could be used in trading strategies, portfolio optimization and fraud detection. JPMorgan Chase has partnered with IBM and used the company’s quantum computer to test algorithms and applications.4
While the companies mentioned above play an end-to-end role in the quantum computing ecosystem, there are niche players too. They focus on the hardware and systems, or software and services. Major firms in the quantum computing ecosystem are shown below.
Today’s quantum state
While existing quantum computers range between two and 10 physical quantum bits, or qubits, market trends indicate that computers with around 100 physical qubits should be available for commercial use in the next five years. Using quantum mechanics principles, those qubits can exist in three states simultaneously (0, 1 or both). A classical computer can only store just a 1 or 0. So, the power of a quantum computer increases exponentially as the number of qubits increases.
Although quantum computers are now available, companies are generally buying time on these machines rather than purchasing the hardware.
Quantum pioneer D-Wave started selling its first computer for $15 million in 2017. However, a quantum computer that could handle all the needs of an organization would be far pricier. A 2019 article in the Guardian estimated that a “useful universal” quantum computer today would cost about $10 billion.5
To utilize these commercial quantum computers, companies must create strategies to align their people and processes with this technological leap forward. Currently, we can categorize the level of engagement in quantum computing into three types:
- Category 1 — Companies that haven’t identified a business use for quantum computing or a development time line. These organizations follow a “wait and watch” strategy.
- Category 2 — Companies that have identified the benefits of quantum computing and are exploring opportunities by partnering with hardware and software firms.
- Category 3 — Companies that have identified the immediate benefits of quantum computing and created road maps to build their own quantum computers or partner with end-to-end providers.
The level of engagement depends on a company’s strategy, business values and appetite for risk. Organizations need to communicate with industry stakeholders and create a road map for understanding quantum computing principles and how they can apply to business processes.
The quantum future
For those ready to move forward, system integrators can help companies navigate a quantum future by:
- Identifying exploratory use cases, understanding potential computational applications and anticipating implications for customers within specific sectors, such as financial services, distribution and communications.
- Developing and deploying hardware agnostic algorithms that can run different types of applications. By seamlessly switching the underlying hardware depending on business needs, this will enable organizations with little to no quantum computing knowledge to start experimenting.
- Establishing assessment frameworks and forming cross-functional teams comprised of domain and quantum experts.
At Infosys, we have been experimenting with quantum simulators and cloud access provided by Microsoft and IBM. Most of these platforms have their own custom quantum programming languages, which work in coordination with classical programming languages. Most of our current experiments with quantum simulators are designed to solve common mathematical calculations with large numbers.
Engineering groups have conducted experiments with these quantum computing environments to better understand the technology’s potential. However, the true benefits may become apparent only after quantum computing technology surpasses today’s computing capability. While quantum computers offer great promise, their current performance is mixed.
For certain algorithms and computational trials, performance on the quantum infrastructure did not match up to those on conventional computers. Current quantum computers need specialized hardware setups that are cooled to almost absolute zero to limit noise and are placed in large specialized enclosures. That makes accessibility to quantum computers difficult. Also, most experiments are performed with simulators, which further hampers performance. Many algorithms run slower on simulators than on traditional computers.
Quantum supremacy approaching
Globally, investment in quantum computing research has risen steadily, both privately and publicly. China has allocated more than $10 billion toward quantum computing, and the United States authorized a $1.2 billion investment over the next five years.6
By 2023, about 20% of organizations are expected to be exploring quantum computing projects at some level, according to Gartner.7
We believe that this gap between classical and quantum computers is likely to narrow significantly in the next few years. When that happens, the true power of quantum computing can be harnessed for complex real-world use cases, such as logistical planning, scheduling and routing, identifying new materials for faster drug development, and bidding and trading strategies. Gradually, we are learning how to take advantage of this new technology and prepare for the day soon when it becomes the computing paradigm.