Could quantum computing be the technology that drives your quantum leap forward?

Authors

EYQ

EYQ is EY’s think tank.

By exploring “What’s after what’s next?”, EYQ helps leaders anticipate the forces shaping our future — empowering them to seize the upside of disruption and build a better working world.

Prianka Srinivasan

EYQ Technology Insights Associate Director

Thought leader. Student of the future. Focused on technology disruption, innovation and impact on the human experience. Wife, runner and dog lover with a strong case of wanderlust.

15 minute read 3 Oct 2019

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When quantum computing reaches its tipping point, companies and governments need to be ready for new opportunities and possibilities. Here’s how.

Imagine electric cars that don’t need to be recharged for a thousand miles. Or discovering and taking to market the next big blockbuster drug that reverses the effects of Alzheimer’s disease ten years faster than anyone thought possible. Or creating a completely secure, unhackable means of communicating via the Internet. These are only a few examples of the possibilities that quantum computing could unlock for individuals, societies and corporations.

What is quantum computing?

Quantum computing seeks to exploit the behavior of atomic and subatomic particles to perform computation that is significantly faster and more efficient than the most powerful supercomputers available today. This dramatic acceleration could expand the scope of computing and in turn, reshape entire industries, economies and societies.

After decades of research, meaningful progress in the last few years has brought a basic form of quantum computing out of the labs and into the public realm, making it available via the cloud to anyone. This is a noteworthy achievement. As Andrew Fursman, CEO of 1Qbit, explains, “For the first-time people have succeeded at building very small rudimentary quantum systems that at least look like the components of more scalable architecture.”

The next revolution?

Does this mean we are at the beginning of a significant paradigm shift as revolutionary as the Internet or smartphones? Research efforts underway at technology companies, coupled with government-funded initiatives and a clutch of VC-funded startups has raised public hopes of an impending quantum revolution. However, experts agree that quantum computing is still nascent, with several engineering hurdles yet to overcome.

Given this backdrop, the challenge for businesses is determining if and when they should begin preparing for a possible — or probable — quantum-enabled future. And with significant implications for future national security and economic competitiveness of countries, governments will need to begin considering investments along with devising a national quantum strategy.

Those looking to maintain long-term strategic and competitive advantage will need to keep pace with quantum computing developments and engage with the budding quantum ecosystem. Leaders that begin building knowledge and testing the potential of quantum computing today will be best poised to take advantage of the incredible opportunities the technology promises to create.

Quantum technologies offer huge potential for disruption. C-suite leaders that want their companies to be relevant tomorrow need to begin embedding quantum technologies in their strategic planning today.
Gil Forer
EY Global Markets Digital and Business Disruption Leader
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Chapter 1

Sizing up the quantum opportunity

The potential for quantum computing is massive and what we know so far is likely only the tip of the iceberg.

How it works

First conceptualized by famed physicist Richard Feynman in the early 1980s, quantum computing presents an entirely new schema for storing and processing information.

Classical computers, whether smartphones, laptops or supercomputers, store information in bits that can be one or zero. Long strings of bits underpin every computation in a classical machine and adding more bits increases the computational resources proportionately.

Quantum computers store information in qubits that can be one and zero at the same time — a quantum physical phenomenon called superposition. In addition, qubits can be inextricably linked together — even over very long distances — and once entangled, changes to one qubit will influence all other qubits in the system. Thanks to these properties, qubits can store substantially more information. At the same time, adding more qubits exponentially increases and parallelizes the system’s information or data processing capabilities.

Sounds a bit like magic? The truth is that while quantum theory proves through equations that a significant speedup in calculation is possible for certain types of problems, it is very difficult to say how exactly this happens in a quantum system. Suffice to say that quantum mechanics offers a method for computation that classical computing can neither achieve nor replicate.

The Quantum Computing sweet spot

Despite its theoretical computational prowess, quantum computing is not a replacement for traditional binary computers.  “A good rule of thumb is if a classical computer is doing a great job at a particular task, then that is not the best platform to realize quantum benefits” explains Juan Miguel Arrazola, Theoretical Physicist at Toronto-based quantum computing startup, Xanadu. Instead quantum systems will be best suited to computational problems that classical computers struggle with.

Theoretically quantum computing promises a significant speed advantage over classical computing for certain problems.

The theoretical quantum computing advantage

 

Classical Computing

Quantum Computing

Cryptography
RSA 2048 prime number factor encryption1

1 billion years

~100 seconds

Chemistry
Ferredoxin simulation2

Intractable

~300 seconds

Materials Science
thermoelectric materials discovery and optimization3

15 years

15 months

Financial Services
risk assessment for large portfolios4

Overnight or Days

Real-time or Hours

Quantum computing’s strength lies in solving problems that have thus far proven intractable

One such class of problems is simulating complex biological systems at the atomic or molecular level. Quantum chemistry could prove particularly useful in the fields of drug discovery, materials science and the formulation of new chemicals. 

1. The pharma, life sciences and chemicals opportunity

Pharmaceutical companies are already exploring quantum computing’s ability to build more precise models of complex molecules and effectively simulate their interactions. While it is still early days, quantum computing could eventually accelerate drug development and even lead to the discovery of better drugs with fewer side effects for previously untreatable diseases. Looking beyond drug discovery, the field of synthetic biology promises an entirely new approach to designing cures using the ability to read and write genomes. To achieve this vision, synthetic biology will require quantum computing to model complex cell structures that can effectively fight diseases such as cancer.

Similarly, companies in materials and chemicals manufacturingautomotive and aerospace sectors are experimenting with quantum simulation to discover better compounds for more efficient batteries to power electric vehicles, fuel efficient aircraft materials, better solar panels, as well as new chemical catalysts for fertilizers that would reduce carbon emissions and improve crop yields.

2. The optimization opportunity: financial services, transport and city planning

Apart from simulation, quantum computing could solve complex optimization problems that require processing a vast number of potential solutions extremely quickly. The financial services industry is already using quantum computing to explore risk optimization across large financial portfolios. Meanwhile, the transportation sector is looking at quantum computing to make traffic management and public transport systems more efficient.

For instance, Volkswagen developed a quantum algorithm to predict urban traffic volume, allowing public transportation organizations and taxi companies to optimally deploy their fleets to meet demand. With autonomous vehicles, ships, drones and even delivery robots set to invade roads, pavements, waterways and airways around the world, quantum computing could play a critical role in optimizing routes to ease congestion and improve efficiency.

3. The data security opportunity

In the field of information and communication security, quantum has proven theoretically capable of breaking today’s strongest encryption protocols. While this has been cause for alarm, especially with governments, it also provides new methods for future quantum-resilient encryption and secure communication that could see the advent of a quantum internet.

4.  The sensing and mapping opportunity

Another near-term application is the development of quantum sensors. For instance, quantum gravity sensors or gravimeters would allow construction engineers and surveyors to map underground structures before executing large construction projects. Quantum sensors could also be used to monitor volcanoes, improve the detection of diseases and even allow cars to see around corners.

More recently, efforts are underway at companies and startups to understand the intersection of quantum computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). In theory, quantum computing’s data storage and processing capabilities could exponentially speed up the training of machine learning algorithms. And in the process, result in faster and more accurate AI systems across a wide variety of applications.  However, “the application of quantum computing to machine learning is still not concrete, it is more abstract compared to the application of quantum computing to simulation,” says Alireza Shabani, CEO and Founder of Qulab.

It is easy to understand the fascination with and investment in quantum computing given the potential to generate significant societal benefits. However, it is likely that this is just the tip of the iceberg. “As history has taught us, oftentimes as a technology emerges, the applications end up surprising us,” says Arrazola. Perhaps we will only be able to unlock the full pantheon of applications, opportunities and business value when a practical and use-able quantum computer is realized.

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Chapter 2

Overcoming quantum’s grand challenges

Stability, scalability and programmability represent the tipping points for quantum computing’s viability.

The agonizing reality of the considerable engineering hurdles plaguing quantum computing are enough to temper any utopian visions of a quantum-enabled future. Ironically the very properties that make quantum computing unique, also present its most vexing challenges.

To successfully execute a computation using the laws of quantum mechanics requires all the qubits to be in coherent states of superposition. Maintaining this coherence is notoriously difficult due to the inherent fragility and instability of qubits. The slightest disturbance from the external environment – called “noise” in the quantum world — could cause qubits to collapse or fall out of superposition, much like a house of cards. This problem compounds itself when more qubits are added since there is more opportunity for external forces to derail qubit coherence.

Creative strategies to mitigate the “noise” problem exist but they levy a large computational burden. Typically, today’s quantum systems have several duplicate qubits to perform error correction in the hopes of arriving at one readable and reliable “logical” qubit computation. This proclivity for error and the ensuing burden of error corrections defeats the speed and efficiency promise of quantum computing itself. Consequently, a considerable portion of ongoing research efforts focus on error correction.

When it comes to quantum computing, one standard may not fit all

Several technologies are vying to be the hardware standard for quantum computing. While each have their advantages and disadvantages, the overall goal for all of them is to achieve logical, stable, scalable and high-quality qubits. Currently two technologies show great promise – superconducting qubits and trapped ions. The former is favored by many of the largest technology companies like IBM and Alibaba. A few of the more promising startups in the ecosystem, like IonQ and Alpine Quantum Technologies, are pursuing the latter. Still others are pursuing photon-based, silicon-based and the more esoteric topological qubit. Some have advantages in terms of scalability, while others can be handled at room temperature and still maintain their stability.

It is more than likely that multiple standards will emerge for qubit technology and quantum computing architecture, with each lending themselves to specific specialized tasks. Which architectures will apply to each domain is still unclear.

Apart from the technological and engineering impediments, quantum computing challenges us to think differently about the world and the architecture of computation itself. Truly harnessing the power promised by quantum systems will mean developing entirely new software coding languages, algorithms, measurement standards and a whole host of yet-to-be invented tools.

Given the variety of quantum hardware that will exist, developing a platform-agnostic software stack may become a critical tipping point to democratizing the technology. This will encourage experimentation and innovation, leading to entirely new use cases that haven’t yet been thought of.

Devising the right education and development path will require keen consideration as well.

Overcoming this trinity of challenges – scalability, stability and programmability – will almost certainly signal a true tipping point for quantum computing’s viability.

  • Quantum computing hardware demands cross-platform software

    We’re reaching an inflection point in quantum computing where we need the right software to make the most of the giant leaps forward in hardware.

    Because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to quantum computing, there are several quantum hardware architectures on the market today, each with its own proprietary software stack. To democratize the use of quantum technologies, these software stacks need to be similar enough to what is available in the classical world to be accessible to a broader range of developers.

    Further, because quantum and classical computing will be operating side-by-side, there has to be a standardized software for quantum that is compatible with classical computing resources so that those looking to take advantage of quantum computing can harness the benefits of both.

    Aliro Technologies (Aliro), a spin out of the NarangLab at Harvard University, makes a software that facilitates accessibility to quantum devices. It offers a platform for developers to write software that they can optimize according to the specific details of the device.

    Aliro’s goal is to have their cross-platform, hardware-agnostic, cloud-ready software help to get quantum computing devices into the hands of as many people as possible, thereby exponentially increasing the odds of discovering the amazing potential quantum computing offers.

    For businesses, Aliro’s software lowers the barrier to entry, provided they have the talent who can understand how the quantum hardware works.

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Chapter 3

Preparing for quantum possibilities

Organizations need to gain a realistic understanding of quantum computing, its benefits and what they need to do to seize the opportunities.

Many technologies that we take for granted today would have seemed unimaginable even just a decade ago. Similarly, although quantum computing seems fraught with complexity and herculean challenges, it is possible that a decade or more from now humanity may find life unimaginable without quantum computing. However, as with any early stage technology there is a high degree of ambiguity on which applications will be most game-changing and the timing of their commercial impact.

We don’t know what the future holds for quantum computing but regardless I believe that we will eventually develop something useful with this technology.
Sen Yang
Assistant Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong
  • History should not be ignored

    History is littered with examples of technologies whose potential was underestimated but went on to become indispensable to everyday life. Here are a few examples:

    • In 1977, Ken Olsen the founder of DEC claimed that there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.
    • In 1981, Martin Cooper, developer of the first handheld cellphone said that cell phones will never replace wired landlines
    • In 2007, before the first iPhone was introduced many tech pundits predicted that it would be a failure. They said it would be nothing but a luxury product appealing only to a small audience and its impact would be irrelevant.

    Early stage technologies may seem niche or too problematic to become mainstream. However, as these examples show, it would be unwise to ignore their potential.

We cannot underestimate the progress that will be made in the near to medium-term future. Therefore, as Shabani of Qulab puts it, “companies in every industry need to gain a realistic understanding of quantum computing and its potential applications. Based on this they can decide which aspects are relevant to them.” What we do know, so far, however, is that quantum will fundamentally change data science, and by extension, companies’ data strategies.

As a starting point for C-suite executives, here are some key questions to consider as they start thinking about the relevance of quantum computing to their businesses:

  • What problems are you having trouble solving with classical computing?
    These could be problems in the realms of cybersecurity, optimization or simulation.
  • Does anyone in the C-suite have knowledge of quantum computing?
    If yes, then leverage their knowledge to address ambiguities and integrate quantum computing into your long-term strategic planning and vision. If not, then consider forming partnerships with startups, university labs or technology companies to explore possible applications and begin building an ecosystem.
  • Where does quantum computing belong in your innovation portfolio and agenda?
    Since the technology is still in early stages, consider ideating and testing use cases leveraging existing quantum computing hardware over the cloud — do not build or buy your own.
  • Will your future workforce require quantum computing skills?
    Consider how you might attract quantum computing talent as the technology matures. Also consider the steps you might take to begin building institutional knowledge within your organization today.

Beyond corporations, governments will also want to consider their level of investments in quantum computing given the significant implications on national security and economic competitiveness. Already governments in the US, EU, China, Australia, Canada, and others have announced ambitious research programs and significant funding. However, funding levels vary significantly among countries with China leading the pack.

Any quantum computing-related national strategy will need to put talent front and center. Human creativity and ingenuity will be paramount to overcoming quantum computing’s considerable issues. Along with corporate initiatives, governments will also need to start developing strategies to attract and nurture talent if they are going to leverage and benefit from quantum computing.

Quantum computing needs to be a part of every organization’s long-term strategy

For right now, with equal parts uncertainty and opportunity, quantum computing continues to confound yet capture the imagination. Ultimately every company and country — big and small — will have to keep quantum computing in the peripheral vision of their long-term strategy. We don’t know when quantum computing will reach its tipping point, but when it does companies and governments will want to be prepared to take the leap into the quantum era.

In the long run, having engineers who are knowledgeable and working on this cutting-edge technology seems really valuable and that has to start with reasonably modest investments today.
Andrew Fursman
CEO 1QBit

Summary

As quantum computing matures it will open unfathomable opportunities for companies in every industry. By positioning themselves early, companies could use quantum computing to formulate their next billion-dollar idea. C-suites and Boards of corporations need to begin thinking now about integrating quantum computing into their long-term strategic plan, building institutional knowledge for tomorrow and addressing the challenges that lie beyond.

About this article

Authors

EYQ

EYQ is EY’s think tank.

By exploring “What’s after what’s next?”, EYQ helps leaders anticipate the forces shaping our future — empowering them to seize the upside of disruption and build a better working world.

Prianka Srinivasan

EYQ Technology Insights Associate Director

Thought leader. Student of the future. Focused on technology disruption, innovation and impact on the human experience. Wife, runner and dog lover with a strong case of wanderlust.