Gradually, then suddenly
History and Hemingway suggest that disruption happens in two ways: gradually, then suddenly.¹
Before Alan Turing formulated his idea of “computing machines” in 1936, a computer was a person who performed calculations by writing numbers and symbols on paper.2 For decades afterwards, digital computers improved only gradually. Now, your smartphone is millions of times more powerful than the computers that put humankind on the Moon.
At first glance, today’s fledgling quantum computers are following a similarly incremental path. However, quantum computing is a doubly exponential technology. According to ‘Neven’s Law,’ named after German scientist Hartmut Neven, its processing power is increasing exponentially faster than Moore’s Law.3 Within the time it takes a classical computer to double in power —approximately every 18 months — a quantum computer will quadruple in power. If this trend continues, there is no doubt that ‘suddenly’ will arrive far faster and much more disruptively for quantum computers than anyone expects.
Within the time it takes a classical computer to double in power, a quantum computer will quadruple in power.
For example, in 2019, Google claimed that its 53-qubit ‘Sycamore’ processor had performed a particularly complex calculation 158 million times faster than the world’s current most powerful classical computer — reducing the time required from 10,000 years to just four minutes.4 Just two years later, Boston start-up QuEra, announced a 256-qubit processor, a fivefold increase compared with Google’s machine.5
It is impossible to predict accurately just how quickly quantum computing will advance. But if current trends persist, we are likely to see pockets of disruption in as little as three years.
Why is quantum so different?
Quantum computers are not just faster than classical computers. They are fundamentally different.
We are all familiar with the basic building block of the modern digital computer: a ‘bit’ — or binary digit — which has a value of one or zero depending on the flow of electricity through a transistor. In contrast, quantum computers use ‘qubits’ — or quantum digits — tiny particles of matter, such as photons, ions or molecules, that are governed by the peculiar laws of quantum physics. The behaviour of qubits is so strange that they can represent values of one or zero, or anything in between.
If a conventional bit is like a coin at rest, showing either heads or tails, then a qubit is like a spinning coin where you can see both heads and tails simultaneously. When you stop the coin by catching it out of the air, it will land on either heads or tails with a defined probability. But if we can control the spin, we can affect the result. Similarly, by managing the ‘spin’ of qubits using algorithms and electronic circuits, quantum computers can represent many possible states of a calculation at once, before arriving at the desired outcome. Loosely speaking, the more qubits we have, the more complex the information we can represent and the more calculations we can successfully perform at the same time.
Although not all calculations can be accelerated in this way, there are certain types of problems for which quantum computers are perfectly suited. Opportunities include materials discovery, where modelling the behaviour of and interactions between even simple molecules is easily beyond the capabilities of classical supercomputers, or optimising timetables and vehicle routes, where the number of possible paths between waypoints quickly explodes beyond the ability of a classical computer to investigate. However, significant risks also materialise, such as the use of quantum computers by cyber criminals or some state actors to crack current industry-standard encryption schemes, which threaten the security of everything from digital financial transactions to governmental communications.
So, what should businesses be doing now to prepare for the potential upsides and downsides of quantum computing? Here are three ideas.
Monitor for signals of disruption in quantum computing
The impact of quantum computers remains uncertain.
The hype around quantum computers emphasises their radical novelty and rapidly accelerating performance, but continued uncertainty around their capabilities makes it difficult to predict what organisations might be able to do and when.
To deal with this ambiguity, organisations can monitor the broader societal, technological, economic, environmental, and political landscape for signals of progress and disruption. Technical developments and breakthroughs in quantum computing are often reported in the technical and trade press, and experiments carried out by competitors may be announced in corporate press releases. Analyst firms provide comprehensive views of the quantum landscape and ecosystem, and technology partners and suppliers can provide bulletins and training relating to their own capability.
Through its research, EY has identified five disruptive signals that indicate quantum computing may be progressing faster than expected. These are:
- Rapid improvements in the maturity of quantum computing architectures and technology platforms, between 2017 and 2021
Continued investment in, and scale of technology firms and academic programmes in the UK in the last two years
An exponential increase in the number of publicly announced use cases worldwide, between 2015 and 2022
A focus on growing the talent pipeline and improving training resources for quantum computing development
Clearer calls during 2020 and 2021 from policymakers and standards-makers for organisations to be aware of, and respond to, threats to current encryption methods.
Plan for how quantum computing may evolve
Tracking developments in quantum computing helps organisations plan for how the future may unfold.
We have identified three phases of technological evolution, illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Future pathways for quantum computing
The ‘quantum utility’ era
During the next three years, it is highly probable that noisy intermediate-scale quantum (NISQ) computers will continue to dominate the field, providing opportunities for all organisations to build awareness and perform experiments. An example is IBM’s 127-qubit ‘Eagle’ processor, which, according to IBM, is its first quantum processor whose scale makes it impossible for a classical computer to reliably simulate.6
NISQ computers allow organisations to experiment with new algorithms and approaches to demonstrate solutions for complex but not insurmountable problems, such as optimisation, simulation and machine learning. However, NISQ systems typically have relatively modest numbers of qubits, and are still impacted by noise and decoherence, which can interrupt calculations before they complete.
In this era, although we may see some limited advantages for quantum computers, it is likely that classical computers will still be able to compete in key domains — albeit only the most powerful existing digital supercomputers.
The ‘quantum advantage’ era
Within 5 to 10 years, it is possible that the performance of quantum computers will begin to stretch significantly ahead of classical computers. For example, more sophisticated chip architectures might extend the capabilities of qubits and enable greater algorithmic complexity. In this case, we may see quantum computers solving problems that would be impractical to run on classical computers or which would take an unreasonable amount of time. These may include simulating many-particle quantum systems to aid materials or drug discovery, or running Grover’s algorithm to significantly speed up unstructured searches.
The ‘quantum supremacy’ era
It is plausible that, within 10 to 20 years, when quantum computers are reliably noise-free or automatically error-correcting, they will have sufficient qubits, and both hardware and software sophistication to run algorithms or simulations that would be impossible to execute on classical computers. It is in this transformational level that truly disruptive impacts may occur.
The pathway to such quantum supremacy has the hallmark of linear progression. However, the impacts will accelerate over the next decade if the power of quantum computers increases super-exponentially.
The pathway to such quantum supremacy has all the hallmarks of linear progression. However, the impacts will accelerate over the next decade if the power of quantum computers increases super-exponentially. What this means in practice is that organisations with ambitions for quantum supremacy or the potential to be disrupted should:
- Evaluate readiness by considering where quantum computing could support, enhance or create business opportunities, assessing the maturity of current ecosystem relationships, and understanding the availability of relevant skills
- Plan experiments and pilots to trial new quantum capabilities and assess risks
- Engage with the growing ecosystem of technology partners and quantum start-ups
According to Prianka Srinivasan, Associate Director for Technology Insights at Ernst & Young LLP (EY UK) , the sweet spot for quantum computing lies in solving problems that have, so far, proven intractable with classical computers. For example, many pharmaceutical companies are experimenting with synthetic biology, exploring the power of quantum computing for building more precise models of complex chemical compounds and simulating their interactions — a process that, for all but the simplest of molecules, would quickly exceed the capabilities of even the most powerful of today’s supercomputers. In January 2021, for example, Cambridge Quantum announced a collaboration with Roche to support drug discovery and development using their dedicated quantum chemistry platform.7
Target quantum computing’s intersection with strategic activities
Significant opportunities — and risks — arise in areas of trust, sustainability and transformation.
Managing strategic business transformation with classical digital technologies can be hard enough without adding quantum computing into the mix. Although it is important for business leaders to think about the impact of quantum computing on its own, attention should also be focussed on the intersection with organisational imperatives, such as environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG), talent and the future of work, and ongoing digital transformation.
For example, business leaders should consider the following factors:
Trust and ethics: In its Global Risks Report for 2021, the World Economic Forum identifies the possible adverse outcomes of quantum computing on individuals, business ecosystems and economies as one of its key technological risks.8 Organisations will need to intensify their focus on issues of data security, governance and artificial intelligence (AI) ethics to make sure that trust is at the cornerstone of any pilot or long-term programme involving quantum computing.
Climate change and sustainability: Quantum computing has the potential both to improve the energy efficiency of computation, and increase the amount of data that will need to be stored and processed. Organisations will need to take dedicated action to make sure that the balance remains in favour of reducing emissions.
Talent: Organisations will need to plan today for tomorrow’s workforce, in which new skills will be required to work effectively with a mix of classical and quantum computers.
It is time to adopt a futures-mindset for quantum computing
Doing nothing risks organisations being left behind with no possibility of catching up.
With so much hype surrounding quantum technologies, it can be tempting to adopt a wait-and-see approach. However, astute leaders will recognise that if disruption has the potential to be sudden and overwhelming, they really have only one option: they need a plan.
For example, if competitors use quantum computers to discover, design and build products and services orders of magnitude faster, better, and cheaper than you, the disruption will be total. On the flip side, having a plan allows you to adapt to and shape the future. Good strategy blends futures-thinking with experiments and pilots. It allows leaders to assess and modify investment choices continuously as the technology progresses, and helps you remain competitive, whichever future is realised.
1. Ernest Hemingway, “The Sun Also Rises” (Scribner’s, October 1926).
2. A. M. Turing, “On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem”, 12 November 1936. Published in Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, Vol. 2, No. 42, 1937. See also: Turing_Paper_1936.pdf (virginia.edu)
3. “A New Law to Describe Quantum Computing’s Rise,” Quanta Magazine website, www.quantamagazine.org/does-nevens-law-describe-quantum-computings-rise-20190618, accessed 18 June 2019.
4. “Google’s quantum computer does a 10,000-year task in minutes,” The Times website, www.thetimes.co.uk/article/google-s-quantum-computer-does-a-10-000-year-task-in-minutes-jczp8jnxd, accessed 24 October 2019.
5. “QuEra Computing emerges from stealth with $17M to launch quantum device” TechCrunch website, techcrunch.com/2021/11/17/quera-computing-emerges-from-stealth-with-17m-to-launch-quantum-device, accessed 17 November 2021. “IBM Unveils Breakthrough 127-Qubit Quantum Processor,” IBM Newsroom website, newsroom.ibm.com/2021-11-16-IBM-Unveils-Breakthrough-127-Qubit-Quantum-Processor, accessed 16 November 2021.
6. “IBM Unveils Breakthrough 127-Qubit Quantum Processor,” IBM Newsroom website, newsroom.ibm.com/2021-11-16-IBM-Unveils-Breakthrough-127-Qubit-Quantum-Processor, accessed 16 November 2021
7. “Cambridge Quantum to Develop Quantum Algorithms with Roche for Drug Discovery & Development” Cambridge Quantum website, cambridgequantum.com/cambridge-quantum-roche-drug-discovery, accessed 28 January 2021.
8. “The Global Risks Report 2021, 16th Edition,” World Economic Forum website, www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021, accessed 19 January 2021.
Adopting a futures-mindset prepares your business for success. Although the future for quantum computers is uncertain, it may also prove more disruptive to our economies and societies than Turing’s original computing machines were in the last century. Whatever disruption the future brings, one thing will remain certain: your business will be ready.