What are quantum computers, and what do they mean to my business?

Supercomputers can solve big problems, but some challenges are too much for them. They are limited because they don’t have enough working memory to hold the many different combinations of a problem. They need to analyze each combination sequentially, which takes time. Given that there are over three million ways to seat just ten people at a dinner table, think how many combinations must be worked through for a logistics company delivering to 150 cities to figure out the best routing system to reduce fuel costs. Answering the biggest questions requires new computational models, which some say will come from quantum computers.

What are quantum computers?

Quantum computers work in a different way to conventional computers. While the latter are binary and store information in the form of 0 or 1, quantum computers use a system of measurement based on quantum physics and the nature of matter itself, called qubits. These are subatomic particles that can be zero, one or a linear combination of both. That combination is called superposition. It means they can store and simultaneously process far more data in far less physical memory space than binary machines. For example, 8 bits on binary systems will represent any number between 0 and 256, while 8 qubits can represent all those numbers at the same time.

That explanation is a gross over-simplification for a technology that’s innately hard to understand. What it means is that quantum computers should handle bigger problems and vastly larger data sets than conventional PCs, enabling analysis of vast amounts of data that couldn’t be solved – or even stored – until now, and all at the same time.

That last element is key. “As opposed to a classical computer that must, essentially, trial every route before deciding on the optimum, quantum computers have the potential to provide an optimum by taking all routes into account at the same time,” explained researchers from GlobalData. In 2019, Google demonstrated how a quantum computer could solve in minutes a problem it would take conventional computers 10,000 years to solve.

This is still a relatively early-stage technology, and while Google, IBM, Microsoft, PsiQuantum, governments and startups are developing quantum computing technologies, they are expensive, suffer from decoherence, require error correction, and don’t yet scale beyond a certain point, typically 50 or 60 qubits. This is subject to change: IBM promises its 127-qubit Quantum Eagle processor in 2021 and says it will introduce 1,000+ qubit systems by 2023. The technology will eventually become sufficiently mature to meet real-world challenges.

What will this mean for business?

As the technology improves, it will be applied. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) recently predicted quantum computing will add up to $850 billion in economic value by 2050.

“Recent advances and roadmaps from major hardware companies such as IBM, Google, Honeywell, IonQ, PsiQuantum and others have increased the confidence that we will have machines powerful enough to tackle important business and society problems before the end of this decade. Impacted companies and governments should get prepared for an accelerated timeline,” said BCG partner, Jean-Francois Bobier.

But how will the technology create this value?

Bobier believes use of quantum computers to run vast simulations will benefit medical research and drug discovery, battery design and fluid dynamics. “For a top pharma company with an R&D budget in the $10 billion range, quantum computing could represent an efficiency increase of up to 30%,” BCG states. Sci-tech research can also reach new frontiers: Google researchers used quantum computing to demonstrate a genuine “time crystal,” a piece of matter that evades the second law of thermodynamics.

These systems may enable government and enterprise to optimize logistics and insurers to better manage risk, while machine-learning advances may help protect against (and, perhaps, enable) online crime and fraud and become the mind in autonomous vehicle systems. Military uses may include radar, highly-secure, very-long-distance communications and submarine detection systems as are being developed in China.

Many financial institutions, including JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo are exploring how the tech can be applied to financial instruments such as stocks. An April 2021 Goldman Sachs report showed risk analysis could be conducted at 1,000 times the speed of existing technologies but warned of high error rates at this time. Quantum computer hardware capable of running such tests successfully are expected to become available in 10-20-years’ time.

Most quantum computing reports always note the security use cases cryptography and encryption. Quantum computers are expected to be capable of breaking existing encryption but, conversely, should also enable the development of more powerful encryption standards. In Europe, the European quantum communication network EuroQCI is developing an ultra-secure EU-wide communications infrastructure to secure critical infrastructure. In France, President Emmanuel Macron announced a 1.8 billion Euro Quantum Plan initiative for supporting research and development of quantum technologies. France isn’t alone. China, the U.S., UK, and many other nations are investing billions in what is becoming a quantum computing arms race for technological supremacy.

Quantum computers may also contribute to the struggle against climate change, according to a BCG report. Because they can model complex molecular interactions existing computers cannot, they may enable researchers to innovate technological solutions that reduce emissions in carbon-intensive industries like construction, fertilizer production and transportation. “Quantum computing could help bring more low-carbon technologies into economic reach,” says BCG. “It is in the best interest of governments and companies to fast-track progress in the race for our future.”

Oxford Quantum Circuits launched the UK’s first quantum computing as a service (QaaS) platform in July. Clients can access these machines via the cloud to identify the impact on their business. “Early adopters will have the advantage of understanding what [quantum] means in terms of their market and their business,” said Dr. Ilana Wisby. IBM and other big names also support online access to quantum computing resources.

QaaS platforms may play an important part in making the benefits of this machinery available. A commercial 50 qubit quantum computer costs in the region of $15 million, not to mention running and maintenance costs. The cost and fragility of quantum systems will limit their appeal for some time yet.

Orange is involved with three European projects investigating quantum communications: CiViQ (Continuous Variable Quantum Communications), OPENQKD (Open European Quantum Key distribution testbed) and the QOSAC (Quantum Overarching System Architecture Concepts). Also read about quantum cryptography and quantum teleportation and the race to build the quantum Internet.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.