What you need to know about quantum computing

All the big names in technology are working hard to build quantum computers – machines that can process vast quantities of data at speeds current PC architectures can never hope to reach. Their sheer processing power will enable these machines to spur the development of breakthrough solutions in science, medicine, healthcare, process engineering, and more. What should C-suite executives know about the exciting potential of quantum computing?

What is quantum computing?

Even the most sophisticated of current computers are unable to resolve some challenges, because they just can’t handle data above a certain complexity and size. In very basic terms, this means they don’t have enough computational power to address some complex tasks.

Quantum computers handle data differently. While the computer you use today handles data in the form of binary “bits,” quantum computers use quantum mechanics to manipulate data in the form of quantum bits, called “qubits.”

These rely on the atomic and sub-atomic physical properties of matter (superposition, entanglement and interference) to handle huge quantities of data in much larger, non-binary chunks. While binary code is always in one of two states, 0 or 1, qubits can exist in two or more states simultaneously, and the information they handle is the result of what happens when all those states are superposed (put together). Princeton University has a useful article explaining this in more depth.

The result?

Google recently claimed to have made a quantum computer that can handle a task in just 200 seconds that would take the world’s most powerful supercomputers 10,000 years to solve. IBM, Microsoft, Intel and many other names are working in the same direction. The hope is that one day these machines will be ready to handle the rapidly growing flood of information generated across our connected planet, identifying relationships and realizing opportunities otherwise invisible to us.

Research in the sector is intensifying

We’re not quite there yet, though the implications will be felt across multiple industries. Think of the benefits to be released once complex demands, such as risk assessment across vast investment portfolios, can be transacted in hours, not days.

There’s a considerable research benefit to be found. Tough tasks, such as Ferredoxin simulation (used in drug testing) or thermoelectric material research, should be dramatically accelerated. A company called Biogen is building a quantum computing application that it hopes will accelerate drug discovery, while new fields, such as synthetic biology, use these advanced computers to model complex cells in order to identify new cures.

Elsewhere, Airbus, Mercedes and others are all experimenting with quantum simulation to develop everything from low carbon fertilizers to more efficient batteries and aircraft materials. Volkswagen has built a quantum algorithm to predict urban traffic volumes. Banks are testing how to use these tools to boost financial management, and experiments have already begun to see how quantum computing might benefit machine learning models and data analytics – and even payment protection systems.

Quantum communications

One sector that also needs to be explored is how systems can securely communicate together in a quantum computing age. Orange is exploring this in its work with the Université Côte d’Azur to develop a quantum computing platform to secure communications using a quantum key exchange system. This relies on the “quantum non-cloning” principle, which says it is impossible to build an exact replica of a quantum state if it is unknown.

This means that the complexity of qubits makes them very hard to crack in any conventional way and is a property that may help secure the endpoints in any transmission. In practice, the work uses a combination of factors, including quantum computing, the nature and state of photons, optical data links and quantum secret key extraction protocols. Read more about this important work.

One exciting aspect of this problem – and a huge reason to take the work seriously – is that quantum computers are far more capable of breaking existing cryptographic keys, such as those used in banking and the military. To put this into context, a high-end computer equipped with 1 teraflop of performance would take 300 trillion years to break RSA 2048 encryption. The same calculation would take around 10 seconds on a quantum computer. This is why the Orange work on securing communications using quantum key exchange is of vital importance.

The capacity for quantum computers to both break and make protection at this scale has implications across every part of our increasingly digitally connected lives: smart cities, Industry 4.0, financial data exchange, healthcare and many steps beyond.

Digital disruption at scale

Despite all the promise, it is important to note that no one has successfully built a quantum computer for real-world applications yet. The machines that do exist support a limited number of qubits, in part because the material is incredibly fragile. Intel’s Director of Quantum Computing Jim Clarke told Scientific American that quantum computers capable of supporting thousands of qubits won’t appear for at least ten years – though major corporations and governments are investing billions in research.

Forrester Research Analyst Brian Hopkins puts it this way: “Quantum computing will be as significant as the invention of the printing press.”

Hopkins suggests the fact that quantum computing can solve hard problems based on highly complex data sets isn’t just about innovation, but also represents a way to secure and consolidate competitive advantage, warning that deep pockets may be essential to winning the game. “Our research shows that firms with the power to be adaptive and drive innovation with technology, such as quantum computers, are growing at 4x industry average growth rates,” he wrote.

This new phase of digital transformation is coming, and in a few years’ time, quantum computers could deliver huge practical benefits that will unlock new innovation across every industry. “By 2023, 20% of organizations will be budgeting for quantum computing projects compared to less than 1% today,” says Gartner.

Find out more about the cutting-edge research we are engaged in at Orange Group.

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.