Moving towards a quantum-boosted future
It may still be early days, but quantum computing is beginning to show signs of the transformational potential, and challenges, that it will offer to businesses Quantum computing catches the eye, both for its golden chandelier structures and for the promises of exponential boosts to processing capabilities. It will unravel problems which even the largest super-computers cannot currently tackle. It will model too-complex-to-tackle molecules, powering leaps in materials science and pharmaceuticals research. Complex, multi-layered modelling to understand climate change or to optimise interwoven smart-city operations will be revolutionised. Previously prohibitive orders of complexity will be mastered. Moreover, quantum cloud services will make the technology widely accessible. There is a sense of being on the threshold of extraordinary, as yet unimagined, advances.
What is quantum computing?
Quantum computing is fundamentally different to classical computing. It harnesses the properties of quantum mechanics to enable processing to happen simultaneously, rather than the more sequential approach of classical computing. Consider a Sudoku puzzle, where each square in the 9x9 square grid could contain one of nine values. Starting with a few clues and some simple rules, we solve the puzzle essentially by working through the possibilities, finding some answers, reworking the possibilities, finding some more answers, and so on until the puzzle is solved. The challenge is one of resilience as much as intellect. Of course, a classical computer with sufficient processing power could solve it far more rapidly, deploying "brute force" processing to speed through the options. But imagine if we could hold and understand all the possible values in each individual square and across the whole grid at the same time: we could accelerate straight to the solution. This is a very loose approximation of how quantum bits (qubits) operate. Each qubit is able to represent all values at the same time (superposition), and is connected to all other qubits in the system to generate an integrated representation of the whole (entanglement). With sufficient qubits, vastly more complex modelling can be achieved than with classical computing.
The construction of quantum hardware is developing steadily. Quantum computers in both the US and China have recently been shown to have more raw power than supercomputers (a feat known as "quantum supremacy"). But they cannot yet tackle valuable real world problems better than classical computers. Quantum computers are typically unstable, with high error rates. Scaling up the number of qubits to realise the promise of vast processing power depends on overcoming these problems. In addition to building the hardware, the whole processing "stack" must also be imagined, built, tested and proven, from the operating software to the applications and user interfaces. The industry is also still in the early days of understanding what types of problems are best suited to being solved by quantum computers and how best to frame them. Again, early milestones are being reached in this respect, and "intermediate" systems such as quantum annealers are helping to advance understanding.
The industry is at the stage where investment and funding are key considerations. In addition to the research teams at major global tech companies, there is a great deal of activity at start-up level, particularly around patented inventions developed in academia. The industry is very much in its infancy – although this is, of course, part of the excitement and opportunity for the investment community. Quantum computing is considered to be strategic technology by a number of countries. Significant public funding programmes are in place in the UK, US, France, Germany and at EU level, among others. A common flipside of that funding is that governments will wish to ensure that they do not lose the benefit of supporting growth in native innovators to foreign buyers. Foreign direct investment control regimes therefore often apply to the quantum tech sector. It is expected to be within the scope of the new UK National Security and Investment Bill, currently making its way through the legislative process. Similarly, quantum technology will often be subject to export controls.
Developing IP strategy around innovative new technology will clearly be an early priority to protect investment in research and development. In addition, if and when standards develop in this field, a fortunate few will reap the reward of their proprietary technology becoming valuable "standard essential patents". There are currently a number of different approaches to creating qubits, so all is still to play for in this respect. New operating software and applications will attract copyright protection, with the potential for revenue streams from licensing.
The complexity and cost of quantum hardware is expected to mean, for the vast majority of organisations, that quantum computing capacity will not be purchased as an asset but accessed as a service, via the cloud. Quantum cloud service contracts may offer minimal scope for negotiation, at least once the field is established. In the early days of this field, however, joint projects which enable both parties to deepen their understanding of this emerging technology may well require bespoke contractual arrangements. As quantum computing develops, the contractual frameworks for deploying it will need to be shaped. It is likely to be more difficult than with classical computing to foresee where errors and mistakes might occur, particularly where error rates remain high due to the inherent instability of qubits. A new approach to framing and allocating liability may be needed.
Finally, it is widely assumed that quantum computers will, once large enough, bring widespread disruption by compromising some areas of information security. Much of the encryption currently used to secure data and communications is based on "prime factorisation". Two very large prime numbers are multiplied together to create a third number. While this is conceptually simple, if you only know the third number and it is large enough, it is incredibly difficult to find the underlying prime numbers. Even a supercomputer would take millions of years to break the encryption, so, for all practical purposes, the encrypted data or communications channel is secure. But quantum processing power is expected to be able to unravel prime factorisation calculations much more quickly, within workable timeframes. Legislation, such as the General Data Protection Regulation and the Network and Information Security Directive, includes rolling obligations to take "appropriate technical and organisational measures" to ensure data security. This cybersecurity risk is therefore an issue of which more or less all organisations will need to be aware – what business doesn’t store or transmit data? New standards for post-quantum encryption are currently under development. This is a threat worth understanding now and monitoring.