Is your organization quantum ready? It might sound like something futuristic from a science-fiction novel. But given that experts are heralding quantum computing’s imminent rollout as the next frontier of technology, it is something business leaders—especially those operating in financial services—need to engage with quickly.
Two of the Art of Smart’s four pillars for smarter decision-making are boldness and innovation; being brave and committing to quantum computing today could reap significant benefits.
“If you had asked me two years ago, ‘when will quantum computing be able to do something that has a business impact and can’t be done on a normal computer,’ I would have waved my hands around and replied: ‘In the next ten to 20 years,’” says Andy Stanford-Clark, Chief Technology Officer at IBM UK. “But things are moving much faster than we expected.”
So much so that earlier predictions have been foreshortened. Stanford-Clark says rapidly maturing quantum technologies could now have an impact “in the next five years.” As such, he urges business leaders to become “quantum ready.”
“No one should be sitting back to wait and see what happens,” he continues. “They need to consider what quantum computing means for them right now. People talk about fear of missing out, and that’s valid in this case. It’s unimaginable where quantum could take us in the next few decades.”
But what exactly is quantum computing, and what is its potential for business opportunities and threats? IBM, which leads the world in quantum computing, describes it simply as “a rapidly-emerging technology that harnesses the laws of quantum mechanics to solve problems too complex for classical computers.”
Today’s computers are restricted to encoding information in bits that take the value of 1 or 0. Alternatively, quantum computing uses quantum bits, or qubits, to harness subatomic particles’ unique ability to exist in more than one state.
In 2009, scientists at the University of Yale built the first solid-state quantum processor, a 2-qubit superconducting chip. In November 2021, IBM unveiled the 127-qubit Eagle quantum processor. “Since that announcement, it’s taken off,” says Stanford-Clark. “People have realized now is the time to jump into this.” With more interest and investment, quicker breakthroughs are likely. Indeed, IBM’s development roadmap shows two quantum processors, Condor and Flamingo, with over 1,100 qubits each, should be available from 2023 and 2024, respectively.
Early business adopters of quantum computing stand to gain a massive advantage over competitors. Humanity as a whole can be optimistic, too. Eventually, quantum computing could revolutionize medicine, communications, and artificial intelligence. It could help tackle disease, hunger and climate crises by improving personalized medicine, carbon sequestration, and green hydrogen and ammonia production.
Little wonder an ever-growing number of governments and businesses are launching strategic initiatives, with investment reaching US$35.5 billion across multiple continents in 2022, according to the World Economic Forum’s State of Quantum Computing report, published in September.
Freeke Heijman, Co-founder of Quantum Delta NL, a foundation that runs the national quantum initiative in The Netherlands, tells business leaders to “prepare and act” but acknowledges a skills shortage will slow progress. “Quantum computing is largely in the hands of the top experts around the globe, and that makes it hard to understand if you’re not part of the inner circle,” she says.
For more organizations and society to enjoy the benefits of quantum computing, knowledge has to be shared in an accessible language, Heijman argues. “We need all the talent and people we can get, as it’s vital to broadening the scope.”
IBM understands the importance of collaborating. “Right from the beginning, we have made our quantum computers available to anybody for free, in the cloud,” says Stanford-Clark. “The bigger machines in our ‘fleet’ of more than 20 quantum systems can be used by those who join our network.” Since 2016, over 400,000 registered users have run experiments on the systems over the cloud, and around 200 organizations are paid-up members of the IBM Quantum Network.
There are currently two main categories of exploration, Stanford-Clark reveals. Firstly, chemical investigations. For instance, electric vehicle batteries, or new materials like innovative paints. And the other area, which is much larger, is populated by financial services operators—including HSBC, JP Morgan Chase, and Goldman Sachs. “Nobody wants to be on the back foot when someone spots a financial edge,” he says.
The IBM UK CTO offers other examples of where businesses might take advantage of quantum computing. “Optimization is a big one,” he says. “If you’re cutting from a template out of some precious material and you need to minimize the waste, then having that higher accuracy result will be worth a lot of money.”
How should organizations engage with quantum computing? “Business leaders need to look at the areas of their operations that are most likely to be more efficient thanks to quantum computing,” says Stanford-Clark. “Not every problem needs solving using this, but we spend a lot of time working with clients to spot what might be some low-hanging fruit.”
He adds: “It’s important to have a couple of people at least within that business who understand quantum.” However, he realizes that this is a stumbling block for many businesses. He predicts a “groundswell of demand” for quantum software engineers in the coming years.
Vikram Sharma, Founder and CEO at QuintessenceLabs, an Australia-headquartered quantum-enhanced cybersecurity firm, agrees. “The number of STEM students is not increasing at the rate we want, and in some countries it is declining,” he says. “To drive greater participation in STEM and innovation in quantum, there needs to be more engagement with high-school students. Closing this skills gap is an important element of building the capacity of quantum computing.”
Business leaders in whatever industry they operate can play a crucial part to the advancement of quantum computing, by teaming up with experts and nurturing talent to program this pioneering technology. Ultimately, showing boldness today will unlock unthinkable innovation and growth tomorrow.