As investment in the development of practical quantum computers and with key breakthroughs in this technology, are we poised to enter the age of working quantum computers? What could this mean for businesses? Do you need to be creating a quantum computing strategy for your enterprise?
Often seen as a technology that will become a practical tool for businesses in the distant future, with several recent developments and continued investment into the technology, your business could be using quantum computers sooner than you think.
According to Accenture, 80% of large UK organisations report they are currently scaling quantum computing technology. The findings come from a new report, Business Futures 2021, where Accenture teamed with external advisors, academics, and researchers to identify 25 Signals of business change reshaping organisations globally. A key Signal is the ‘New Scientific Method’ – which identifies scientific innovation as critical for business success over the next three years.
The research, which includes a survey of 400 UK C-suite executives, finds large UK companies have ambitious plans for quantum computing, with 85% of respondents deploying quantum computing planning to increase their investment in the technology over the next three years – 10 percentage points higher than the global average (75%).
“British businesses are making an impressive head start in the next race in science and innovation by experimenting with quantum computing”, said Maynard Williams, a managing director for Accenture Technology in the UK & Ireland. “While the technology is still being tested to create new products and services, we expect quantum computing to bring huge advances in computing power and solve business problems that are too complex for classical computing systems. It’s encouraging to see organisations turning their attention to the thriving ecosystem of start-ups, academics and industry-led initiatives developing in the UK.”
In the UK, a majority of respondents (90%) report their investments in science focus on tackling global challenges, such as climate change. In addition, nearly three-quarters (73%) of businesses deploying new energy technologies, such as carbon capture, hydrogen fuel cells and renewables, are planning to increase investments in these areas. Overall, 89% of UK respondents said investing in sciences outside their traditional industry boundaries will be critical to their organisation’s success.
The UK is also developing its own centre of excellence for quantum computing. The National Quantum Computing Centre has a £93 million investment through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The centre is being delivered jointly by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Set to open in mid-2023, the building will ultimately provide space for over 120 residents and researchers from academia, industry, government, quantum partner organisations and quantum start-ups.
UKRI Chief Executive Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser said, “This is an important step forward in the journey towards creating a flagship facility for the UK quantum community to harness the exciting potential of this technology. Breaking ground on this site brings us closer to realising our ambition of addressing the challenges in this burgeoning field by bringing together experts from the public, private and third sectors into one hub.”
Speaking to Silicon UK, Dr Miruna Rosca, researcher, Innovation and Technology at Bitdefender, explained that quantum computers are now in the mainstream: “Quantum computing isn’t the stuff of science fiction anymore – it’s a reality. Big companies and governments have already invested a lot money into it and significant technological progress has been made over the last few years. However, for some businesses, the advantages of integrating quantum computing into product lines may not be clear at this stage. For others, the path towards quantum computing technologies (even long-term) is hazy because such a dramatic shift in paradigm would be difficult to integrate without quantum expertise which, at the moment, is in short supply.”
One specific area where quantum computers could have a profound impact is digital security. Nearly half (47%) of respondents to the Thales Data Threat survey stated they were concerned about the security implications of quantum computing. If practical quantum computing becomes commonplace, a new approach to encryption will be needed in the future.
“We are still on a journey to widespread uses of quantum computing, similar to the journey we are on to achieve true AI,” Danny O’Neill, Director of MDR Security Operations at Bitdefender, told Silicon UK. “In both cases, Big Tech is working in tandem with research institutions to develop quantum computers, although these are currently still relatively small in relation to the end-state vision. I believe we are still at least a decade away from the technology becoming more widespread, so quantum computing should be viewed as a mid to long-term road map item for the majority of organisations.”
O’Neill continued: “With the further development of quantum computing, attackers will gain greater capabilities to break encryptions faster, as the searching and finding of encryption keys will be more rapid than any existing supercomputer can. Unfortunately, this is also true for the spread of malware, as quantum computing will allow for faster spread and quicker activation of the software.
“It’s not all bad news: malicious actors are unlikely to have the capabilities to develop their own quantum computers, so they will need to wait until the technology becomes available to them. If this happens, it means that it will also be available to the cybersecurity defending teams. The technology being hard to access is levelling the playing field for all commercial threat actors. Quantum computing is in its developmental stage with most of it still being quite theoretical. This means we still have time to build cybersecurity into it.”
Also, Prof. Dr Luigi Amico, Executive Director, Quantum Physics at The Technology Innovation Institute in Abu Dhabi, explains, it’s more than a numbers game when quantum computers are considered: “The question is not simply to have machines with more and more qubits. Rather, the important point is improving the ‘quality’ of the qubits in storing and processing quantum states as longest as possible.
“Despite the quality of the transistors has been also important for the classical computers, for quantum computers the quality of the qubits is more dramatic since the key resource quantum computers manipulates, the so-called entanglement, is much more fragile than the electronic currents driving the transistors in classical machines. Therefore, quantum algorithms need to be ‘supervised’ through specific correcting codes. They apply a strategy that is the quantum counterpart of the redundancy trick of standard computer: protect the information by replicating the quantum states on additional qubits.”
A quantum future
For businesses, they do have a quantum future to define and work towards, says Monty Barlow, CTO at Cambridge Consultants, “Quantum computing should definitely factor into long-term technology planning for many businesses. Those businesses operating in areas that will be affected by the growth of quantum computing in the near to mid-term should naturally have more detailed plans for actions and contingencies, including businesses with a strong or long-term security component to their offering.”
“Quantum computing is a third transformative technology of the coming decades, along with next-gen AI and synthetic biology,” Barlow continued. “Alone, each will have a disruptive impact on a considerable number of markets and applications. But importantly, these ‘A-list’ technologies will also combine in potent ways and accelerate the progression of each other.
“For example, we are already seeing how AI can be used to design synthetic proteins, and conversely, biological substrates could be used for certain AI calculations. Quantum computing will enable more powerful AI; more powerful AI will support the design of quantum systems, and so on. These virtuous circles mean we’ll be able to develop unimaginably powerful and efficient approaches to tackling big challenges.”
The hope is that a quantum computer with at least 1,000 qubits could be available in the next two years – at least that’s the time frame IBM is working within. They currently have a quantum computer based on 65 qubits. Next year, the company hope to unveil their 127-qubit IBM Quantum Eagle processor. Eagle features several upgrades to surpass the 100-qubit milestone. Crucially, through-silicon vias (TSVs) and multi-level wiring provide the ability to effectively fan-out a large density of classical control signals while protecting the qubits in a separated layer to maintain high coherence times.
“In the next five to ten years, we’re likely to see quantum computers owned by large institutions and government organisations but made available to a wider audience through cloud deployment,” says Amelia Armour, Partner at Amadeus Capital Partners – the Cambridge-based deep tech VC fund. “In fact, IBM already makes its quantum computer available to users. They are not a replacement for the classical computer but a different approach which enables companies to perform calculations and simulations that are far too complicated for even the most powerful supercomputer.”
And earlier this year, the University of Chicago successfully sent entangled qubit states through a communications cable, opening the potential for communication between quantum nodes, showing the potential for quantum networks. Prof. Andrew Cleland, who led the research, said: “Developing methods that allow us to transfer entangled states will be essential to scaling quantum computing.”
Roger A. Grimes, a data-driven defence evangelist at KnowBe4, also explains that businesses will need to react fast when we enter the era of practical quantum computers: “One of the biggest quantum-related problems coming our way like a slow-moving freight train is the need to convert all impacted traditional cryptography to quantum-resistant forms (known as post-quantum cryptography).”
Grimes expanded by explaining: “This is a HUGE Y2K-like problem coming our way soon. Every single company should be preparing now for all the work that is coming their way. It is like when you first heard of COVID-19 back when you knew of a few dozen cases and some crazy scientist telling you how soon businesses would be shut down, schools would be shut down, and nearly everything we did in ordinary everyday life was getting ready to change. Same thing with the coming post-quantum cryptography project.
“Soon, every company will have the biggest IT projects of their existence. It is just around the corner but almost no one has heard of it. Almost no one is preparing for it. But it is almost here. And when it does, it will change what every company in existence is planning to do for the next few years as resources get involved. Most large companies will have entire dedicated, multi-year teams working on their post-quantum migration. Every company will have a project team working on it. Hundreds of new consulting firms will spring up to help with the migration. Right now, is the quiet before the storm and almost no company has heard of this or much less is preparing for it.”
With tech giants including Google and IBM actively researching practical quantum computers and an active start-up environment with IonQ, PsiQuantum and Rigetti Computing, and the UK establishing its own research facility, quantum computing has a clear upward trend trajectory; all enterprises could eventually benefit from.
Silicon UK In Focus
Dr Graeme Malcom OBE, the Co-founder and CEO of Glasgow-based M Squared and Co-chair of the UK Quantum Technology Leadership Group.
Graeme leads M Squared to specialise in novel laser solutions for use in a myriad of academic and commercial applications. He develops a range of world-class laser and photonics systems, which are not only one of a kind, they are also critical enablers in fundamental physics research, underpinning many world firsts. He is passionate about using these technologies to develop real world applications that benefit society.
What is your assessment of the current state of quantum computing?
“The development of quantum computing has reached an incredibly exciting stage. While existing technologies and machines have taken the first ‘baby-steps’, we now find ourselves at a point of inflection as several technologies approach the challenge of ‘scaling-up’ the qubit count and performance to achieve powerful and quantum computational capability. In turn, this will enable us to address some of the major questions around the planetary optimisation problem – effectively and efficiently optimising energy usage by improving processes, while reducing waste and carbon emissions.”
IBM hopes to have a 1,000-qubit machine by 2023. Is this realistic?
“I believe a 1,000-qubit machine is certainly achievable by 2023. Several companies and other teams are working hard to achieve these sorts of scales. At M Squared, our neutral atom Quantum Computer Maxwell is scaling to 100s of qubits this year, meaning that future steps to 1000 are not far away – albeit the exact timescales are slightly less certain.”
For businesses, is quantum computing science fiction or technology that should be on their long-term technology roadmaps?
“Full deployment of quantum computing should definitely be part of businesses’ medium-term plans as they look to the future. This means businesses need to seriously consider what their quantum computing journey will look like between now and the next couple of years. The sooner businesses start to explore and learn how quantum computing can help them, the better placed they will be to capitalise as computational capability becomes more powerful.”
Do superconducting qubits and trapped-ion systems show the most promise to build a 100 qubit plus quantum computer, or are we waiting for breakthrough technologies?
“Superconducting qubits and trapped-ion systems will definitely continue to develop. However, I believe the emerging technology with the strongest potential to realise the vision of a 100+ qubit quantum computer is the ‘Ultracold Neutral Atom’ (sometimes called Rydberg) Quantum Computers. A relatively recent addition to the field, these machines offer scale of qubits and pathways to low noise with the potential to leapfrog noisy intermediate-scale quantum computers (NISQ) which are based on superconducting or trapped-ion systems. There are a huge variety of additional emerging technologies – however, for me, the perfection of a neutral atom combines all the key requirements to scale and keep noise out of the equation.”
Is it likely that quantum computers will become the future supercomputers, used by corporations and specialist users such as weather forecasting and not become general-purpose computers as we know them today?
“I think Quantum is most likely to hybridise into our existing tools alongside digital subsystems and become a platform for new capabilities in computation for ‘impossible’ problems like simulation, optimisation and real-time modelling. In turn, this will enable us to solve problems in areas from the climate emergency to engineering new drugs and chemicals, to the optimisation of resources and logistics. Producing more capability alone to solve these types of problems will change our world – and that’s just the start of where things could go.”
Is there a ‘quantum economy’ that businesses will need to pay attention to about to come into focus over the medium to long term?
“A quantum economy is already emerging, as many billions are being invested into the research phase. However, we are now starting to see quantum, or quantum-inspired products, take the nascent technology into business and commercial applications.”