Quantum computers could spur the development of new breakthroughs in science, machine learning methods to diagnose illnesses sooner, medications to save lives, and unlock unprecedented capabilities for businesses of all kinds. But what exactly is quantum computing and how is it going to change our lives?
Quantum computing is a fundamentally different approach to computation compared with the kinds of calculations that we do today on our laptops, mainframes, and workstations.
All computing systems rely on a fundamental ability to store and manipulate information. Current computers manipulate individual bits as data units (zeros and ones), while quantum computers rely on the so-called qubits, which are able to represent a combination of both zero and one at the same time, based on a principle called superposition.
This difference enables quantum computers to be exponentially faster than today’s servers and mainframes. While classical computers are limited to handling only one set of inputs and one calculation at a time, quantum ones can do numerous calculations with multiple inputs simultaneously.
Classical computers operate in a very straightforward way: they manipulate a limited set of data with an algorithm and provide you with an answer. That is where quantum computers are more complicated as they allow for a number fo calculations to be done simultaneously, and that greatly increases the speed.
However, quantum computers don’t deliver one clear solution to a problem. Instead of providing you with an answer, they narrow the range of possible ones. Such a fact may make quantum computing sound less precise than its classical brother, but although that’s true for calculations that are limited in scope, quantum computers are a perfect fit for solving incredibly complex problems with an enormous range of possibilities.
There are four fundamental capabilities that differentiate quantum computers from today’s classical ones:
The best way to understand how quantum computers can be applied to business is to consider several use cases.
1. Cutting development time for chemicals and pharmaceuticals with simulations. While it’s almost impossible for classical computers to simulate basic molecules with even relatively few atoms, quantum computers will be capable of modeling even the most complex molecules.
2. Solving optimization problems with unprecedented speed. Since many business problems involve a large set of variables, the inputs are usually way too complex for today’s computers. But, since quantum computers work with multiple variables simultaneously, the can dramatically narrow the range of possible solutions in a very short time, and after that, a classical computer can be used to find one precise answer. Such a method – using both quantum and classical computers – is referred to as hybrid computing.
3. Accelerating autonomous vehicles with quantum AI. Although it is not going to happen anytime soon, quantum computers could exponentially accelerate the training of AI algorithms for autonomous vehicles – instead of doing computationally intensive calculations, as it is done today.
4. Transforming cybersecurity. Being able to perform multiple calculations at the same time, quantum computers have the potential to break any classical encryption system. In fact, there is already an algorithm to do that – it’s called Shor’s algorithm – but there’s no quantum computer capable of managing the required number of qubits to execute it. Today’s versions can handle only a dozen or so qubits, but current asymmetric algorithms like ECDSA or RSA will be useless once quantum computing power reaches a certain scale. That event will break nearly every practical application of cryptography we use today, so e-commerce and many other digital applications will have to be significantly transformed to remain secure.
Although a concept of quantum computing has been around for almost 40 years, the first real proof of its supremacy over classical computing occurred only in late 2019. That was the moment Google proudly announced that its quantum computer was for the first time able to solve a problem too sophisticated for classical computers – it performed the calculation in just 200 seconds. Of course, this was merely a mathematical exercise and could not be applied to business, but reaching that milestone was another sign of the feasibility of the concept and showed its potential.
Another milestone is the creation of Microsoft’s Azure Quantum – a diverse set of quantum services, ranging from pre-built solutions to software and quantum hardware. Moreover, for developers, they’ve created the open-source Quantum Development Kit, which has all of the tools and resources one needs to start learning and building quantum solutions today.
Of course, none of the great quantum computing promises will be fulfilled overnight. In fact, most of the businesses won’t be able to reap significant value from the new method for a decade or more, although some will indeed see gains in the next five years. However, taking into account the rapidity of technological advances and the potential of the method, every business leader should have a basic understanding of the technology and the kinds of solutions it may provide to be ready when the method finally becomes widely spread and accessible.
The technology of quantum computing is a complex one. It’s definitely not like an app that’s going to appear one day and be adopted by millions of people the next. However, quantum will start delivering value to some businesses in the foreseeable future. Initially, and perhaps in the long term as well, smaller players will receive quantum services via the cloud from their current providers – Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and others, who have already announced quantum offerings. All in all, understanding the technology and its potential will be useful not only for big players but for small and medium businesses as well.