The future of quantum starts now
Photo: IEEE Computer Society

The future of quantum starts now

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Good morning! Quantum computing may go mainstream far in the future, but some think it’s worth placing bets now.

A dream with a bigger force

While some in the tech community were jiving to the Red Hot Chili Peppers at Salesforce’s blowout Dreamforce conference in San Francisco last week, a much smaller, but still respectable, crowd gathered on the crest of the Rocky Mountains to discuss a topic that has the potential to be far more consequential than the latest consumer marketing application.

At IEEE Quantum Week, there were no dancing mascots or corporate-branded sneakers. And instead of a maze of partners luring attendees to their booths with freebies, it was a small vendor showcase with 17 participants. The signature gift was an umbrella.

Quantum computing is not yet a reality in the same sense as, say, cloud computing. There remain significant hurdles ahead, and there’s no guarantee that so-called quantum supremacy — the point when quantum outpaces the capabilities of classic computers — will ever happen, though there’s a lot of money riding on it.

But progression has been remarkably steady, giving investors, vendors, and end customers alike confidence in its future. Concurrent with gradual hardware improvements, a cottage industry of startups has emerged, targeting different aspects of the future quantum stack.

  • That’s not unlike the existing tech industry, which includes software and cybersecurity vendors, cloud providers, database peddlers, and other segments that all “work together” to form the modern IT stack.
  • “There’s continued, incremental progress on every front,” said Q-CTRL CEO Michael Biercuk. But, he added, “there is no killer app for quantum computing … it hasn’t been accomplished yet.”

That consistent progression is critically important when it comes to customer adoption. Alongside tests on still-nascent quantum computers, the early iterations of quantum algorithms are still being run on classical computers. And it will likely be years before that changes.

  • But companies like JPMorgan Chase want to be ready right when that happens. The company has hired several executives and put sizable — but still rather minor — investments toward building up internal teams to begin experimenting with quantum computing.
  • “You have this continuous path to getting quantum advantage. It’s not that you have to wait … you can already start solving problems,” said IonQ lead research scientist Sonika Johri.

Believing in quantum computing’s capabilities is partially based on faith. Corporations can work with vendors like IBM, Quantinuum, and IonQ to begin testing applications on existing quantum hardware, comparing their performance with outcomes from classical computers to make sure the results are accurate.

  • With each hardware upgrade, customers can try out more advanced algorithms. If the outcomes remain correct, that instills greater confidence that the machines are performing as intended.
  • That trust is important: Once quantum outpaces classical computers, those users won’t be able to verify the results because quantum computers process information differently from a classical computer; they’ll just have to have faith in the outcome.
  • “We’re going to collectively need to believe the answer that is coming out of a quantum computer that can’t be simulated in any other way,” said Quantinuum president Tony Uttley.

Success in the sector will depend on manufacturers increasing the capabilities of their quantum machines relatively quickly. There are concerns that advancement could slow, or even stop altogether, an outcome that would have a devastating effect on the nascent industry.

  • It’s not just vendors and corporate America banking on a quantum future — reaching quantum supremacy could affect the global balance of political power, too. That’s why the tech has, for many countries, become intertwined with the future of national security.
  • And it’s also why Austria, Denmark, Australia, Japan, and many others are racing to prop up an early quantum economy.

The biggest threat to quantum right now could be Silicon Valley itself. The thing about courting venture investors is, of course, that your backers eventually want to see a return. Most quantum startups are still a long way from realizing the potential they believe their technology has to change the computing world. Nevertheless, a few have gone public recently, mostly through SPAC deals.

  • Seeking returns on companies with products centered on an emerging tech is tricky, especially as end customers look to cut discretionary spending in a tough economic environment.
  • Despite the SPACs, there have so far been no big bangs in the quantum sector — like Snowflake’s recent IPO, for example — which would serve to dramatically ramp up investment.

The arrival of quantum supremacy would be a complete game-changer. But, for now, that’s still a theoretical concept, and the argument for spending freely on quantum research and associated personnel may wane if the broader economic turbulence keeps up.

Still, history has proved that the most successful companies are those that are able to recognize a powerful burgeoning tech early, and capitalize on it. JPMorgan Chase, Ford Motor Co., Biogen, and others know that. Now, the pressure is on the hardware manufacturers to deliver.

— Joe Williams

A MESSAGE FROM ALIBABA

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A MESSAGE FROM ALIBABA

Using economic multipliers published by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, NDP estimates that the ripple effect of this Alibaba-fueled consumption in 2020 supported more than 256,000 U.S. jobs and $21 billion in wages. These American sales to Chinese consumers also added $39 billion to U.S. GDP.

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