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Quantum Evolution: Approach with Caution

How to Assess the Hype and Manage Quantum Expectations

Brian Lenahan, Founder & Chair – Quantum Strategy Institute, with contributions by Danika Hannon, Deputy Head, Quantum Strategy Institute

You approach an intersection on any road. Something one might do every day. The light turns yellow. Society’s universal social contract requires you to clear the intersection by slowing down or, if in the midst of the intersection, continue through. Yellow lights universally suggest caution. 

As a businessperson first, technology enthusiast second, I have always approached new technology ideas with caution ensuring a primary focus on business priorities. Having been involved in dozens of projects, written countless articles and consulted with many companies on their technology decisions, I know executives are concerned about the customer, profits, risk, privacy, culture, budgets, timing – all the traditional business imperatives – first. Selecting and implementing new technology to address those priorities requires a degree of caution. 

So, what happens when you, as a decision-maker, are faced with a technology promising incredible advances in solving highly complex problems in computation, sensing, communication, security and more? Advances where computations that could consume thousands of years in classical computing time, could be completed in hours, days or months on a quantum computer. The Gartner Hype Cycle, which annually tracks the progress of a variety of technologies, placed quantum computing in their infrastructure category in 2020, and in the very early stages of maturity yet a technology that holds great promise.

Quantum History

Quantum technology, first addressed in the 1920’s by Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein and others and based on the smallest particles in our universe – atoms, electrons, neutrons, etc. – was accelerated with Professor Richard Feynman’s insightful musings through the late 1980’s. Feynman, the 1965 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics and one of the world’s experts in quantum, argued “if you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t understand quantum mechanics”. With such uncertainty, could we ever feel comfortable in transitioning from the comfortable digital environment of 1’s and 0’s and integrated circuits?

By the 1990’s, more academic effort focused on the potential of the unique properties of qubits (the quantum equivalent of digital 1’s and 0’s) which more closely mimic the real world. With such complexity at the smallest atomic level, PhD’s actively began their journey towards quantum labs around the world. 

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One emerging technology of the past few decades, artificial intelligence, experienced several of what was termed “winters”, where the technology appeared on the verge of a breakthrough, gained significant investments, then when the technology did not translate into expected results, investment went cold. 1974-1980 and 1987-1994 were such periods where investment dried up given lack of progress. Could a so-called ‘quantum winter’ be in our future?

Today

Fast forward to the 2020’s, when billions are being invested in both AI and quantum technology publicly and privately. Countries like China, the US, the UK and continental Europe are investing heavily to lead in the quantum space. Likewise, venture capital is very active in funding quantum tech with new ‘tombstones’ or investment announcements every week. Pitchbook and BCG suggest, as of June 2021, that two-thirds of all quantum equity investment (around US $1.3B) has come since 2018, with a single-year record predicted in 2021. Yet are the big bets on quantum misguided? Is the $450 million recently announced funding round for PsiQuantum based on hype? 

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I’m often asked whether conventional computers will suffice for most business needs, particularly given the massive classical investments made to date. Is there a potential path where traditional computers could improve to the extent quantum technology is unnecessary? Certainly, classical computing hardware and software continue to improve. Might that improvement counter some of the advances in quantum progress? The A14 processor in the Apple iPhone 12 incorporates 11.8 billion transistors, a 6-core CPU and a 16-core neural engine capable of 11 trillion operations per second. On the large end, the Fugaku supercomputer, the world’s fastest, has 7,630,848 cores, for 442 quadrillion floating-point operations per second. Shouldn’t that ‘conventional’ computing power be fast enough?

Where do reservations arise about quantum computing? As recently as June 2021, Scott Aaronson, Professor at the University of Texas at Austin covering theoretical computer science, the capabilities and limits of quantum computers, and computational complexity theory, said in his blog, “people who make such big investments do so in the hope of a return, and the new environment has put enormous pressure on researchers to paint a picture of the near-term applications of quantum computers that (in my view) is often wildly overoptimistic or false. I, too, hope I’ll live to see quantum computers influence the design of drugs, batteries, solar cells, and so forth, but I’d be surprised to see any of that in the next decade!” C-Suite leaders may reasonably share such opinions about quantum computing. Why would they invest in a technology, certainly the focus of billions in investment, that is highly complex, immature and largely unproven?

Added to these headwinds, the industry faces the twin challenge of building hardware that can scale up effectively, while also creating software that can run on these new machines. In terms of hardware, building a quantum computer is an extremely difficult engineering and physics problem. In fact, from the 1980s until the 2010s, quantum computers were largely developed within academic labs. But as the technology improved, businesses began building their own computers and competing for dominance.

Further, because quantum computers are fundamentally different than classical computers, they need algorithms that are uniquely suited to their hardware. These algorithms must also outperform software that runs on classical computers. Making that pairing isn’t easy. And finding talent who can rise up to that challenge can be difficult because they need a rare combination of skills, including an understanding of quantum mechanics, plus experience in software engineering. 

Yet pioneers will always be pioneers, searching for new territory to conquer be it real or virtual. Visual Capitalist annually ranks the top 50 innovative companies globally and while innovation arrives in a variety of forms, one consistent trend remains…there’s a consistent link between innovation and value. BCG suggests that correlation has been growing over the last 20 years. And few fields are as innovative as quantum. In fact, all the top innovation companies (Amazon, Google, Alibaba, etc.) are making investments in quantum technology. Why? According to Jeremy O’Brien, CEO and co-founder of PsiQuantum, QC is “the most profoundly world-changing technology uncovered to date.” According to the Head of Marketing and Communications at IQM Quantum Computers, and a member of Forbes Communication Council. Raghunath Koduvayur, “… I believe full-scale commercialization of quantum computing is still about 10 years away, or maybe three to five years for application-specific, co-designed quantum computers. But three to five years is nothing. That means that whoever is making strides today is who businesses and investors will likely be looking at.”

Has quantum moved beyond the labs successfully? 

Volkswagen has plunged forward into quantum applications in its paint booths, its paint shop efficiency, its method in setting vehicle pricing, and deciding where electric charging stations are optimally located.  Samsung has placed a quantum random number generator (QRNG) chip, created by ID Quantique, inside its newest phones to enhance security. China implemented a 2,000km long optical fibre based quantum key distribution network for quantum communication. D-Wave, the Canadian company, applied its quantum annealing technology to DENSO’s smart factory floor. ColdQuanta is developing Quantum Positioning Systems that will eventually replace conventional GPS through cold atom inertial sensors. The list of applications is endless. 

What can you do to approach with caution? 

If you accept the argument, that quantum technology is indeed being applied in the marketplace, here are four tips for the decision-maker when approaching quantum computing with caution:

First, articles constantly appear in the media stating what quantum ‘could do’. Vast promises are made regarding every major problem in our world. A cautious decision-maker would look to proven technology, not exclusively something that ‘might’ help their business in the future. Prudent decision-makers would be wise to consider the hybrid approach, continuing to optimize their classical technology while starting small scale, testing and proving out their quantum capabilities with credible vendors, minimizing risk to their operations. 

Second, begin recruiting quantum strategists to sift through the media, the research and align quantum activities to your business objectives. This new role will facilitate the introduction of an otherwise complex technology. 

Third, whenever I discuss quantum hype, I always conclude the same way. Whether you believe in the hype or not, there are practical quantum applications in the market today. As a business leader or professional, the important thing is that you must start. Start to learn about quantum computing, its foundations, its opportunities, and start including it in your company’s roadmap, even if you don’t invest a dollar this year.

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Finally, manage expectations well.  Perfection has rarely been the goal of technology development. Improvement has been the target, as the number of transistors on an integrated circuit increased (per Moore’s Law), and AI leveraged weighted probabilities in its algorithms to more closely approximate a result.  We’re nowhere near the ultimate quantum computer (often referred to as ‘universal fault tolerant’) and industry participants’ expectation setting, and objective observers views are crucial to advance leveraging of this relatively immature technology. Amara’s (or Gates’) Law that as humans, we “overestimate the impact of technology in the short-term and underestimate the effect in the long run” is as relevant today as any time in history. 

We are at an intersection in technologies’ evolution, so how should decision-makers approach this new technology? Not with disdain of the hype or excess excitement from the billions being invested. Instead with caution. An optimistic caution based on prudent action. 

Brian Lenahan is Founder & Chair of the Quantum Strategy Institute, author of “Quantum Boost” Using Quantum Computing to Supercharge Your Business, writes extensively on quantum computing and artificial intelligence and is a quantum strategist, working with companies to design unique quantum roadmaps. 

Danika Hannon is the Deputy Head of the Quantum Strategy Institute, and Relationship Manager with Cambridge Quantum Computing, based in Minneapolis. 

Copyright 2021 Quantum Strategy Institute

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