Where Will Quantum Computing Take the World?

Stephen DeAngelis

December 4, 2020

Currently we are in the midst of a digital revolution characterized by maturing cognitive technologies (often lumped under the artificial intelligence (AI) umbrella). Even as the digital revolution unfolds, pundits are already looking ahead to the next era of computing — quantum computing. When you read articles about quantum computing, the tension between excitement and concern over the possibilities is palpable. Before we look forward, however, futurist Tom Koulopoulos (@TKspeaks) reminds us how far we have come. He writes, “In 1946 the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or the ENIAC, was introduced. The world’s first commercial computer was intended to be used by the military to project the trajectory of missiles, doing in a few seconds what it would otherwise take a human mathematician about three days. It’s 20,000 vacuum tubes (the glowing glass light bulb-like predecessors to the transistor) connected by 500,000 hand soldered wires were a marvel of human ingenuity and technology. Imagine if it were possible to go back to the developers and users of that early marvel and make the case that in 70 years there would be ten billion computers worldwide and half of the world’s population would be walking around with computers 100,000,000 times as powerful as the ENIAC in their pants’ pockets. You’d have been considered a lunatic!”[1] Koulopoulos says you should “keep that in mind” when you read about the future of quantum computing.

 

The weird world of quantum computing

 

Quantum computing leverages some of the quirky physical properties found at the quantum level of physics. Tech journalist Daphne Leprince-Ringuet (@daphneleprince) explains, “The remarkable properties of quantum computing boil down to the behavior of qubits — the quantum equivalent of classical bits that encode information for today’s computers in strings of 0s and 1s. But contrary to bits, which can be represented by either 0 or 1, qubits can take on a state that is quantum-specific, in which they exist as 0 and 1 in parallel, or superposition. Qubits, therefore, enable quantum algorithms to run various calculations at the same time, and at exponential scale: the more qubits, the more variables can be explored, and all in parallel. Some of the largest problems, which would take classical computers tens of thousands of years to explore with single-state bits, could be harnessed by qubits in minutes.”[2] Sounds great; however, challenges remain. Because quantum computing is carried out at the quantum level, where qubits are small and fragile, it’s relatively easy to knock them out of their superposition state making quantum computers prone to errors. And keeping qubits in their superposition state for extended periods has proved difficult.

 

The nature of the challenges facing developers of quantum computers means quantum computing remains at the starting gate. Christopher Monroe, the Bice Zorn Professor of Physics and Distinguished Professor at the University of Maryland, puts it this way, “The quantum computing party hasn’t even started yet.”[3] He should know, in addition to his academic duties, he is co-founder and chief scientist of IonQ, a quantum computing startup. Monroe writes, “It’s taken decades of work to learn how to build working machines that can handle a few dozen quantum bits of information. It will take a few more years of engineering for us to build capacity in the hundreds of qubits, but I am confident we will, and that those computers will deliver on the amazing potential of quantum technology.” According to Leprince-Ringuet, companies are already catching the vision. She writes, “Although it’s early days for quantum computing, there is still plenty of interest from businesses willing to experiment with what could prove to be a significant development.”

 

The potential impact of quantum computing

 

Melanie Wolkoff Wachsman (@WachsmanMelanie) reports a survey conducted by TechRepublic found, “58% of survey respondents said quantum computing will have a significant or somewhat of an impact on the enterprise, even though 90% reported having little or no understanding of the technology.”[4] It’s likely some industries and economic sectors will be impacted more than others. Leprince-Ringuet reports, “Chemistry, oil and gas, transportation, logistics, banking and cybersecurity are often cited as sectors that quantum technology could significantly transform.” To that list, Wachsman adds, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, manufacturing, and telecommunications. Like Leprince-Ringuet and Wachsman, tech journalist Scott M. Fulton, III (@SMFulton3), believes quantum computing will have significant impact on many industries — if they can be made reliable. He writes, “If quantum computers ever work well enough to be trusted for general purposes by users outside of academia, they will need to become reliable. Making a device that depends on quantum mechanics reliable is not all that much unlike taming a herd of wildebeest. It’s not, at least analytically speaking, impossible.”[5]

 

Koulopoulos is optimistic the challenges will be overcome. In his mind, they have to be overcome because we desperately need quantum computing capabilities. He explains, “Digital computers will soon reach the limits of demanding technologies such as AI. Consider just the impact of these two projections: by 2025 driverless cars alone may produce as much data as exists in the entire world today; fully digitizing every cell in the human body would exceed ten times all of the data stored globally today. In these and many more cases we need to find ways to deal with unprecedented amounts of data and complexity. Enter quantum computing.” Freelance writer Richard Quinnell adds, “Quantum computing is one of those technologies that is easy to dismiss as too ‘out there’ to worry about today. Even the most optimistic estimates set practical utilization more than a decade off. But the technology involves such a disruptive paradigm shift in computing that prudent developers should begin looking into quantum computing right now.”[6] He goes on to note that governments are so convinced quantum computing will have a major impact on the world they are spending vast sums to ensure they are players. He reports, “In 2018 the US Government passed the National Quantum Initiative Act, creating a National Quantum Coordination Office and providing $1.2 billion to fund quantum information science activities for the next five years. The EU has also authorized funding, up to €1 billion, for a quantum master plan. And China is investing heavily, seeking to leapfrog the US in quantum technology.”

 

Concluding thoughts

 

John Koon, another freelance writer, observes, “Quantum computing is on a steady upward trajectory, but the field is in flux with new technologies starting to come online.”[7] Nevertheless, Koulopoulos concludes, “We can barely imagine what the impact of quantum computing will be in ten to twenty years. No more so than the early users of the ENIAC could have predicted the mind-boggling ways in which we use digital computers today.”

 

Footnotes
[1] Tom Koulopoulos, “The End Of The Digital Revolution Is Coming: Here’s What’s Next,” Inc., 11 August 2019.
[2] Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, “Quantum computers are coming. Get ready for them to change everything,” ZDNet, 2 November 2020.
[3] Christopher Monroe, “The Quantum Computing Party Hasn’t Even Started Yet,” Scientific American, 12 August 2020.
[4] Melanie Wolkoff Wachsman, “Research: Quantum computing will impact the enterprise, despite being misunderstood,” TechRepublic,
[5] Scott M. Fulton, III, “Will quantum computing disrupt any industries that matter, and how soon?” ZDNet, 2 November 2020.
[6] Richard Quinnell, “Quantum Computing Starts Now,” EE Times, 13 August 2019.
[7] John Koon, “What’s Next in Quantum Computing?” EE Web, 13 August 2019.