The week I stopped avoiding the Q question - First tentative steps on my journey to embracing Quantum computing

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The week I stopped avoiding the Q question banner

In all honesty, I have been trying to hide from talking and writing about Quantum computing. Partly, I was using the excuse that Quantum computing becoming a commercial reality was so far in the future, that it wasn’t worth bothering businesses coping with today and tomorrow’s problems just yet.  But it was also partly due to the fact that I didn’t have a clue about it, and that my brain overheats and shuts down when faced with such a different paradigm. Perhaps my brain needs to be chilled to near cryogenic levels, just like some Quantum computers, to help it take in these new technologies and ideas.

So, what has changed? Basically, two conversations, neither of which I initiated, happening a couple of days apart, have shown me that my two excuses really don’t hold water.

The first was a briefing to me requested by Finnish Quantum Computer manufacturer IQM. My reservations were overridden by my constantly curious mind…and I’m glad they were. At one level I still have no idea how Quantum Computing works. But it is quite clear that since the last, and only time, I came across Quantum Computing (at IBM in 2018) the task of dealing with the significant scientific and engineering challenges has moved on a pace.

I really wanted to know two things. How close is the industry to cracking the error problems that afflict quantum computers the more Qubits (think “the quantum version” of binary bits, the basic unit of information in a classical computer) that are processed. And secondly, are we seeing any practical use cases, apart from the most often discussed potential ability of a quantum computer to break the most sophisticated passwords in the blink of an eye.

On the first point the answer is progress is being made, but highly scalable, multi-purpose quantum computing is still some way off. I was challenged by Raghunath Koduvayur of IQM to focus more on error correction rather than eliminating errors. I take his point, but it still feels a bit like an IT coder’s answer to an engineering problem. However, things seem more stable at a low volume of Qubits and this is where things got interesting around my second question about use cases.

There are a number of algorithmic calculations that classical computers just can’t process…at least in any sort of useful and cost-effective timeframe. So, while IQM continue to work on general scaling of quantum computing, it is also focused on a number of single use cases where it sees some interesting niche opportunities that can be handled now and that are being actively explored with potential customers. These include the challenges of improving vehicle battery life, optimising returns in financial derivatives and, healthcare related usecases, all of which have enormous potential financial and/or societal benefits.

My second conversation was with Ryan Morrison, a TechMonitor reporter whose editor had given him my name to talk to about Quantum computers in data centres. Personally, I wondered what planet his editor was on. But, given the tight publishing deadline I thought it was best for me to give Ryan a quick call, if only to tell him that what I knew about quantum could fit on the back of a postage stamp. Turns out, it was my data centre insights he was after. When I was talking to IQM it appeared that most quantum computers were either going into national quantum laboratories or larger supercomputing facilities. The conversation with Ryan was revealing. We talked about Amazon Bracket, the quantum-computing-as-a-service (QCaaS) offering and he also informed me that Equinix was installing a quantum computer in one of its Tokyo data centres so that customers can access QCaaS as if it is on-premises, via the Equinix fabric, to test and experiment with quantum and hybrid quantum algorithms in a secure environment.

All this suggests to me that the commercial realisation of quantum computing is nearer than I had anticipated. At the very least CIOs and CTOs should be starting to get educated about and prepared for Quantum by seeking out and supporting internal experts and setting up a Quantum centre of excellence. You don’t have to buy a Quantum Computer yet, there are as-a-service offerings you can take advantage of which might act as an accelerator for your classical computers, even if out and out quantum computing is still a few years away.