A little while ago, I visited the San Jose Computer History Museum in California, and one of the exhibits was a recreation of a typical IBM computer from the 1960s. Looking back provides a perspective on the speed of technological change. And in 2018, we’re on the cusp of seeing what has been dreamed about for many years — the emergence of quantum computing finding business applications that will impact our everyday lives.
If you’re unsure of what exactly quantum computing is and why it marks the first fundamental shift in how computers operate since they were invented, then there is perhaps no clearer or simpler explanation of what quantum computing is than the one Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave at an event in Canada in 2016 shortly after being elected.
We’re still a long way off, probably at least 10-20 years, from seeing scalable quantum computers (currently, quantum computers are so complex that it’s not possible to scale up beyond a handful of qubits), which could then form the basis of a quantum internet.
But we’re not so far off from seeing the emergence of quantum computers that will indeed change the world. For example, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) estimates that in 15 years, the first quantum computer will have been built that can crack current cryptography. I have previously written about the impact artificial intelligence will have on software development — quantum computing will transform machine learning because its computing power to analyze huge data sets dwarfs everything we have available today.
This may seem theoretical and way off in the future for individuals not involved in researching quantum computing to concern themselves. However, there will be business opportunities emerging much sooner. Tech giants such as IBM, Google, Microsoft and Alibaba, as well as more specialized companies such as D-Wave Systems, will likely be in a position to offer some form of quantum computing-as-a-service in the next three to five years. Some analysts estimate that by 2023, already a fifth of enterprises will have a budget for quantum computing projects.
Already today, anyone can access a quantum computer to experiment with and run algorithms via IBM’s Q experience, there are open source software development kits (SDKs) available freely on Github and even Microsoft has released a Quantum Computing Development Kit. Hundreds of thousands of experiments have already been run. There are APIs available, which means, even as of today, there is a bridge between some of the most advanced quantum computers in the world and the computers you have in your office. This opens up tremendous opportunities for developers and computing enthusiasts to start looking at the technology and come up with practical applications. Forrester Research analyst Brian Hopkins has estimated, for instance, that specialized solutions in certain industries may be available within the next 24 months (registration required).
In an article published by Nature in March 2017, Google researchers highlighted that despite the fact that developing the “ultimate” (one that is scalable and universal) quantum computer is at least a decade away, there are numerous short-term opportunities for businesses and investors. According to the article, “Heuristic ‘hybrid’ methods that blend quantum and classical approaches could be the foundation for powerful future applications.” The researchers highlight potential applications in industries ranging from pharmaceuticals (particularly drug discovery), chemicals and energy to financial services as some of the earliest examples.
So despite the fact that quantum computing remains at least several years off, technology executives should be keeping an eye on the developments over the next couple of years and looking to see if applications emerge in their industry.