Quantum Computing in the Enterprise: Not So Wild a Dream
This publication examines the migration of HPC technologies from the specialized realms of supercomputing to business-ready solutions for compute- and data-intensive business problems. As such, we don't frequently cover quantum computing. It resides in the nether regions of theoretical possibility, if not in incubation then in its infancy.
But quantum computing nevertheless compels our interest as the mother of all potential computational breakthroughs, something commensurate, technologically speaking, to our capacity for wonder.* Impressive as are the throughput gains of GPUs, FPGAs, ASICs, ARM and the latest generation of CPUs, we know they’ll all be relegated to the dustbin of computing history if quantum computing goes mainstream.
Mounting evidence suggests that IT strategists at companies with HPC-class requirements shouldn’t ignore quantum computing indefinitely. In a limited way, quantum already is a reality, and important strides in its development are happening with greater frequency. Another key indicator, R&D spending and venture capital investments, signal that quantum may be moving to a new stage of maturity.
We discussed these trends with David Schatsky, a Deloitte managing director and author with Deloitte University Press, who has recently written on the state of quantum, and pressed him to predict quantum computing’s next important milestone on the path toward commercial viability. Such is the elusive nature of the technology, and in the knowledge how difficult progress has been in its 30 years of existence, that Schatsky swathed his response in caveats.
“I’ll only give you a guess if you include that nobody really has an idea, especially me,” he said good naturedly. “But I think what we’re likely to see is answers to questions arrived at through the application of quantum computing in a laboratory setting first. It could be some kind of research question that a quantum computer has been especially designed to answer, in an R&D kind of setting. I wouldn’t be shocked if we see things like that in a couple of years.”
Though he cautions quantum may be a decade or more from useful purpose in the enterprise, he also advises companies in financial services, oil & gas and other industries with HPC-class workloads to remain open to its nearer-term potential, even before quantum machines are commercially available. “While mainstream commercial applications of quantum computing are likely years away, executives can do a number of things to begin to prepare their enterprises for the era of quantum computing.”
He also said that “quantum supremacy,” which is “the creation of a general-purpose quantum computer that can perform a task no classical computer can,” could be imminent (if not available on the commercial market). Google has announced a 9-qubit quantum computer, and has published a paper suggesting its researchers believe that a planned 50-qubit computer could achieve that goal in the next couple of years, Schatsky said.
Commercial viability for quantum computing is probably in the 15-year time frame, he said, adding that while quantum computing is expected be used for somewhat tightly focused analytical problems, “if quantum computing becomes a really commercially accessible platform, these things have a way of creating a virtuous cycle where the capability to solve problems can draw new problem types and new uses for them. So I think we may be able to use them in ways we can’t image today.”
More immediate impact from quantum could come in the form of hybrid strategies that merge HPC systems with quantum computing techniques, Schatsky said, attacking HPC-class problems with the infusion of “quantum thinking.”
In his recent writings, Schatsky highlighted several key points:
- Quantum computing is hard to explain. (This writer agrees and further asserts that it is even harder to understand. However, no one should feel badly about struggling to grasp how quantum computing works. It is, after all, related to the movements of sub-atomic particles [one imagines a swarm of gnats darting fitfully about on a hot summer day]; most of us haven’t gotten around yet to mastering the movements of atoms, never mind the subatomic bits they're made up of.)
- Quantum has tremendous potential and is attracting major R&D money from throughout the technology ecosystem. Schatsky reports that in the last three years, quantum computing start-ups have attracted $147 million in venture capital, governments around the world have spent $2.2 billion in research and development (one wonders how much of that money comes from investors who, while they stand in awe before quantum’s potential, don’t have the slightest idea what it actually is).
- Leading tech companies have active quantum computing programs and major corporations across many industries - financial services, aerospace and defense, and public sector organizations – are researching quantum computing applications.
- Quantum computer maker D-Wave Systems recently announced general availability of its next-gen computer, along with a first customer for the new system.
Schatsky reported quantum computing is already impacting the data security field: encryption. The problem is the potential for quantum computers, in the hands of hackers, to break open a core technique for securing transactions: the impossibility, using current technologies, of quickly finding the prime factors of large numbers.
“For example, it would take a classical computer 10.79 quintillion years to break the 128-bit AES encryption standard,” Schatsky said, “while a quantum computer could conceivably break this type of encryption in approximately six months. This has led to a search for encryption methods that would be resistant to attacks from quantum computers — to make information systems ‘quantum resistant.’ ”
Led in part by the National Security Agency, extensive work is being done in the areas of “post-quantum cryptography.”
“Enterprises are already thinking about risks to their encrypted data even before quantum encryption attacks become a reality,” Schatsky said. “They are restricting access to or completely deleting sensitive data, even in encrypted formats, to prevent hostiles from capturing that scrambled data with the hope of decrypting it with quantum computers in the future.”
We won’t belabor an attempt at explaining how quantum computing works (if you want to dig into this, see detailed discussions in Schatsky’s content on the Deloitte University site). Schatsky calls it “a fantastical” form of computing” that harnesses that “bizarre properties” of subatomic particles, as described by quantum mechanics, and in so doing “will be able to perform certain kinds of calculations exponentially faster than the fastest computers currently known.” At its core is the elimination of steps that a conventional computer goes through to complete a complex task.
From Theory to Proof
In practical terms, quantum computing moved beyond theory in the mid-90s when a Bell Labs researcher proved that a quantum computer could excel at what’s called the “phonebook problem” defined as finding something in an unsorted list, such as looking up someone in the phonebook by her phone number rather than name. Whereas a normal algorithm would inspect every phone number in the book until the correct match is identified, the researcher found that a quantum computer could do it in far fewer steps — specifically, Schatsky explained, the number of steps equal to the square root of the number of entries in the phone book.
“Finding the matching phone number in a list of a billion entries would require just 31,623 operations — the square root of a billion — and, obviously, a small fraction of the time,” he said.
The engineering challenges involved in building a quantum computer are formidable. The D-Wave Systems device, for example, operates in an enclosure that takes clean room sterility to an extreme. The system must be isolated from the outside environment at temperatures colder than interstellar space, Schatsky reports. A typical quantum bit, or qubit (quantum’s version of the data bit in conventional computing) is never long for this world. “It maintains its state for perhaps 50 microseconds before errors creep in. And even reading the value of a qubit is a very exacting process. The difference in energy between a zero and a one is just 10^-24 joules—one ten-trillionth as much as an X-ray photon.”
Private Sector Pushes Forward
Schatsky said that even in the face of these challenges, dozens of public and private sector organizations are researching potential applications.
“Financial services firms are notably active,” he said. “Barclays, Goldman Sachs and other financial institutions are investigating the potential use of quantum computing in areas such as portfolio optimization, asset pricing, capital project budgeting, and data security.”
In aerospace, Airbus and Lockheed Martin are exploring applications in communications, cryptography, complex systems verification and machine learning, he reports, adding that the U.S. Navy is investing in training in quantum while investigating data storage and energy-efficient data retrieval with underwater autonomous robots. NASA, Alibaba, Google and IBM are among the organizations working on applications from distributed navigation to hack-resistant personalized medicine and drug discovery.
Major IT vendors also are active in quantum computing that, Schatsky said, may lead to commercial products. Google, IBM, Intel, HPE, Microsoft, Nokia Bell Labs and Raytheon are building qubits and quantum gates (basic circuits) and exploring quantum algorithms, among other R&D activities.
Schatsky said enough progress has been made that some researchers have taken the optimistic view that quantum “has progressed from basic science to engineering.”
For IT strategists at companies with HPC-class workload requirements who are interested in preparing for quantum, Schatsky has several suggestions around the adoption of “quantum thinking” for extreme scale challenges. These include “reimagining analytic workloads,” such as risk management, forecasting, planning and optimization.
“Executives should ask themselves, ‘What would happen if we could do these computations a million times faster?’ The answer could lead to new insights about operations and strategy.”
Schatsky also reports that researchers have found ways for quantum to impact and improve problem solving handled by conventional computers. “Some researchers are seeking to bring ‘quantum thinking’ to classical problems.” He cited Kyndi, a start-up that uses quantum-inspired computing technology for machine intelligence.
For enterprises that use HPC, Schatsky suggests learning about “hybrid architectures,” “which link conventional HPC systems with quantum computers,” may become common, he said, such as one described by D-Wave. He also points academic partnerships, pointing to the example of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, which is supporting quantum computing readiness by collaborating with academic institutions researching quantum.
Finally, Schatsky recommends companies develop post-quantum cybersecurity plans that include “crypto agility,” “the ability to swiftly switch out algorithms for newer, more secure ones as they’re released.” This is a strategy to ward off security threats in the future, when quantum computing security threats materialize.
“Firms need to pay attention to these developments and have roadmaps in place to follow through on those recommendations,” he said. “A risk is that adversaries could capture and store encrypted data today for decryption in the future, when quantum computers become available.”
“Most CIOs will not be submitting budgets with line items for quantum computing in the next two years,” Schatsky said. “But that doesn’t mean leaders should ignore this field. Because it is advancing rapidly, and because its impact is likely to be large, business and technology strategists should keep an eye on quantum starting now.”