Why Quantum Supremacy Does — and Doesn’t — Matter

Real-world applications of quantum computing are several years away. Still, it is only a matter of time before every business is a quantum business. Companies must begin their quantum journey today; if they don’t, they could end up on the wrong side of history, write Paul Daugherty, Dan Garrison and Carl Dukatz in this opinion piece. Daugherty (@pauldaugh) is Accenture’s chief technology and innovation officer; Garrison is a master technology architect; and Dukatz is a principal director in Accenture’s quantum computing practice.

News of advancements in quantum computing, and the healthy dose of skepticism that usually follows, have become the norm. Witness Google’s recent claim of quantum supremacy — building a computer that in 200 seconds completed a task the company claimed would take today’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years —followed by IBM’s response that its own supercomputer could have done the same task in just days.

Despite causing confusion, debates like this are having a positive impact by bringing much-needed attention to the technology. That’s because no matter who ultimately achieves advantage in the quantum hardware race, we all stand to benefit from the truly transformative benefits that it will deliver.

For business leaders, this should be a wake-up call. If you’re not already thinking about the potential ramifications of this hyper-disruptive technology — what it means for your industry and your organization — you need to start preparing now. Why? Because while the technology is still in its infancy, it is advancing quickly.

Very simply, quantum is about a new generation of computing that has the potential to solve what are known as “intractable” problems — problems that we might technically know how to solve but would take so long to tackle using today’s technology that no one even bothers trying. The math used in quantum computing lets us attack problems by looking at every possible permutation at once and then going directly to the answer. As a result, quantum computers could solve, in a matter of minutes or seconds, problems that would take today’s powerful supercomputers thousands, or even millions, of years to solve.

Not for Email

While that sounds incredible, it is important to understand a few key points about quantum computers. First, they won’t replace classical computers; you’re not going to use one to send email. Second, although quantum computers are made from exotic materials and complex processes, they’re not science fiction; you can buy one today (if you can spare several million dollars). And third, most companies will leverage the processing power of quantum via the cloud rather than investing in the hardware themselves.

But what would you use a quantum computer for? One potential application is in logistics. Although today we can just plug an address into our smartphones and get directions to almost anywhere, finding the most efficient route for multiple stops is far more complex, with each additional stop increasing the number of possible routes geometrically.

For instance, one of the most intensively studied problems in optimization — a benchmark problem referred to as the “Traveling Salesman” — tries to identify the best route for a salesman visiting a selection of cities. Believe it or not, people realized this problem was hard back in the 1800s when trying to find the best route between the 15 biggest cities in Germany. Surprisingly, there are more than 43 billion (that’s “billion” with a “b”) possible routes for just those 15 locations!

Of course, being able to solve problems like this in minutes or seconds could mean seismic disruptions for nearly every industry.

Take insurance, for example. An insurer that could fully leverage quantum would be able to run the forecasts and predictions to generate a nearly perfectly balanced risk portfolio. This would, in turn, enable that company to safely charge far less than other insurers for the same coverage — and gobble up market share in the process.

Similarly, quantum computing could enable a financial services firm to have a fully optimized portfolio of 100 different stocks with significantly higher confidence of the portfolio’s return well in advance. And in health care, the technology could help pharmaceutical companies accurately model a drug’s effects on human cells, eliminating the need to conduct lengthy, costly clinical trials — and drastically reducing the 10 years and $2.4 billion it currently takes, on average, to bring a drug to market.

“While most experts agree that real-world applications of quantum are still at least several years or longer away, it’s only a matter of time before every business is a quantum business.”

Even professional sports could see tremendous advantages from quantum computing. Although sports teams have already been using analytics to gain a competitive advantage, what they’ve been able to achieve so far is nothing compared with what we might see if they could tackle the intractable problems that are buried in their data. Think Moneyball on steroids — times a thousand.

Beyond Business

And beyond business, the technology has the potential to improve our lives in other ways, from increasing agricultural output to greatly improving weather predictions. Forward-thinking companies are already experimenting with quantum, positioning themselves to capitalize on the disruptive innovations that we expect it to unlock. Amazon, for instance, just announced its own quantum computing service and plans to launch the AWS Center for Quantum Computing and AWS Quantum Solutions Lab. The company believes that quantum will be a cloud-first technology, and its announcement signifies its confidence in the technology.

Volkswagen recently announced that it is testing a navigation app using cloud-based quantum-computing services to calculate the fastest routes for buses in near real-time. Other auto makers and logistics companies are also experimenting with the technology, not just for optimizing driving routes but also for other applications, such as improving the structure of batteries for electric vehicles.

These and other organizations realize that early adopters will have an order-of-magnitude competitive advantage over those who take a wait-and-see approach. So, what should you be doing to prepare for the tsunami of change that quantum computing will usher into virtually every industry?

We believe you should take several key steps now to prepare:

  1. Get your technologists quantum-conversant. Have a cautious but optimistic outlook on the current landscape, focus on the types of problems that can be solved, and learn about the software/hardware options, leveraging available courseware.
  2. Think about which of your problems might be a good fit for quantum computing, using the broad categories of optimization, machine learning, quantum system simulation (such as chemistry, materials, fluid dynamics, etc.) and security. Rank these based on value and map them to a timeline to develop a strategy.
  3. Identify the new skills and roles the technology will demand of your workforce. Quantum information scientists are in high demand, but developers and data scientists can be skilled-up for most applications.
  4. Understand the security risks that quantum technology brings. For instance, the potential to break cryptography is widely considered possible (although the realistic timeline for this to be a threat is years, not months). Therefore, start a mitigation plan, leveraging your existing threat framework.
  5. Most important, start conducting business experiments with quantum today. Develop pilots using quantum simulators, deploy them on quantum-inspired hardware and, if there’s an advantage over your current approach, be prepared to make the transition.

Because quantum computing portends such a tremendous degree of disruption once it becomes truly viable, both technologically and financially, it’s likely to move at a far faster pace than have other innovative and disruptive technologies, such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and extended reality. More important, it will likely move much faster than many organizations are going to be able to adapt and react.

While most experts agree that real-world applications of quantum are still at least several years or longer away, it’s only a matter of time before every business is a quantum business. So, start the quantum journey today. If you don’t, you could end up being the next Blockbuster or Kodak. On which side of history do you want to be?

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