Quantum technology moves from scientific theory to business reality

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Quantum computing replaces ones and zeros of classical computing with qubits from the world of quantum mechanics.(Getty Images)

A few years ago, quantum computing was thought to be an exciting but impractical science with almost no real business and revenue implications in the short term. This week, it is becoming clear from presentations and comments during the Inside Quantum Technology New York conference that quantum computing is indeed practical, and even better, it represents the core of a broader, rapidly emerging quantum technology market that will impact many industries and generate billions of dollars in revenue within the next decade.

In quantum computing, processes leverage elements of quantum mechanics such as superpositioning, in which digital ones and zeros are replaced by more flexible qubits that enable faster and more accurate, parallel calculations. Early quantum computers were not always able to harness quantum mechanical principles in such a way to produce high quality or highly reliable results, but they are quickly improving. Qubit processors also are rapidly gaining capacity. IBM currently has a 65 qubit processor, but expects to have a 127 qubit processor later this year

“Until a year ago, it was still possible for critics to say that this is not going to go anywhere,” said Lawrence Gasman, president of Inside Quantum Technology (IQT) Research and a longtime technology analyst and forecaster across many sectors. “Critics would say the error rates of quantum computers are too high. That is not happening anymore.”

The quantum computing market could surpass $2 billion in revenue in the next five years, according to IQT Research, as the technology is used in a variety of applications, including cloud-based computing, sensors for medical imaging, security and networking, with the ultimate goal of enabling a “quantum internet,” a term used by several conference presenters this week. Much of the early market value could come from access to cloud-based quantum computing resources, with lesser revenue coming from hardware and software, the research found. 

Quantum in the Cloud

Five years ago this month, IBM placed its first publicly-available quantum computer in the cloud. This prompted conference keynote speaker Bob Sutor, chief quantum exponent at IBM to say, “We’re now in the second half of the first decade of having a real quantum computer.” Most quantum computers are still cloud-based.

The IBM Quantum cloud computer now consists of 20 quantum computing systems and has 325,000 registered users, and 790 billion quantum hardware circuits., according to Sutor. The power and capacity of qubit processors also is growing rapidly. IBM currently has a 65-qubit processor, but has a 127-qubit processor under development, will target a 433-qubit processor next year and a 1,121-qubit processor in 2023.

“Whereas we had been doubling the number of qubits over the last two to three years, that rate will be increasing,” Sutor said. This improvement is fed by improvements in miniaturization of components, process control and increasing integration between classical semiconductor computing hardware and quantum computing.

But Sutor, who also is the author of “Dancing with Qubits: How Quantum Computing Works and How It Can Change the World,” said the focus of those harnessing and improving the power of this evolving technology needs to become more practical. “The focus for quantum technology needs to be on real use cases for real people,” he said.

Killer apps

IBM has built on its processor hardware layers of software that feed into services being developed for sectors such as finance and with applications like machine learning, which could be used across many sectors, in mind. Partly because of its broad applicability, some quantum experts consider machine learning a “quantum killer app,” but another fast-evolving business application is quantum random number generation (QRNG) for cryptography, which is becoming increasingly necessary as quantum computing also could be used by bad actors to break through current encryption techniques.

Gasman acknowledged there may not yet be a specific killer app for quantum computing, but added that "all it takes is getting the right use case for the right application in the right industry, like finance, and that may be enough."

Thomas Stengel, senior director of QRNG business development at ID Quantique, explained how ubiquitous the need for these numbers will be. "With IoT, everything is getting a processor, everything is getting a connection, so everything will need security so in the 10 years everything will be getting a QRNG."

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