Quantum Superiority: How Far Away?

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Some technologies, it’s said, are “always 10 years away” – we hear this in reference to autonomous vehicles and quantum computing. Of course, how far away we think they are has a lot to do with how they’re defined. Semi-autonomous cars are here today and becoming smarter with each new model year. As for quantum computing, Lux Research, Boston, can be added to those who say that while quantum is progressing toward eventual practical realization, achieving “quantum superiority” over classical supercomputing within the next 10 years is less certain (though Google claimed to have broken the superiority barrier last year).

In its recent report, Preparing for Quantum Computing, Lux analyzed the quantum landscape and mapped out likely paths the technology will take as it evolves. According to Lux:

As innovation continues to accelerate, quantum computing has become an increasingly important technology to monitor as part of the broader wave of digital transformation. Quantum computing aims to solve complex problems that are impossible to address with today’s supercomputers and has strong potential across multiple industry sectors, including pharma, energy, finance, logistics, manufacturing, and materials. However, there are significant obstacles in developing the technology that are currently limiting, and these obstacles will continue to challenge developers over the coming years. Over the next 10 years, it is uncertain if quantum computing will consistently outperform today’s supercomputers for useful business-related problems, if at all. In the new report “Preparing for Quantum Computing,” Lux Research addresses what businesses need to know about quantum computing, including why it’s better, when it will become available, and how a company should engage with it.

“Today’s supercomputers tackle difficult problems including weather modeling, genomic analysis, and computational fluid dynamics, but even the best supercomputers will always be limited in specific areas. They’re still unable to handle some important problems in areas like chemical product design, protein folding, or supply chain optimization,” says Lux Research lead report author Lewie Roberts. “It’s our belief that quantum computing will one day enable multiple industries to address some of these key problems, moving past today’s barriers and enabling further innovation.” Today, the main problems being targeted by quantum computing are the simulation of quantum systems, machine learning, and optimization.

Lux Research: organizations that “have needs that are bottlenecked by today’s supercomputers should engage with quantum computing partners to research business-specific problems. This knowledge will prepare companies to know how and when to use quantum computers as the technology does become mature enough to begin providing value.”

Currently, quantum computing faces many barriers that limit its near-term development. There are major challenges in hardware development, which severely limit further software development. Quantum bits, or qubits, are inherently unstable, thus reducing the accuracy of any computation that relies on them; this is the first major obstacle to commercialization. For this reason, problems that lack clearly defined answers (like machine learning) but still benefit from improved solutions are the best problems to target with quantum computing. Hardware developers hope to increase the stability of qubits but will ultimately have to build fault-tolerant quantum computers that can correct any errors that result from this instability. Lux Research doesn’t expect a fault-tolerant quantum computer to become available for at least 10 years.

source: Lux Research

“Quantum computing is not currently providing business value that could not be achieved with today’s existing computers, and it’s not clear when it will. For this reason, we advise companies not to make it a priority right now, unless your work is already bottlenecked by today’s supercomputing,” says Roberts. For companies that must pursue quantum computing now, research projects that estimate when quantum advantage can be achieved will be key. Lux Research advises forming partnerships for these projects based on the level of internal expertise, as this greatly affects which players will be most helpful for your unique projects.

Lux reports: the majority of external funding comes from a few very large investments. The top five highest-funded startups in the space have raised about $630 million to make up roughly 60 percent of external funding. Notably, they are all hardware companies, which tend to be capital-intensive.

In terms of internal funding, it is likely that billions have been spent on development. In 2018, IBM claimed to have spent $38 billion on research and development for emerging digital technologies like quantum computing and AI since 2013. Other competing companies like Microsoft, Google, and Fujitsu are likely spending similar amounts to assemble their own platforms.

Lux draws three main conclusions as part of its outlook for quantum:

  1. As useful quantum advantages are developed, they will be attached to outside software platforms As quantum advantages emerge for business use cases, they will be added to existing enterprise software platforms rather than sitting solely within quantum computing organizations. Watch for partnerships between quantum players and other software players like chemical informatics.
  2. The developer landscape will largely grow out of academia Due to the novelty of the technology and expertise required to develop it, most innovators will emerge from academia rather than existing industry talent. They will either spin out of research labs or feed into existing players.
  3. Expect continued funding in the space Though quantum computing is primarily a research project right now, it will have continued financial support. This is due to its potential to solve novel high-value problems, which cloud giants in particular (Amazon, Microsoft, etc.) want to own within their platforms.

Source: Lux Research