This week saw the first step towards a public quantum computing company with IonQ’s SPAC merger. IonQ should be applauded for its technical achievements that underpin this agreement. This moment recognizes the massive potential of quantum technology, despite the substantial R&D challenges that remain.
The quantum computing industry still needs to address fundamental technology challenges in hardware and software for quantum computing to achieve its potential. Software developers must understand and build for the capacity of near-term hardware, limiting noise and errors, with slimmed-down algorithms constructed to the specifications of each hardware device. Hardware companies like IonQ must develop hardware that scales to greater qubit numbers and circuit depth that can run non-trivial applications. Both sides continue to advance, and it’s this combination that is needed to deliver meaningful commercial, industrial, and scientific applications.
We’ve seen numerous significant advancements in quantum hardware and software that get us closer to realizing quantum computing’s promise. It is now possible to see a path towards quantum advantage where quantum computers can solve significant problems beyond classical computers’ capabilities. We can see a future state where quantum computing can advance science and industry in new ways, including simulating new materials for batteries, superconductors and more. These findings lead to better energy storage and clean energy faster in ways that are far more capital efficient than current approaches.
Despite its tremendous promise, it’s important to remember that realizing quantum computing is not an overnight trip. It is a decades-long journey. Yet we could — and should — see promising applications on near-term quantum hardware within a few years.
There are three critical caveats about quantum computing that we must address:
1. Quantum computing will not replace classical computing. Quantum computing is often mischaracterised as souped-up supercomputing. Potential investors need to understand that this is not a replacement or upgrade for classical supercomputing, nor will it replace desktop or mobile devices. Quantum computing is also not a drop-in replacement for existing components of a company’s data infrastructure. To make the best use of quantum computers, you need to have isolated the components of a problem that is well-suited to quantum speedups.
2. Quantum computing is not immediate. Despite some headlines, we are not a year away from quantum computing upending cybersecurity, finance, and other industries overnight. Quantum hardware is not robust enough to limit noise or errors, nor are there software programs and algorithms that are optimized to run on near-term hardware. Developing quantum hardware is capital intensive and requires patient investors who are willing to see it through for the long term.
3. Quantum computing isn’t for every use case. Quantum computing is uniquely suited to problems that relate to quantum mechanics. This is especially useful for numerous frontier science applications that currently require billions to develop and test in the laboratory. In the longer term, quantum computing has potential to speed up certain classes of optimization problems, and beyond. But it is not a magic solution for every big data, machine learning, finance, or other high-profile computing-challenge-of-the-year.
As a co-founder of a quantum software startup and a leader at one of the most prestigious universities developing the theory and technology of quantum computers, I see the need for a robust ecosystem for quantum computing. Careful investment is critical to realize the potential and promise of quantum computing and its decades-long journey.
The industry welcomes patient investment and encourages new talent to enter the field to help deliver the promise and the potential of quantum computing. Investors need to be aware of the long-term research and development required to bring quantum computers out of labs and into the world as a sustainable and high-growth frontier computing industry.
Although we have not yet reached the point of quantum advantage, leading companies in fields as varied as materials, pharmaceuticals, and finance are setting up teams to work with quantum computing and evaluate its potential to transform their businesses. Given the first-mover advantage that could accrue to those who can best take advantage of this revolutionary technology, now is the time for executives to make this assessment. Engaging deeply with the scientific and technical experts could pay huge dividends.
Ashley Montanaro is Co-founder of UK quantum startup Phasecraft and Professor of Quantum Computation at the University of Bristol.
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