2023 could be the breakthrough year for quantum computing
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2022 has been a dynamic year for quantum computing. With commercial breakthroughs such as the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) investing in its first quantum computer, the launch of the world’s first quantum computer capable of advantage over the cloud and the Nobel Prize in Physics awarded for ground-breaking experiments with entangled photons, the industry is making progress.
At the same time, 2022 saw the tremendous accomplishment of the exaflop barrier broken with the Frontier supercomputer. At a cost of roughly $600 million and requiring more than 20 megawatts of power, we are approaching the limits of what classical computing approaches can do on their own. Often for practical business reasons, many companies are not able to fully exploit the increasing amount of data available to them. This hampers digital transformation across areas most reliant on high-performance computing (HPC): healthcare, defense, energy and finance.
To stay ahead of the curve, 91% of global business leaders are investing or planning to invest in quantum computing. According to reports, 70% are developing real-life use cases and 61% are planning to spend $1 million or more over the next three years.
As the technology becomes more exciting and the industry gathers pace, the pressure is on for quantum to deliver. But the voice of skeptics will also grow louder. In the face of those that say quantum computers will never be useful due to their complexity and limited results to date, the question on everyone’s mind is, will 2023 be a breakthrough year for quantum computing?
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Technical innovations vs market incumbents
During 2022, we saw the creation of many industry incumbents who used SPACs, IPOs, mergers or corporate sponsorship to build themselves substantial war chests to pursue some serious engineering activity. While these significant scale-up activities will continue, 2023 will also be the year of innovation and possible disruption.
Amongst the big players, new players will emerge with alternative approaches towards quantum computing: Perhaps replacing qubits and gate models with qumodes, using model simulations and quantum annealing models.
The aim of these newcomers will not be to solely achieve universal computing, but rather more specific and useful computation that can be delivered in a shorter timescale. The challenge will be whether these new machines can be applied to something useful and that the industry will care about them in the near term. The quantum supply chain is also developing with component-based suppliers — such as quantum processor vendors — that will shake loose how full-stack systems are built and break the economics of current black box approaches.
Such work will force further discussions about the right and best way to compare and benchmark technologies, performance and the industry.
Competition for financing
Despite the turmoil in the international financial markets, quantum computing may continue to buck the trend with large funding rounds. Also, 2023 will see an interesting comparison between public and privately owned quantum companies.
Public companies will continue to put their capital to work, but at the cost of the short-term attention of investors and short sellers. While they and the rest of the industry push to meet meaningful and substantial technical milestones, they will have only partial success in shrugging off the short-term pressures to validate the business. It’s likely that a race to capture the first market share to meet revenue predictions will ensue.
In the private space, and with a global recession looming, large companies’ valuations will likely struggle to compete with previous expectations. This will be countered to an extent by the increasing appetite for deep tech, as well as new, exciting developments. Within the recent glut of new quantum companies, many will struggle, and both successful and less successful companies will be acquired as the big players consolidate. In general, 2023 will likely end with fewer quantum companies than in 2022.
For both public and private quantum companies, it will help when a few make strides toward creating useful cases with near-term quantum computers. In the pursuit of pragmatic value-creation, this will come in many forms — including quantum sensing and comms, quantum-inspired, and hybrid quantum-classical approaches with small-scale systems.
A few successes here will be industry-changing, which will start to bring about a focus that the industry has been waiting for. The consequences will ripple through the entire market.
Making progress toward fault-tolerant machines
Despite progress on short-term applications, 2023 will not see error correction disappear. Far from it, the holy grail of quantum computing will continue to be building a machine capable of fault tolerance. 2023 may create software or hardware breakthroughs that will show how we’re closer than we think, but otherwise, this will continue to be something that is achieved far beyond 2023.
Despite it being everything to some quantum companies and investors, the future corporate users of quantum computing will largely see it as too far off the time horizon to care much. The exception will be government and anyone else with a significant, long-term interest in cryptography.
Despite those long time horizons, 2023 will define clearer blueprints and timelines for building fault-tolerant quantum computers for the future. Indeed, there is also an outside chance that next year will be the year when quantum rules out the possibility of short-term applications for good, and doubles down on the 7- to 10-year journey towards large-scale fault-tolerant systems.
Governments, users and HPC
2022 saw the German government conclude the tendering process for some very large quantum computing projects, with one example of a €67m contract for two projects. In 2023, that trend will continue with yet more public procurements for quantum computing.
Those tenders and the fact that they will be run through several of the world’s HPC centers will force the quantum computing industry to live up to the rigor of tender requirements, and the delivery obligations which come with it. So long as those tenders are run well, these activities will force up the maturity of the technology, and the companies in this space.
Alongside that, the sophistication of the user community will develop dramatically this year. Expect the launch of several ‘industrial challenges’ delivered by teams of in-house quantum experts. Again, this increasing maturity will act as a force for good within the industry, helping to create great strides toward the search for concrete applications and roadmaps.
Geopolitics standing in the way
Geopolitics will continue to shape quantum as it does the rest of the economy; this shaping could reach a fever pitch with the growing separation between the U.S. and China. As the race is on to develop quantum computers to gain a strategic lead in cybersecurity, intelligence operations and the economic industry, expect increasing restrictions to limit technological exchange and increasing impact on supply chains. This will be partially offset through bi and multilateral agreements between nations, although the specter of nationalism will linger.
But how will European and UK companies fare? Many are fearful of being caught up in the middle of the China-U.S. tech competition, and so are urgently designing quantum tools to protect their interests.
A breakthrough year for quantum
So as we look forward, it’s no longer a question of if quantum computing will be available but when? 2023 may be the year in which some ask — and perhaps even claim now. Whereas others will continue to say, ‘of course not.’’
With more and more companies adopting quantum to explore its potential, we will certainly leave 2023 more aware of the benefits and timeline. This may help companies better understand what their future could look like with quantum.
Yet however little we know about what the future holds, one thing is certain: The world will be watching.
Richard Murray is cofounder and CEO of ORCA computing and chair and director of UKQuantum.
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