Technology is at the heart of the strategic thinking of nearly all organisations today and quantum is undoubtedly starting to have a significant impact on developing new business models as well as digital security. Stuart Harrison, who heads Whitecap’s Bristol office, is a technology specialist and shares his perspective on quantum computing in our latest blog.
Businesses need to elevate their investigation into the impact of quantum computing to a board level strategic awareness, if indeed they are doing any investigation at all. For many organisations, quantum computing represents the biggest single strategic technology opportunity and, at the same time, strategic technology threat for the coming years.
Bristol and quantum
The Bristol region has a rare mix of creativity and technical know-how sparked off by local organisations such as Rolls Royce, British Aerospace, Aardman Animation, BBC, Hewlett Packard and Oracle. Now, admirably supported by the regional universities, we lead the way in areas such as blockchain, VR, robotics, fintech, haptics, life sciences and, the subject of this article, quantum computing.
With the work I do it’s a real privilege to be involved in disruptive businesses bringing exciting new technologies, of all kinds, to market. On many occasions however, the conversation drifts to quantum, especially when they realise I mentor at the Quantum Technology Enterprise Centre (QTEC) which is a University of Bristol backed facility to help quantum and closely related PhD research projects become commercial reality. Often the question is “are quantum computers really happening?”.
Quantum computers are really happening
Well the answer is a resounding yes, and they might be here sooner than you think. Although quantum computers tend to grab the headlines because of the extremely fast computing capabilities, there’s a lot of development taking place all based around the application of science and quantum engineering such as photonics which, as the name suggests, are photon related applications within microelectronics, communication and so on.
It’s no longer a case of whether the science can deliver, it’s more of an engineering challenge. The behaviour of the science has been proven and is repeatable, now the scientists turned businessmen are exploring different avenues of packaging the science into practical solutions for industry.
What is quantum computing?
Quantum computing utilises the inherent behaviour of quantum mechanics by manipulating sub-atomic particles. Unlike existing computing that is binary and can only be in one state at a time, quantum bits or qubits can exist in a state of equal superposition, where the particles have multiple states at once.
However, applying this to produce a computer is a whole new engineering challenge as at the moment it relies on operation at temperatures close to absolute zero. Noise and error correction are also major issues which limit the current achievements of quantum computers.
However, to put it in context, a quantum computer with 50 qubits can provide more processing power than any modern computer and we’re essentially there now. Ultimately though quantum computers will be hundreds, then thousands and then millions of qubits. It’s perfectly feasible we’ll see a 1000 qubit solution in 5 years (so my quantum business contacts tell me!).
What could be the impact?
The leap in performance with quantum computing over traditional computing will be so great as to enable organisations to offer solutions that simply can’t be achieved at the moment. It will also be such a leap as to render existing security encryption useless. The step will be as significant as it was going from paper based systems to computer based. Not only dramatically faster but enabling activity that simply can’t be performed now.
Where could quantum technology be applied?
We shall see solutions, and they are already being explored, in AI, pharmaceuticals, aerospace, financial services, big data analytics and security. But this is not just simple efficiency improvement, this is taking AI from being child-like to advanced being; producing drugs tailored in seconds for individuals and turning post-event analysis into real-time predictive behaviour. And don’t feel safe anymore with your 256 bit encryption and green padlock. What takes conventional computers millions of years to crack will take quantum seconds.
D/SRUPTION hub listed quantum computing as one of its top 9 disruptive technology areas for 2019 – see https://disruptionhub.com/disruption-trends-9-for-2019/. Yet most of the other eight will also be transformed through quantum computing.
Building a quantum computer
There are several ways of building quantum computers. Many are exploring “easier” approaches which will deliver quantum computers to the market sooner but their speed and application will be restricted. Their power, or number of qubits, will be limited but they will provide real world use for those seeking very specific uses often around R&D. Much of Bristol’s focus however has gone into Integrated Quantum Photonics where it is a world leader. This is essentially miniaturising and integrating quantum with silicon based microelectronics, this is harder to achieve but is expected to have more realistic real world applications.
The universal quantum computer will have much wider applications and be thousands of times faster than the interim solutions which many are concentrating on at the moment. The good news is that with delivery through QaaS (Quantum as a Service) you won’t need to buy your own quantum computer as they will tend to be a little pricey to start with!
But what about security? A fully functional quantum computer will render current encryption useless, able to crack it in seconds. This may become a real threat, especially from government backed quantum computing, within 3-5 years. Not only is that much sooner than most people realise, or are prepared for, it means all those encrypted data stores backed up containing billions of records of sensitive material, personal information, financial details, health records and so on, are immediately vulnerable. It also means that data being sent today can be stored and exposed at a later date.
Quantum Key Distribution (QKD)
There is however a technology being developed called Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) that uses the very laws of quantum physics that make quantum computers so powerful, but in this case, to protect against the security threat. Utilising the inherent nature of quantum behaviour in photons it means QKD is impervious to attacks regardless of computing power. Any interference (even measuring or observing) of the photon changes its state and the two communicating users (devices) know that the message has been compromised.
Some of the early stage businesses in Bristol are already producing R&D kits with QKD solutions, so thankfully quantum security should be available before the universal quantum computer. I have even had the mind bending experience of working with a very clever chap who won an award for being able to send a message without sending anything physical…now that’s a whole new story.
– Quantum computing will be a game changer for many, both for competitive advantage and business ending damage.
– It’s important that boards are investigating the impact of quantum computing on their industry and business and using this to help formulate their strategy.
Whitecap Consulting can bridge that gap between technical and strategic direction. Many quantum start-ups are keen to speak to industry and learn themselves about the potential impact. Contact us and we can put you in touch.