This is how the future of quantum computing could look like
Intermediate-scale quantum computers are now commercially available, and they are about to start changing the way many industries work. How might this change happen?
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Think of a patient who has just been diagnosed with a rare type of cancer. Now imagine a world where, within two hours after a biopsy, the lab comes up with a personalized drug formula that can kill the cancer. Within two days, the compound is synthesized, and the patient begins their treatment which is safe, efficient, and affordable.
Imagine a world where you hop on a red eye flight from New York to Tokyo, and the first thing you notice is how quiet the cabin is: you don’t even need to use your noise canceling headphones. All you hear is a hum of all-electric engines.
The engineers who built this plane didn’t use heavy lithium ion batteries. Neither did they use conventional materials to build the structure of a plane. Instead, they came up with entirely new materials that made the batteries energy-dense and the hull strong at a fraction of a weight of the planes we fly now.
Now imagine that this is not science fiction, because the path to such a world is becoming increasingly clear. We will reach that world by building computers so powerful that they allow us to calculate how atoms in large and complex molecules combine and create unique properties. Those computers will also help us design new drug molecules, create new materials, and build simulations of the physical phenomena that we simply cannot grasp today.
The first commercial versions of such computers are already here. They are called Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum (NISQ) computers, and they are about to change our world.
What exactly are NISQ computers?
The term NISQ was coined by John Preskill, a Caltech professor of theoretical physics. For more than two decades Preskill has been working in the field of quantum information science. In his definition, NISQ computers are quantum computers with a modest 50 to 100 qubits, hence the label “intermediate-scale”. They are “noisy”, because quantum bits within them are unstable and experience what’s called “quantum decoherence”.
Decoherence means those qubits may lose their quantum properties (and the resulting advantages) during their operation leading to errors in computations. Correcting such errors is a hard science problem, and multiple research groups are testing different approaches and algorithms.
Despite many recent breakthroughs in quantum error correction, researchers are yet to achieve reliable correction in NISQ computers. Because of that, engineers don’t use quantum computers as primary workhorses. Instead, they use them as quantum co-processors which work alongside conventional computers within a datacenter and handle the most difficult computations which would take, quite literally, the age of the universe on a classic machine.
The economics of early quantum computing
Commercial NISQ computers are now entering the market, and developers can access them as cloud compute instances. Several companies operate on the cloud compute model. Among startups, those are D-Wave, IonQ and Rigetti. All three rent their hardware via Amazon Bracket. (Rigetti is also available on Microsoft Azure.) Among the more established companies, IBM offers cloud access to its hardware.
IonQ and Rigetti have recently gone public via SPAC mergers, and we now have access to some of the information about their business. From their investor presentations, it’s clear that both companies are in the earliest stages of commercialization. IonQ booked about USD $16M of revenue in 2021, while Rigetti made $6.9M in the first nine months of the same year.
The daunting task that both companies face is no longer in building the hardware: they’ve already shown they can do that. Instead, it’s finding viable commercial use cases. All quantum hardware manufacturers agree: because their gear costs a pretty penny, the only way to pay for it is to serve the most financially powerful institutions of the world, also known as investment banks.
Therefore, IonQ has partnered with Goldman Sachs and Accenture to develop business applications for quantum computing. Rigetti, even though it hasn’t disclosed specific partnerships, is also working with the leading financial institutions on fintech use cases.
Charting the industry dynamics
In order to understand where the quantum tech industry might go next, we only need to think in plain economic terms of cost and demand. Not only quantum hardware manufacturers are now spending hundreds of millions on core R&D, they are also creating their own software. This is happening despite the limited number of sectors where such hardware and software could be deployed.
When the growth in those sectors eventually slows down, the incumbents will be forced to reduce costs. They will simplify their product lines and unbundle their activities by focusing on singular areas of competence, such as specialized quantum hardware, generalized quantum hardware, specialized and generalized software. This will open the markets to new entrants in all of those areas of quantum tech, and we might see a new S-curve of unparalleled technological advancement.
Similar processes have happened in the second half of the 20th century with classical computers: microprocessor manufacturers were also building custom software, but eventually they had to close down software divisions and concentrate on the core hardware competencies. The outcome of that was the rise of Microsoft, Oracle, and the rest.
When will the mere mortals benefit from quantum computing?
The short answer is somewhere between 2025 and 2040. The detailed answer is more complex.
Public roadmaps from Rigetti, IonQ, and PsiQuantum, alongside a variety of industry reports, all point towards the ten year period between 2025 and 2035 as the era of so-called broad quantum advantage. Broad quantum advantage means that quantum hardware will become reliable enough and affordable enough to solve the problems which conventional computers simply can’t tackle.
Some of those problems are: climate simulation, energy distribution, computational drug discovery, computational fluid dynamics. We just have to wait a little longer.
A personal note about quantum computing
Quantum computing fascinated me since I was a teenager. I learned about D-Wave in 2003, four years before the company successfully demonstrated the first ever functional quantum computer. Since then, I kept tabs on the technology and followed its development trajectory and R&D milestones closely.
As quantum computing technology matured in the fifteen years that passed since D-Wave’s demonstration in 2007, the narrative around it shifted from “does this thing really work?” to “how can we make money with it?” Venture capital dollars poured in, companies went public, and multiple industry juggernauts launched their own hardware. It certainly feels like the quantum computing industry is about to start a period of hockey-stick growth.
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John Preskill: Quantum Computing in the NISQ era and beyond
IonQ: Annual Report 2020, Investor Presentation Sep 2021, Q3 2021 Earnings Transcript, Q3 2021 SEC Filing
Rigetti: December 2021 Investor Update, October 2021 Investor Presentation
IBM: Annual Report 2020
Illustration by Icons 8 from Ouch!