2020 was an amazing year in Quantum Computing (QC) as we saw it enter mainstream debates, established itself with new events and conferences, and we witnessed new levels of awareness sweep the globe as people wake up to the potential of this new alien technology.
Quantum Computers kept grabbing major headlines across all media and we saw record levels of capital flowing into Quantum Information Sciences (QIS) from both the public and private sectors.
Notably a few large brands upped their game with Honeywell announcing their arrival onto the Quantum arena to take on Google, Intel, Microsoft and IBM, brands that tend to capture much of the media attention. Arguably others such as D Wave and Rigetti are making more progressive strides, and then there is China, that many believe are ahead in the Quantum race, as we await the 14th 5 year plan, that saw the 13th 5 year plan announce they intend to become the Worlds Technology Superpower, a statement of intent the world isn’t paying enough attention to.
It is worth remembering there are no Quantum Computing standards, not yet anyway. It is a new kind of technology, a new industry that is building out a new ‘technology stack’ — the underlying hardware components (machines), whether room temp or requiring a cryostat, the quantum processors and circuits that control the sub-atomic particles, the compliers and languages that aid programming, the operating systems that manage resources and the classical computers that run alongside, the applications stack will eventually appear.
Trying to compare QC with classical computers is like saying you understand Quantum Mechanics. Quantum Computing is very good at solving/processing certain things, they exists in a very narrow spectrum of computation, as per the various claims of ‘Quantum Supremacy’. A defining that is entirely misleading and reminds one of a Bond villain or Dr Evil. There are however notable broader use cases that demonstrate how fast QC is moving. These include military aircraft manufacturers using D Wave (Quantum annealing approach) that check million of lines of software code, a real world practical use that prevents fighter aircraft dropping out of the sky.
General use of Quantum Machines is not commercially available, with most machine time and access taken by academia, military, energy and utilities and more recently banking & finance and climate and biotech projects. Those who want to learn how to exploit the potential of a Quantum Machine where the core processing is a gazillion times more powerful. Each team trying to come to terms with how to program it, use it and what they can expect from it, given powerful classical computers are required to co-exist alongside.
Here are some thoughts on what we can expect from Quantum Computing in 2021, not in any specific order. It is also worth mentioning it is likely there will be greater advancements in other parts of QIS, within each field (communications & sensing, photonics & nano materials) each exploiting the principles, behaviours and potential of a ‘new world order’ of waves, fields and energy.
Number One — escalation of the Quantum Arms Race
The ‘Quantum Arms Race’ is accelerating as we witness new levels of investment in Quantum Computing and Quantum Information Science not seen before. Billions of new capital is flowing into Quantum Information Sciences, as governments all too aware of the Quantum Threat, now compete with Investors and VCs where many are waking up to the potential the quantum realms can deliver extraordinary breakthroughs, returns and move civilisation to the next phase.
Dare I mention Quantum Computing will also deliver national security and economic advantages over other countries, a new QC wave that some see as the new ‘gold rush’ as once tamed it will become the gift that keeps on giving. The new Quantum industry has moved from a competition of academic prowess, a show of national pride and competition towards weaponisation as we remember 1946, demonstrated by a series of big announcements from China starting with Micius the first Quantum Key enabled Quantum Satelite in 2016, and last months announcement from Xi Jinping’s government they are building a $10 billion National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences, on top of the billions already invested to date will further fuel the race towards achieving ‘espionage supremacy’ as they end the year with the announcement China achieved a new levels of Quantum Supremacy that saw the academic community endorse their breakthrough.
In the same announcement researchers claim their new prototype is able to process 10 billion times faster than Google’s prototype Sycamore, which has further intensified the race to get ahead in QC as a matter of national security priority, national advantage and opportunities to exploit weaknesses in others for espionage.
Number Two — more QC deployment
More and more Quantum Computing manufacturers will deploy hardware, drop Quantum Machines into the commercial and academic domains. Many existing machines are confined to the US (and China) with few exceptions offer the options to buy machine time and encourage teams to develop on their hardware. IBM amongst others have deployed hardware as part of their broad quantum strategy to sandbag potential clients and ring fence access to qualified people. Placing a Quantum Computer in the campus of a well known academic institution is indeed a great strategy.
IBM have deployed machines into Japan, Germany and are considering the UK along with Rigetti and others. The UK is especially attractive given the large number of Universities that can boast accomplished physics departments where some have already spun out new Quantum projects, and the UK government have one of the world’s most advance Quantum funding pools and support structures. PSI a spin out from Bristol University has attracted some $2billion investment, although now based in silicon valley is working on scaling qubits.
It is likely in 2021 we will see some consolidation of smaller Quantum companies absorbed into larger ones, which many see as a backward step, as large companies can rarely unleash the true potential of R&D.
Number Three — rewriting corporate and government strategies
The worlds boardroom’s is generally ignorant of what is to come, unaware of the limitations of classical computing and vulnerabilities of their infrastructure. Nevertheless the potential of Quantum Computing is recognised by key industry leaders, newly informed it can open new opportunities for wealth creation and top line growth. While focusing on the upside, we can expect significant movement in new budgets to fund new Quantum research programs to find new drugs, materials and solve hard problems for profit and not necessarily for the benefit of humanity.
The arrival of Quantum Ai is considered the 4th Wealth Creation Revolution that followed Steam, Electricity, Transistorisation. It has the the potential to unlock the answers to life itself and move our civilisation to the next phase, solving longevity, understanding deceases, feeding 10 billion, reversing climate change, each move holding the keys to new wealth on a scale not seen before.
New budgets are deployed to look for opportunities to exploit QIS to make new products, improve and redesign the old and combine with others. The attention for profit and not for ‘defending against the dark arts’. With some industry commentators quoting 3 to 5 years, others say10 years before QC are a real Quantum Threat, we are already seeing a realisation Quantum (Post Quantum Cryptography) is also the answer to protect corporate assets and value. It will dawn on many executives it is only the inability of the current generation of computers to factorise large numbers, (finding the key integers takes millions of years to process) that protects their businesses. The sudden shock nothing more than simple mathematics stands between criminals, thieves and terrorists and our data, information and democracy.
Number Four — the recognition the Quantum Threat is real
The corporate world of classical computers, technology service providers and consultants that peddle incremental improvements in performance has held back commerce for decades. Classical computers and software offer little or no improvements in productivity, output and quality and yet the prices keeps going up, and corporations keep falling for the same arguments.
The standard approach to personal and enterprise security is a facade, a paper thin attempt to protect data and information dressed up as a complex array of interlinked procedures and processes that have always been inadequate. This failure was vividly demonstrated by Sandworm — the famous Russian hackers that inflicted damage of US assets using simple Zero Day and Dark Energy attacks on national infrastructure by exploiting the numerous back doors and vulnerabilities in Microsoft and other corporate software systems. All the more worrying as these attacks were not yet Ai or Quantum enabled.
2021 will see a big push towards the use of Post Quantum Encryption as the NIST body announces new standards later this year, for the use of post quantum encryption, software and systems that have the potential to defend from what is to come based on different encryption many predict cannot be cracked by a QC. Yes I know what you’re thinking.
Whilst this entirely new technology is not yet stable, Quantum has already shown its potential to crack the most commonly used encryption models (RSA and Ellipitic curve) . It is not if, but when.
Gartner has placed Post Quantum Cryptography (PQC) as a top right hand quartile of market opportunity and need, as government and enterprise customers look to defend their businesses, as the Covid effect has placed most staff outside the enterprise where someones identity (physical person or device) has to be known.
Number Five — it is a hardware race
The media announcements tend to focus on Quantum Computing, specifically the hardware. The harnessing and control of the sub-atomic particles, (electrons and photons) are used to give Quantum Computing its parallel processing multi-state, all-at-once computational grunt. The circuits and quantum gates, the materials (graphene, silicon) used for processors, the number of qubits and in the future qutrits and ququads that deliver the massively parallel processing that encompass ‘all states at once’ computing that unlocks the real potential of this technology.
Breakthroughs are coming every month and these will accelerate in 2021, where teams will find new ways to produce particles, encourage them to keep their coherence (state of entanglement) and deliver much needed error correction options as these sub-atomic particles are notoriously difficult to predict/control, and of course any form of observation and interference (noise) plays havoc with how they perform.
I expect 2021 will be defined by stability/coherence and new sources of particles that can support error correction. In many ways this is the front line of Quantum Research and will also help shape and define who wins, what is to come and the QC infrastructure we will all end up using. The number one reason why investment capital is placing bets on teams working on hardware (quantum chips and logic) seen as the search for the goose that can lay the egg.
Number Six — massive demand in skills (Classical Physics and Quantum Mechanics)
Every industry is founded on capital, innovation and an available labour force. The demand for Quantum Computing skills is already outstripping supply with 1 qualified Phd applicant for every 5 vacant roles. With any new technology as it emerges, its adoption and speed of growth comes down to how quickly the support structures can be organised to deliver the availability of skills and knowledge in specific areas. The wide spectrum of Quantum Information Sciences of which computation (computers) is one aspect, is already consuming academics and Phd students at an alarming rate that will accelerate during 2021.
The fight for human resources is on, and the rate of new spin outs from University and research is adding to the resource shortages. There are literally thousands of Quantum jobs that remain unfilled and for any student looking for a solid career path, Quantum Information Science includes Compute, Photonics/Light, Communications, Materials Science amongst others is likely to keep you employed for decades to come. And we haven’t really ventured into programming QCs in terms of building user applications, will open up an entirely new software industry replacing what we have today.
Number Seven — Quantum AI horizons
There are a series of algorithms that change the definition of Quantum Advantage. One example is Short Algorithm that helps QC crack current levels of encryption, it is one of many emerging and new algorithms that can exploit the computational potential of a QC.
When Quantum meets Ai humanity can reach for the stars, although Hawking mentioned “AI could be humanities last invention” is supported by Elon Musk who predict dark days ahead. In so many ways Artificial Intelligence exists to follow the objective set and defined by the programmer, the creator (normally within operational boundaries). The issue becomes when the Ai sets its own objectives and writes code humanity cannot understand, that Google recently admitted.
2021 we will see new opportunities and also risks as the ‘threat assessment’ levels of this combination could be deadly. Ai having access to sub atomic particle driven computing reminds me of the breach of the ‘Hippocratic oath’ in 1946 at Los Alamos when Oppenheimer became the destroyer of worlds. The nuclear age of splitting uranium and plutonium cannot be put back in the box.
Author: Copyright © Nick Ayton 2020