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14. März 2022

Quantum computing – the next (really) big thing – 1 von 4 Insights

Quantum leap – how are computers changing?

Clare Harman Clark looks at the coming revolution in computing and at some of the opportunities and risks of going quantum.

Clare Harman Clark

Clare Harman Clark

Senior Counsel

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We've come a long way since Alan Turing's classical universal computing machine in 1936, but in today's world even super is no longer cutting it. For the past few years, the brightest minds have been building quantum computers, replacing the CPU and GPU cores in our laptops and mainframes with processing units based on quantum mechanics.

The enormous leaps and strides they've made are changing everything we know about solving problems, AI, robotics, and even the likelihood of apocalypse. So as quantum makes its first forays into commercial application, we consider what it means, what our clients need to know and where we could go from here. 

Quantum tsunami

Less of a sea change and more a tsunami, quantum computing means being able to solve statistical problems that today's most powerful supercomputers will never get to grips with, even given millennia to solve them. Behind the screens, while traditional computers encode information in binary digits representing a logical state of 0 or 1, the qubit is not limited to these. They are engineered as atomic nuclei, electrons or photons, and existing in a state of so-called "superposition", qubits can take any combination of values in between 0 and 1. Crucially, they can exist in several of these quantum states at the same time. Qubits can even be paired. 'Entangled' qubits, that exist in a single quantum state and change together, exponentially increase number-crunching power.

The real-world applications seem at first glance mundane, but they are game changers. Imagine you run a logistics company and need to make a million deliveries to a million customers in specific time slots. Scheduling 'last mile' route options that factor in real time diversions will number into the billions and a supercomputer will work through each logically, one at a time, in order to recommend the best one. In contrast, a quantum computer considers the options simultaneously.

Similarly, investment banks are forging ahead flexing quantum muscle with a new generation of processors for financial services activities. These firms operate in the grey area of algorithms and models that calculate statistical probabilities and risk, and anything that helps improve the margins has major benefit.

From maximising supply chain efficiencies through to generating statistical predictions and industrial designs, to creating financial forecasting models or even developing simulations for new pharmaceuticals (as we explore here, the potential commercial opportunities are almost as boggling as the quantum science.

Quantum's carbon key

It is probably worth addressing the environmental elephant in the room. Qubits are fragile and susceptible to 'noise' (vibrations or temperature changes). They must usually be settled into vacuum chambers and supercooled fridges to operate at near absolute zero, all of which clearly has a major carbon draw. Nonetheless, once cooled, quantum computers process data information so quickly that their power draw is critically considerably lower than that by normal computers.

Another exciting opportunity is the potential for quantum technology to meaningfully underpin and support businesses’ sustainability strategies. It can even help in the fight against climate change by dramatically speeding up battery research, or creating solutions to other urgent problems such as carbon storage and modelling. In the race to net zero, with collaboration between governments, industry and research, quantum computers could well become key to our sustainable future.  

A quantum apocalypse?

While these opportunities are currently being explored by a few engaged and highly-capitalised players, the issue cannot be safely parked for everyone else. Causing the greatest consternation is the threat of a quantum apocalypse, or the breaking of encryption – an application of the technology that could be potentially devastating. We now do everything online using passwords – shopping, banking, healthcare, working - but what will happen when the widely-used online encryption methods become obsolete? In the not-so-distant future, quantum computers are likely to render most existing methods of encryption useless and in this apocalyptic scenario, the huge quantities of encrypted data harvested by thieves now will be unlocked.

The race to develop quantum-safe algorithms is therefore the major security challenge of our generation. In a quantum future, as soon as data thieves have powerful enough computers, they could have unmitigated access to our accounts, also our blockchain and cryptocurrency transactions.

At a governmental level, unsurprisingly, the arms race is well underway to ensure the highest security data is encrypted to post quantum standards. Methods such as quantum key distribution (QKD) technology offer hope, using those entangled qubits to transfer encryption keys, but exact quantum threats vary and responses are both complicated and time-consuming.  See here for more on data and cybersecurity issues.

To infinity and beyond?

It's early days. Much of the practical focus has been on achieving a state of quantum supremacy, the point at which a quantum computer can speedily perform a calculation that a classical computer cannot efficiently manage. Various companies have recently announced proof of quantum supremacy. In 2019 Google claimed to have achieved an exponential breakthrough with its 53-qubit Sycamore quantum processor when its Artificial Intelligence division revealed that Sycamore took just 200 seconds to complete a task a state-of-the-art supercomputer would spend about 10,000 years on. This claim, always caveated, was subsequently challenged. Tech behemoth IBM countered in the same year that the most powerful classic computer Summit, would only actually need two and a half days to run the task. The jury's out, but we do at least have a leap and a bound along a direction of travel. Google has certainly been busy applying Sycamore's quantum capabilities to a number of phenomenally complex analytical challenges.

Nascent it may be, but it seems that we are on the cusp of quantum computing's commercialisation and adoption. Ready with real time applications and a willingness to address the challenges of security and sustainability, most commentators expect that by the end of the decade, a wide range of industries and sciences will be benefiting from quantum, although estimates vary wildly. Big players are already driving investment to maximise the opportunities as leaders in the technology (as discussed here), but forming data protection strategies as fast followers will be key for everyone else.

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