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Should IT leaders plan for the quantum computing era?

Quantum computing is still at an early stage of development, but there are a handful of use cases where nothing else matches the horsepower it offers

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Exploring the metaverse

More than half of UK business leaders believe quantum computing is overhyped, according to new research for KPMG. The One Poll survey of 750 business decision-makers found that 55% think it is an overhyped technology.

However, the study also found that many businesses are actively researching quantum computing projects. A quarter of the business decision-makers who took part in the survey said they already have quantum computing projects in place, one-third had either an internal team or external advisers looking into how they can use the technology, and 31% of organisations said they are discussing how they will leverage the technology in the future.

Only 9% of the respondents said they are not thinking at all about how they can take advantage of quantum, KPMG reported.

Surprisingly, 55% of those who took part in the survey believe they have a great deal of knowledge about what quantum computing is, and 27% described their understanding of the technology as “reasonable”. However, KPMG found that responses varied greatly depending on the industry sector. More than three-quarters (77%) of those in the technology sector said they have a great deal of knowledge about quantum, compared with just 17% in the charity sector, 26% in the public sector, 29% in hospitality and 29% in the utilities sector.

A number of recent developments in quantum computing show how far the technology has developed. For example, Quantum Brilliance, a German-Australian manufacturer of quantum computing hardware, has begun working on a joint research project with the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Solid State Physics IAF. The collaboration aims to develop atomically precise techniques for the fabrication of quantum microprocessors.

The research will also investigate new methods for selective initialisation, read-out, and manipulation of qubits in quantum computers with multiple processor nodes. The research teams believe solving these challenges will be an important milestone on the path to the mass commercialisation of quantum computing technology.

IBM has also unveiled some new work it has done on running simulations on quantum computers. “We demonstrated a method that in many cases will allow you to run larger problems on your quantum processor than you otherwise could,” said Andrew Eddins, IBM Quantum researcher and lead author of a recent paper discussing the concept of entanglement forging.

“Entanglement forging provides an efficient method of bringing classical computational resources to bear on quantum problems in a way that, in one respect, doubles your capability,” he said. “It effectively increases your qubit number by a factor of two, which is really remarkable.”

Such techniques move the development of quantum computing a little further forward, but in a recent conversation with Computer Weekly, Universal Quantum’s chief scientist, Winfried Hensinger, said he believes the development of quantum computers is equivalent to where computers were in the 1940s. During the Second World War, for instance, the world’s first programmable computer, Colossus, was used to automate deciphering of Germany’s Enigma code at Bletchley Park.

But the first business computer, Leo (Lyons Electronic Office), was not operational until 1951. It has taken many years to reach the point where today, any software developer can access immensely sophisticated algorithms running on complex hardware, just using a relatively simple application programming interface (API).

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The technology for quantum computing is also at a stage where error correction is a limiting factor. Today, quantum computing is in the “noisy” intermediate scale quantum era (Nisq), which requires vast amounts of error correction. John Morton, co-founder of Quantum Motion and professor of nanoelectronics at UCL, said: “If you don’t use error correction, you have a shallow depth.”

This means there are fewer quantum gates. As a consequence, said Morton, the applications that can be built without error correction are “very limited”. He estimated that the ratio of logical qubits that can be used in quantum algorithms to physical qubit hardware can be as much as 1,000:1 – so as many as 1,000 physical qubits are needed for every logical qubit. 

Given that IBM’s 1,121-qubit Condor quantum processor will not debut until 2023, the company’s recent research on entanglement forging suggests one of the directions the technology could be heading.

From the conversations Computer Weekly has had with experts in the field of quantum computing, the technology is at a level where experts in quantum mechanics and people who understand the lower levels of a quantum computer architecture are needed to help programmers create algorithms that are optimised for a quantum computer. Quantum computing is still at an early stage of development and no single architecture is emerging as the best approach.

Quantum superiority is where a quantum computer can run algorithms that would be impossible to run on a classical architecture. According to Morton, some recent examples of quantum superiority are akin to the mechanical Turk of the late 18th century, which audiences were fooled into thinking could play chess autonomously. Nevertheless, quantum computing may offer scientists the computational horsepower to tackle some of the world’s most complex problems.

Ian West, head of technology, media and telecoms at KPMG UK, said: “While businesses are committing considerable time and money to their quantum projects, the data hints at their trepidation. I engage with countless organisations that are unsure of how best to take advantage of this emerging technology and question if it is even worth the investment.

“But it is important for business leaders to educate themselves on how it can be applied for specific use cases, so they can take advantage of the exciting opportunities it presents.” 

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