Last week I attended the Quantum to Business (Q2B) conference, an annual event that brings together thought-leaders and stakeholders in the Quantum Computing community.
As a newcomer to Quantum Computing I felt – in the words of a fellow participant – like I was “drinking from three firehoses.” Needless to say, when the smoke cleared from three days of research presentations, product demos, and some incredible chocolate chip cookies, here are my impressions of the current state of the industry.
1. We’ve entered a new era in Quantum Computing. But a lot of tough engineering challenges remain.
With Google’s recent announcement of having achieved “Quantum Supremacy,” there’s a new sense that robust, commercially deployable quantum computers are just around the corner. Not so, seems to be the consensus. A good metaphor for Google’s demonstration is the Wright Brothers’ first flight, which lasted all of 12 seconds. An amazing proof of concept for a new technology, but one with very little practical value.
Qubits – or the induced properties of subatomic particles that sit at the core of quantum computers – are notoriously hard to control. The systems that we’ve built so far are “noisy” – i.e. undisciplined, and spit off lots of inaccurate data. There is a lot of work to be done in reducing errors, or improving the “fault tolerance” of these systems.
In fact, the industry hasn’t even converged on how to build a quantum processor. Some teams are moving forward with qubits that need to be supercooled. Others think the trick is using elements that are stable at room temperature. Whereas Google and IBM’s quantum hardware is built using superconducting qubits, Microsoft is taking a different approach, and developing topological ones.
“NISQ,” or “Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum,” is the industry shorthand for the era of quantum computing that we’re currently in. While recent advancements have shifted Quantum Computers from theory to reality, until we overcome the (big) engineering challenges that remain, truly useful Quantum Computers are still a ways off. How far off? Some folks say 5-10 years. The joke is that’s what folks have been saying for the last 5-10 years.
2. Today’s Quantum Computers can in fact perform some operations. However, they’re limited in scope.
While we’re still a ways off from reliable quantum computers, there are indeed some things that NISQ Computers are capable of today. The sweet spot is applications that classical computers struggle with, but where getting a wrong answer is – relatively speaking – not a big deal. Such as providing product recommendations (a la Netflix).
One company, D-Wave, has carved out a niche in this space, creating its own version of a Quantum Computer using a more stable process called “Quantum Annealing.” D-Wave has been selling these machines for nearly a decade, with real customers using them on real problems. For example, VW recently announced a partnership with D-Wave, where they will use their machines to optimize traffic flow in Beijing.
Quantum Computers do their work by executing “quantum algorithms.” Some folks at Q2B were adamant that the industry’s focus should be on finding new applications (“use-cases”) for these algorithms. Others felt the emphasis should be on discovering new algorithms, custom-suited for the “noisy” machines that we have. QC Ware, which hosted the conference, is one of several algorithm-developers in this space.
3. Without a revenue-ready product, everyone’s investment pitch is very creative.
As an entrepreneur, the holy grail for a new startup is product-market fit. What’s striking about the QC space is that, for the most part, the product is still under development, and the market demand is still theoretical. It seems obvious that if someone were to build a functional quantum computer, demand would quickly follow. But with engineering timelines unknown, and few profitable applications of the tech as it stands today, everyone is doing their own unique dance for investment and growth.
Investment in Quantum Computing seems to be driven by two factors: perceived potential opportunity. And fear of missing out (FOMO). Specifically:
Government: A robust quantum computer could enable better traffic flows at ports. Or crack, by brute-force, the highest encryption standards we use today. China recently announced a $10B investment in a national laboratory for Quantum Information Science. The US recently announced the Quantum Computing Act, backed by $1.2 Billion federal grant.
Startups: Given the murky product roadmap, a company building a full-stack solution (a la Rigetti) requires investors with patience, a trait investors are not exactly known for. Startups that build just one part of the stack (e.g. software to better control quantum processors) have a more ready market, however a good portion of this market is government and academia – not the typical customer mix you would expect for a venture-backed tech startup.
Enterprises: Large tech players such as Google, IBM and Microsoft have a natural advantage in developing quantum hardware, as with cash reserves they can afford to be patient. Each is vying to be the trusted partner of industry, and build the “sticky” ecosystem that draws in startups and enterprises. Industry is eager to partner with these companies to develop applications for quantum hardware, though seem unlikely to build any hardware themselves. Honeywell stands out as a “traditional” hardware company that’s gone all-in, taking the wraps off a homegrown Quantum Computing program that’s several years in the making.
Consulting Firms: Consultancies seem to have the most ready source of revenue in Quantum. Accenture, Booz Allen, BCG and McKinsey have each built Quantum Computing practices, positioning themselves as the de-facto translator and integrator of quantum computing technologies for the companies they serve. Consultancies already sell “readiness” audits, similar to what we’ve seen in the AI and Digital Transformation spaces.
4. A lot of thought is being paid to building out the larger Quantum Computing ecosystem.
While advances in Quantum Computing hardware are important, if the industry is to be successful, a lot of other pieces need to fall into place. These include: quantum algorithm engineers; hardware suppliers; integrators; sales people who understand the technology and new programming languages that enable end-users to manipulate a quantum processor for the outcomes they seek.
I was impressed by how intentionally these pieces are being put in place. The larger tech companies stand out in their efforts. Google, IBM and Microsoft have all introduced their own programming languages (Cirq; Qiskit, and Q#, respectively), making it easier for developers to write code for quantum hardware. They have also led efforts to build community among key stakeholders, such as startups who are building a given slice of the quantum stack, customers who are interested in developing use-cases, and university researchers looking to conduct new experiments. Microsoft does so through its Quantum Network; IBM through its Q Network, which boasts over 80,000 users.
I even had a chance to play a Minecraft inspired Quantum Computing game, developed to help students and professionals better understand how Quantum Computing works. Part of a larger gaming effort to get folks interested in this space, and encourage a new generation of students to take up degrees quantum computing.
5. Quantum Computing is diversity-challenged.
We know that technology has a diversity problem. The field of Quantum Computing seems to be no exception. I was struck by the fact that about 90% of the speakers were male. So were most of my fellow conference-goers. The “Global South” was missing as well. The scene seemed to be made up of the usual suspects in tech: the US, Europe, and a few “tech forward” countries in Asia.
I was heartened to see some positive moves to address this imbalance at Q2B. Such as male speakers referring to scientists as “she” when presenting. And inviting a female to moderate the conference’s closing panel. As a first-generation American I inquired about – and was extended – a 50% discount on the ticketed price. A generous gesture from Q2B’s organizing team.
I don’t have an answer to this challenge, I was just struck by it over my time there. One step could be to publicize scholarships for underrepresented communities, a path taken by the organizers of MIT’s upcoming EmTech AI conference. Beyond this, of course, we need to address the root causes of this disparity. Work advanced through organizations that support women in STEM.
New technologies represent some of the best economic ladders our society has to offer, for both underrepresented communities, and underrepresented economies. If the future is to be Quantum, my hope is it will also be more reflective of the societies it will impact.
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Q2B impressed me with how smoothly it ran, and how many different important players in the eco-system showed up to trade notes in a relaxed, friendly setting. I would go again.
If you’re interested to learn more about what transpired at the conference, or dig into some of the slides presented (especially with more technical content), I recommend checking out posts under the Twitter hashtag #Q2B19. And if you want to continue the conversation, come join us on Reddit over at r/quantumcomputing.
// As published on LinkedIn.