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National efforts to advance quantum computing are moving the technology one step closer to real-world applications. Meanwhile, academia and private sector advances are already bringing quantum capabilities into the commercial sphere, opening discussions on what quantum could mean for enterprise objectives.
"The impact will be substantial and truly disruptive," said R. Paul Stimers, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Quantum Industry Coalition and partner at law firm K&L Gates in Washington, D.C.
Now, the race is on to build quantum capabilities, with entities most notably in the United States and China trying to create national dominance in this emerging technology due to its strategic importance and commercial potential. In fact, the White House published its report, "A Strategic Vision for America's Quantum Networks," in February 2020, which highlights specific areas to pursue in the nation's quest to build its capabilities in the quantum field.
The report comes just about a year after the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy launched the National Quantum Coordination Office, which itself followed the December 2018 National Quantum Initiative Act that authorized up to $1.275 billion in funding over a span of five years.
Leaders in this market said such activities on the federal level are important to coordinate the growing level of research and experimentation in quantum information science and to also help propel quantum from theoretical into practical.
What is quantum information science?
Quantum information science is a new discipline of science and technology marshalling the application of quantum physics to computing. Its objective is to build new computers and communication devices based on quantum properties and promises to open new, significant opportunities across multiple fields, as well as bring disruption in numerous industries.
For example, quantum information science -- also referred to as QIS -- has the potential to enable extremely secure encrypted communication.
As for quantum computing, it uses qubits, which can exist at intermediate values instead of using bits with the value of 1 or 0, as used in classical computers. In theory, this difference would enable quantum computers to be exponentially more powerful at solving certain problems in real time, such as factoring very large numbers.
Today, researchers are still trying to imagine the range of possibilities that quantum information science will enable. "Just as was the case in the early days of past developments such as the laser and microelectronics, though, we should keep in mind that while we have clear ideas of some of the benefits that quantum computing, and quantum information science more generally, will bring, it is almost certain there are many applications that are as yet unknown, but which will significantly affect our lives," a U.S. Department of Energy official said in a prepared statement for this story.
Although quantum is still in its infancy, experts said they expect it to have dramatic impacts in multiple areas from drug discovery -- where, for example, it could be used for molecular modeling -- to nanotechnology and space exploration.
Experts said they also expect it to be highly disruptive in cybersecurity, where it can be useful in creating new quantum encryption methods but also where quantum computing could be used to break through current encryption technologies and make some of the existing cybersecurity defenses obsolete.
"It's going to have its biggest impact when you have a complex system consisting of a lot of different parts that mutually with each other. These are the kinds of problems that classical computers really have to struggle to solve," added Denise Caldwell, director of the Division of Physics at the National Science Foundation.
Multiple federal organizations, including the Energy Department, the National Science Foundation and the military, are investing in quantum information science research.
Colleges and universities are likewise exploring the quantum market. The University of Washington, for example, has significant research efforts toward engineering better materials for quantum computing, said Kai-Mei Fu, an associate professor in electrical and computer engineering and physics. And it's engaged in research activities in fundamental and applied quantum information science research, as well as in training students in the discipline.
The tech industry, of course, is also exploring quantum. In October 2019, Google researchers announced that they created the first quantum computer that could perform a calculation impossible for a classical computer to perform, demonstrating something known as quantum supremacy.
But experts cautioned that it will be a long time before quantum computing moves from experimental to more practical use. "Quantum computing is known to be able to solve some classes of problems that are currently intractable on classical computers. However, quantum computing systems that are large enough to outperform our very advanced classical computing systems to solve a known practical problem is still a challenge," Fu said.
There are, however, some real-world applications, with companies already offering commercial products leveraging quantum-based technologies. "While it's still early in the lifespan of quantum computing, it's already showing promising applications with practical business value," Alan Baratz, CEO of D-Wave Systems, said in an emailed response to questions.
Implications for CIOs
Although quantum computing is far outside the reach of most CIOs and nearly all organizations today, that won't always be the case. Based on today's knowledge, the most probable scenario for the future will have CIOs purchasing quantum computing capabilities as a service for the niche use cases where this technology can solve problems that classical computing cannot.
"Quantum is going to be part of the cloud toolkit along with conventional and classical computing and a variety of other tools, and the mix of computing [being delivered] will be invisible to the user," Stimers said.
He said he envisions a future where users -- whether they're corporate workers or academic researchers or others -- take their tasks to a service provider, which then uses classical or quantum compute technology to solve the problem.
"So, if you're a CIO, do you need your own quantum computer? Probably not. But you might have questions that would best be answered by a quantum computer. That's the way I think about how customers are likely to engage with quantum. It will be part of a service," Stimers said. "They're not really paying attention to the type of service. They just want their problem solved."