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Gartner breaks down the state of quantum computing technology

Gartner believes CIOs should prepare for quantum computing. When is it coming, what impact will it have and what do CIOs need to know? Gartner's David Cearley breaks it down.

Gartner's annual top 10 technology trends for 2019 included an item that may come as a bit of a surprise to some...

IT leaders -- quantum computing.

David Cearley, distinguished vice president and analyst at Gartner, and explainer-in-chief of the top 10 technologies admitted the selection was a source of controversy internally at the research firm. The reason? Quantum computing technology is arguably still in its emerging state. Gartner doesn't believe that it will be mature and mainstream for another four, five or even six years, but significant advances have been observed in just the last 18 months, warranting its inclusion, Cearley said.

Garner predicts that by 2023, 20% of organizations will be budgeting for quantum computing technology compared to less than 1% today -- so this is something CIOs should start looking at and monitoring, Cearley said.

With such a big enterprise impact expected, it's time for CIOs to understand more about this disruptive technology that they'll supposedly be budgeting for in the near future. What is quantum computing, exactly? What are the potential impacts and how should CIOs and IT leaders be preparing for them? During his session, David Cearley broke down Gartner's definition of quantum computing, its maturation timeline and what CIOs need to know.

What is quantum computing?

Gartner's David CearleyDavid Cearley

David Cearley: It's a type of nonclassical computing that's based on a quantum state of subatomic particles. The state of the particles represents information, expressed in single elements known as qubits. A bit is either on or off, but a qubit can be on and off at the same time. It kind of blows your mind, right? That's what is called superposition. You can entangle these qubits together so that they can communicate with one another.

So what does this really mean? Here's a way to think about it: [Think of a] bookshelf. With classic computers, if I had this bookshelf with all of the books in the world and I want to read it I could read it really fast in a line. Quantum computers are inherently and exponentially scalable and parallel, so it's like reading all the books at the same time. That's where some of the key power in quantum computing is coming from.

What are some key concerns around quantum computing technology?

Cearley: One of the key concerns is that, long term, you have post-quantum cryptography. Quantum computing, if it all plays out the way the vendors are promising and the way we think it's going to go, at some point in the distant future is going to break all of our cryptography capabilities. And so you've got to think about it there.

So [with] quantum computing, you want to start understanding it, to make it part of your data science and computational science areas. If you're working with supercomputers and things like that, this is going to be something you want to be thinking about -- but don't buy into all of the hype around it because there's this little bitty problem called decoherence and error rates. Qubits, if they're exposed to the environment, tend to decohere, so they lose that entanglement property. So today, you may have to have millions of qubits to simulate a single logical qubit because of the error correction that's going on. We think between 300 and 500 logical qubits will be where you can get some significant, meaningful work done. This is part of what it's going to take to ramp up.

Vendors are working on dealing with these error rate issues. Transient quantum supremacy, where we can do things that you can't simulate on even existing supercomputers, we think will be coming over the next couple of years. Then you need to start thinking about post-quantum cryptography mechanisms and crypto agility. Crypto agility means building your cryptographic models with flexibility in mind so that if certain cryptographic schemes are broken you can unplug that and plug something new into it.

What are some of the quantum computing use cases out there?

Cearley listed some of the key applications for quantum computing technology, in order of complexity.

  • Optimization problems. J. P. Morgan and others are working on using quantum computing to refine and uncover financial risk types of models.
  • Material science. Hitachi Metals is looking at using quantum computing to come up with new types of metals. Honda is working on material science for advanced electric vehicle batteries with quantum computing technology.
  • New chemistry. Companies going down this path, as well as the material science path, can potentially patent some of their quantum computing applications and reap enormous potential profits.
  • Personalized medicine
  • Biomimetics

What's the time frame for the maturation of quantum computing technology?

Cearley: Start thinking about post-quantum cryptography early on. We think the area where meaningful work will really get done is in this 2023 to 2028 time frame, and that's where we see it appearing in financial services and some of the other areas.

If some of the vendors working on this can deliver on some of their promises, we could see that come in a year or two or three years earlier. We're taking a fairly conservative view right here, but we have seen significant advances over the last 18 months, which is why on our hype cycle we moved it from a 10-plus years to reach the plateau of productivity to five to 10 years. We think that's the target to look at. Because of its disruptive potential in key areas, you need to start taking a look at it.

Should IT leaders go out and buy a quantum computer?

Cearley: These are not general purpose computers -- these are specialized computers that operate on particular types of problems. Nobody in this audience [should] go out and buy a quantum computer tomorrow. If you want to experiment, quantum as a service by IBM and a few others is going to be a better way to go. We expect to see more of those things coming out so that you can do some of the early experimentation that we're focusing on. Folks like Exxon and other companies are beginning to explore [quantum computing technology]. I'm not so sure you'll ever buy your own quantum computer. The quantum-as-a-service model, I think, is going to dominate for the foreseeable future.

[To] finish building [quantum computing's capabilities] out, it is the far future where all historical RSA encryption can potentially be cracked. Don't believe some of the hype around this that's in the trade press saying 'Oh, the sky is going to fall and all my cryptography goes out the window next year.'

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