“Quantum computing has been hovering on the horizon for decades. But the discipline is poised to celebrate an important milestone: the achievement of “quantum supremacy”.”
Quantum computing has been hovering on the horizon for decades. But the discipline is poised to celebrate an important milestone: the achievement of “quantum supremacy”, that is a case where a quantum computer will be able to perform a certain task that no classical (traditional transistor-based digital) computer can solve in a practical amount of time or using a practical amount of resources.
A quantum computer consists of and is measured by its volume of quantum bits, or qubits, which are the equivalent of a transistor in a classical computer. Today’s quantum computers contain only physical qubits. It takes an estimated 1,000 physical qubits to make a single logical qubit - that is, a qubit that is fault-tolerant and error-corrected - and this goal is currently still far out of reach. A universal or general quantum computer (which is what is needed to be able to solve a much larger and wider set of problems), in turn, requires hundreds of logical qubits, and therefore hundreds of thousands of physical qubits.
As of 2018, quantum computers containing both 20 physical qubits and 19 physical qubits exist whose performance specifications are known and published. Public announcements of devices with 50, 72, and even 128 physical qubits have also been made, but none of these have yet published their specs, so their level of control and error are not known.
It is believed that quantum supremacy will be achieved with a machine that has 60 or more physical qubits, but progress is slow, since it gets increasingly harder to add physical qubits as their number increases. Nonetheless, by 2020, a quantum computer of more than 60 physical qubits will almost certainly have been developed and its specs published, and it is likely that the first proof of quantum supremacy achieved.
When quantum supremacy is achieved, little will change in the near term. It is a conceptual turning point, but quantum computers will remain difficult to build, awkward to house, and challenging to program, and certainly not ready for the commercial market any time soon. But progress in the domain will continue and quantum computing holds a great deal of scientific and economic promise.
The first commercial general-purpose quantum computers are likely to appear in over a decade’s time - in the 2030s. The 2020s will likely be a time of progress in quantum computing, but it is not likely to be until the 2030s that the larger market is able to develop.
In the 2020s quantum computing will generate revenue, but it will be on a lower scale. The Noisy Intermediate Scale Quantum (NISQ) computing market - using what could be considered early-stage quantum computers - will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
At the same time, the quantum-safe security industry is also likely to earn hundreds of millions each year.
Few CIOs are likely to be submitting budgets for quantum computing in the next two years. But that does not mean that leaders should ignore this field. Quantum computing is advancing rapidly, and its impact is likely to be large. So business and technology strategists should monitor progress on the evolution and potential implications of quantum computing starting now.
It’s not just quantum computing itself that is important, but also the innovations that quantum computing is prompting in traditional computing. The prospect of quantum computers is galvanizing the classical computing industry, with many advances occurring in the use of classical computers to simulate quantum techniques.
Indeed, quantum computers will be one of the largest “new” technology revenue opportunities to emerge over the next decade. In fields where quantum supremacy has been achieved, whole industries will be transformed.
1. For 2018, the market for consumer smartphones is worth US$500 billion; it is US$200 billion for PCs, US$100 billion for tablets and other mobile consumer devices, US$150 for data centers, and US$32 for supercomputers.