Quantum is not a digital technology. By taking us beyond the power of binary 1 and 0, it will have a dramatic effect on business value chains and the structure of economic activity
Over the last year, exciting practical progress has shown that achieving the benefits of quantum computing, quantum communications and quantum sensing is now only a matter of time and engineering. In response, commercial and nation state interest has surged. Hype in the popular press has started to build.
However, we already live in an age of great change. The conventional information technology community has become organised and even blasé about the path that each new wonder technology is expected to take. Gartner’s Hype Cycle places emerging technologies on a curve of progress from initial innovation, through a peak of inflated expectations, a trough of disillusionment and eventually up a slope of enlightenment into productivity.
Quantum has certainly started its hype journey, but it doesn’t belong on a long list of digital technologies. Indeed, the key source of its disruptive power is that it moves us beyond the computational limits of binary 1 and 0.
Many popular commentators have tackled explaining the ‘weirdness’ of this new technology. But fewer have convincingly addressed the cause behind the excitement. What are the applications? The full journey will be a matter of decades, not years, but few have really grasped how disruptive this technology will be to existing business value chains and the structure of economic activity.
Three great pillars of the modern world will be overturned.
Quantum mechanics describes all of nature (gravity excepted) in precise detail. Yet chemistry has remained a distinct discipline to physics. In conventional chemistry and biochemistry we are forced to make use of approximation and experimental determination, rather than direct calculation from theory. This is not because the laws of physics somehow don’t apply, but because the calculations are mathematically intractable using conventional digital computers. Simulating the physics of quantum systems was indeed the problem that Richard Feynman initially conceived of quantum computers to solve, and solve it they will. IBM’s quantum simulation of beryllium hydride is already a powerful proof of concept demonstration.
This matters enormously. As an underlying discipline, chemistry is immensely important to many areas of modern life: agriculture, process industries, advanced materials and not least modern pharmaceuticals. The limited nature of our current ability to calculate slows progress, forces high costs in monitoring, and requires extensive physical trials to validate outcomes. Pharmaceutical companies now typically spend $1b for each new drug that reaches the market. In these areas, a small improvement can mean big money.
Better chemistry is to be welcomed, but there is a catch. The maths of the new chemistry is powerful, but it is also hard. Most current practitioners weren’t taught the required quantum theory or the underlying mathematics. Many established organisations will find that existing expert teams require reskilling and this will inevitably lead to scepticism and resistance to change. This disruption to staff skills and the R&D value chain will create opportunities for early movers and new entrants.
The Digital Economy
The most discussed short term quantum impact is its threat to current public key cryptography standards. Fortunately there are solutions to that issue, both from conventional post quantum cryptography and also from quantum cryptography, provided that companies move in good time ahead of their own security horizons. However the impact will ultimately go far beyond cryptography.
Perhaps the defining feature of the digital economy as we know it has been that all its goods and services can be copied and distributed widely at little marginal cost.
Qubits upgrade the computational capabilities of bits, but they do not share other digital properties: they can be transferred but they cannot be exactly copied without destroying the original. This is not a short term limitation, it’s a fundamental aspect of quantum mechanics.
This completely overturns the foundations of many common digital world concepts and concerns: database management, intellectual property rights distribution, internet search. What new ecosystems will emerge to service a resource that is physically consumed by its usage?
Advanced forms of quantum communications are ultimately likely to have a much wider impact than simple encryption. The future Quantum Internet is likely to be quite a different place from the Internet we know.
The Invisible Hand
In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith used the ‘invisible hand’ as a metaphor to explain the role of individual decisions by innumerable market participants in optimising the overall economic outcome. When we assert the superiority of this free market approach one assumption we are implicitly making is that a direct optimisation of the system is not practically computable, as indeed it is not via conventional digital means. However this is just the sort of optimisation problem at which quantum computers will excel. Indeed early movers such as D-Wave Systems focus on optimisation challenges from logistics to financial portfolios.
It’s a fair objection that optimisation of this kind requires not just calculation, but also the input of very extensive data. This is a challenge, but it is one where the Internet of Things promises to provide the ubiquitous nodes, and quantum sensing technologies promise to provide almost unimaginable sensitivity of input.
This is genuinely big data. It will almost certainly require machine learning techniques and artificial intelligence to optimally interpret and supervise. Quantum deep learning, currently in its infancy, may be the tool that unlocks this potential.
Quantum technology moves us beyond the binary capabilities of 1 and 0. As an enabling technology it will transform our ability to understand and so manipulate the world. That is why it is one of the key drivers, together with artificial intelligence, robotics and the Internet of things, of what is being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
We must now extend the scope of Niels Bohr’s most famous quote – anyone who is not shocked by the implications of the quantum technology has not understood it.