6 experts share quantum computing predictions for 2021


More companies will look for specific use cases that can be leveraged sometime in the next decade, as computers improve and the number of qubits available continues to grow.

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Widespread use of quantum computing is still a ways away, but 2020 saw a number of milestones from numerous quantum industry leaders, including IBM, Amazon, and Google. 

Multiple companies and institutions have made claims of quantum advantage or quantum supremacy, the points at which a quantum computer can compute hundreds or thousands of times faster than a classical computer or are powerful enough to complete calculations that classical supercomputers can’t perform at all.

But multiple experts said 2021 will see more companies look for specific use cases that can be leveraged sometime in the next decade, as quantum computers improve and the number of qubits available continues to grow. 

Bob Sutor, vice president of IBM Quantum Strategy and Ecosystem, said the company made a 65-qubit quantum computing system available on the cloud in September and released its quantum hardware roadmap, calling for a 127-qubit system in 2021, a 433-qubit system in 2022, and a 1,121-qubit system in 2023. 

SEE: Quantum computing: An insider’s guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic Premium)

Six experts spoke to TechRepublic about what they’re looking forward to in 2021 when it comes to potential advancement in quantum computing technology.

Tony Uttley, president of Honeywell Quantum Solutions 

Uttley said Honeywell has developed one of the world’s accurate quantum computers and is now working to build up its power. The company also released its first commercially available computer in June and it is already being used by enterprises like Merck, DHL, BP, and Accenture.

“Next year is going to be when we start seeing what algorithms are going to show the most promise in this near term era. We have enough qubits, we have really high fidelities, and some capabilities to allow brilliant people to have a set of tools that they just haven’t had access to,” Uttley said. 

“Next year what we will see is the advancement into some areas that really start to show promise. Now you can double down instead of doing a scattershot approach. You can say, ‘This is showing really high energy, let’s put more resources and computational time against it.’ Widespread use, where it’s more integrated into the typical business process, that is probably a decade away. But it won’t be that long before we find applications for which we’re using quantum computers in the real world. That is in more the 18-24 month range.”

Uttley noted that the companies already using Honeywell’s quantum computer are increasingly interested in spending more and more time with it. Companies working with chemicals and the material sciences have shown the most interest he said, adding that there are also healthcare applications that would show promise.  

“Take doing screenings of images from an MRI and you’re trying to screen for cancers. For things that have been seen lots of times before, that’s something that a classical computer can do well in terms of machine learning. But if you’re trying to screen for a very rare kind of cancer, and you’re trying to get the machine to learn what it could look like, that’s where you could potentially leverage a quantum computer to have this generative modeling capability,” Uttley said. 

“I think as an objective, what we are going to see coming out of next year is that path to value creation.”

Bob Sutor, vice president of IBM Quantum Strategy and Ecosystem

IBM has been one of the leaders in the quantum computing sphere, becoming the first company to put a quantum computer on the cloud in 2016. The IBM Quantum Computation Center is now the largest fleet of quantum computing systems, with 29 quantum computing systems deployed over the last four years with eight cloud-accessible systems boasting a Quantum Volume of 32 and a premium 27-qubit system with a Quantum Volume of 64. 

More than 130 Fortune 500 companies, academic institutions, startups, and national research labs are working with IBM to advance quantum computing through the IBM Q Network. Over 260,000 registered users are involved in the IBM Quantum Experience and it routinely executes more than 1 billion hardware circuits per day on real hardware and simulators using Qiskit.

Sutor predicts that quantum computing performance and scale will increase rapidly and in some cases will double year to year, while corporate application and solution architects will begin planning in earnest for how quantum computing will become part of their IT use case workflows. He also said he expects more colleges and universities to offer quantum computing courses. 

“Even as we get closer to systems that could deliver a quantum advantage, or even further out, if we develop fault-tolerant systems, quantum computers will be good for solving specific kinds of problems: Exponential problems like those found in chemistry and finance. Organizations and institutions need to assess the kinds of problems they’re facing now and will face in the future,” Sutor said. 

“Many industries are currently working with quantum computing, including banking, capital markets, insurance, automotive, aerospace, and energy. In years to come, the breadth and depth of the industries leveraging quantum will continue to grow. For example, I believe more industries that depend on advances in materials science will start to investigate quantum computing. To that point, I think that there will be greater interest within the agriculture industry because of applications of quantum computing to the chemistry of producing fertilizer.”

Sutor said that by next year, IBM’s new 127-qubit will introduce concurrent real-time classical compute capabilities that will allow for the execution of a broader family of quantum circuits and codes.

The Qiskit open-source quantum computing software development kit, he added, is evolving rapidly and provides coding libraries for everyone from low-level quantum researchers, to Python software developers, to quantum early application and use case coders. 

“This year, a number of IBM Q Network organizations collaborated with us to make significant progress in quantum research for industry, including work with Mitsubishi Chemical on applying quantum computing to help develop lithium-oxygen batteries with greater energy density. ExxonMobil to harness quantum computing to develop more accurate chemistry simulation techniques in energy technologies. And Daimler to explore how quantum computing can advance the next generation of EV batteries,” Sutor said, predicting that in 2021 over 20,000 will complete online quantum computing technology and coding courses. 

“Companies will begin to tap into this pool of quantum-savvy potential employees. Software simulation of quantum computers will continue to remain important, but eventually, more and more people will use actual quantum hardware. There will be far greater understanding that ‘quantum-inspired’ computing is not quantum computing.”

Chirag Dekate, research vice president at Gartner

Dekate said 2021 will be a pivotal year for seeing the maturation of the vendor landscape. Amazon, Azure, and other cloud service providers are aggressively ramping up their quantum capability, Dekate said, and current quantum leaders like IBM and DWave are developing in-depth roadmaps around the scale of the systems. 

“Ion-Trap based quantum computing vendors are also accelerating the maturity of their stacks. Over the next year, we anticipate the continued maturation of the Quantum Computing vendor landscape. As enterprises ramp up their quantum investments and, most importantly, refactoring application codebases around quantum, they will discover new ways of improving their current classical systems,” Dekate said. 

“Over the next year, we anticipate that organizations engaging in these initiatives will roughly double. In the recently concluded Gartner CIO agenda surveys, Quantum computing was not a high priority investment area for CIOs. Data around client engagements indicate a vast divide; a small number of early pioneers are investing aggressively in their quantum strategies while the vast majority aren’t.” 

Dekate also said there will be substantial growth in the number of quantum services providers, with experts connected to universities beginning to offer quantum computing services primarily designed to identify candidate problems and start the process of rearchitecting codes for a quantum era. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused most enterprises to curtail spending on consulting services and Dekate explained that in the near term, this could result in the market consolidation of quantum service providers. 

But overall, Dekate urged enterprises to be wary of overinvesting in quantum computing before having specific business use cases in mind. 

“In 2020 we saw advancement in four core areas. Vendors including IBM, DWave, Google, Honeywell, IonQ, Xanadu all highlighted the growing scale of their quantum offerings. We anticipate that over the next few years, these architectures will continue to ramp-up. Quantum ecosystems provided by vendors including IBM, Dave, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Zapata, QCWare, and beyond have evolved significantly, enabling more enterprises to start devising quantum strategies,” Dekate said. 

“Over the next few years, we see the potential for consolidation of some of these around a core set of providers. Globally, quantum computing investment activities continue to ramp up, partly driven by the hype and partly fueling the hype around this embryonic field. Value-aligned quantum computing service providers and established quantum systems innovators will likely be successful in navigating the economic uncertainties of the coming few years. Enterprises should start curating their quantum strategies today, and measure success (KPIs) by the number of trained quantum experts they are nurturing each year.” 

Roger Grimes, data-driven defense evangelist at KnowBe4

Grimes focused his predictions and insights on the cybersecurity implications of quantum computing advancement. He said 2021 will “likely see the first public acknowledgment of the quantum crypto break, where quantum computers are capable of breaking traditional public key crypto.” 

There will also be more quantum devices, such as quantum random generators and quantum key distribution, that will be cheaper and appear as subcomponents in more devices like smartphones, he added. 

“Every organization and industry should be preparing for the post-quantum cryptography world, getting ready for the day when the quantum cryptography break is announced. Even before then, more companies and industries should be taking advantage of quantum key distribution to protect secrets traveling over networks against eavesdropping and quantum cracking,” Grimes said. 

“I predict that someone will publicly announce that they have used a quantum computer to break a traditional asymmetric key cipher. It’s been the Holy Grail since 1994 and I predict it happens next year.”

Lewie Roberts, analyst at Lux Research 

Roberts said the goal many quantum computing experts are trying to solve now revolves primarily around the intersection of software and hardware. 

Right now, there are algorithms that could be run on a quantum computer, which could beat any technique used on today’s supercomputers, but quantum computers are not yet scaled enough that they could run these algorithms, Roberts explained.

The goal now is to not only scale the hardware but also to optimize the existing algorithms to require less powerful hardware. 

“Scaling hardware is difficult because qubits are very unstable, and generally the more of them you add to a processor the harder it is to keep them in a useful state. The main competition right now lies between groups like IBM or Rigetti—who use superconducting qubits—and groups like Honeywell or IonQ—who use ion-trap based qubits,” Roberts said. 

“The challenge is to increase the qubit count on a processor while maintaining their high quality; a processor with a bunch of low-quality qubits is not useful. I think that like 2020, 2021 will largely be about advancing these goals. Not every industry will see benefits from quantum computing at the same time, so engaging in research projects can help teams to estimate a range of years where that might be possible for their specific needs.”

Brian Hopkins, analyst at Forrester

Hopkins said we are years away from widespread business use in the real world, and the slow pace of advancement may dissuade some enterprises from attempting to use the technology. People, he said, may be getting impatient with the difficulty of quantum computers and he predicted that interest in it may taper off in 2021. 

There will be companies next year, he added, that should be pressing further into quantum computing but will back off because of a perception that it’s not progressing fast enough. 

“Today, nobody has convinced me any quantum computer in the world has demonstrated quantum advantage, none of them. As soon as we achieve quantum advantage, everyone is going to pile in and try to use a quantum computer to achieve a return on investment, but we haven’t gotten there yet,” Hopkins said. 

“In 2021, we’ll get a better sense of when we would achieve quantum advantage in various potential use cases. I don’t think we will reach quantum advantage in 2021, and that means in 2021, we’ll go through a bit of a trough of disillusionment. I’ve been tracking quantum computers now for a decade, and there are lots of big announcements, progress, and then it slows down.”

But Hopkins explained that the manufacturing industry may be the first to achieve quantum advantage because it involves chemical processes. 

Pharmaceuticals, drug companies, chemical companies, and enterprises involved in process manufacturing have shown the most interest in quantum computing because it is “particularly well-suited for chemistry.”

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