Q&A: IDC research manager on how quantum will transform business

Heather West, Ph.D, quantum computing research lead at IDC, spoke to Information Age about how quantum could transform business in the coming years

While still in its early stages of development, quantum computing shows much promise for helping businesses find new ways to solve challenges. By nature, processes powered by qubits are capable of going beyond any possible findings produced through classical computing, due to qubits’ superpositioning (the ability to represent the values of 0, 1, or any value in between) and entanglement properties. With large organisations such as IBM, and government agencies like NATO and the UK Government starting to invest in the technology, the space is set to be prosperous for many sectors, if developed successfully in the coming years.

Global market intelligence organisation IDC has been keeping a keen eye on the quantum computing space, and how it can impact business. Its quantum computing research lead, Heather West Ph.D, spoke to Information Age about the steps being made towards mainstream usage and commercialisation; the emerging trend of quantum-as-a-service; and how security risks on the other side of the coin could be managed.

Which industries have stood out in terms of research and development conducted into quantum computing

Currently, because the technology is still in early development, quantum is best suited for solving optimisation problems. While these problems can be found in all industries, IDC research has shown that use case development and experimentation is more prevalent in the financial and manufacturing sectors.

In financial services for example, much of the modelling entails the inclusion of an array of dynamic factors and variables. Examples of these models include credit and asset scoring; derivative pricing; and investment risk analysis. With current processes time is needed to download and analyse the data used in these models to make financial decisions that are often time sensitive. As a result, the decisions being made using this process doesn’t often occur in real-time. However, with quantum computing, that process will be expedited, and the results will be more accurate since larger amounts of data can be processed and analysed faster.

Quantum computing development is occurring, and will continue to occur, across all industry verticals. For example, quantum computing can be used in a number of ways to advance the field of healthcare and life sciences, specifically the development of personalised drugs that can be used to treat various diseases. Through the development of personalised drugs, it is proposed that an individual’s genetic makeup will be taken into account and matched to chemical compounds that would promise to be best suited for treating each individual. Quantum could also aid early disease diagnosis by improving the accuracy of medical imaging, tracking the evolution of disease development among different environments and populations, and more quickly identify factors that lead to cancer development.

Could you please expand on how investment in quantum will lead to a new generation of the technology?

When IDC began its quantum computing research in 2017, the technology and research was primarily of interest to scientists and developers in the lab. Interest in the technology hadn’t yet transitioned to commercialisation, since the business benefits for using quantum computing technology were still unclear to C-level executives, IT leaders, and other business decision-makers. At that point in time, quantum computing research was dense, very scientifically and technologically based, making it difficult for anyone without a quantum background to understand.

Over the past few years, more and more industries and organisations have started to realise how quantum computing can impact business, and how it can bring a competitive advantage. IDC believes that as more executives start to understand the business impact, more IT spend will be allocated and invested in quantum initiatives.

Organisations currently partnering with quantum hardware or software vendors, or a cloud service provider, are identifying particular use cases which are suitable to run on quantum computing technology. As this symbiotic relationship develops, enterprises gain assistance from the quantum hardware and software vendors in their drive to experiment and develop quantum use cases, applications and algorithms. In return, the quantum vendors are motivated to further develop their quantum technology. The continued investment in quantum computing technology is the catalyst to making this technology more mainstream. Enterprises are not the only entities investing in quantum — several government entities such as the UK, China and the US; venture capitalist firms; and other private entities are also heavily investing in this technology.

How do you see quantum computing-as-a-service — another key trend identified by IDC — disrupting business, where on-premise quantum won’t be able to?

Cloud consumption is currently, and will continue to be, the primary method for consuming quantum computing technology. In addition to the high cost related to the procurement of quantum computers, the infrastructure itself is complicated to maintain and its development is advancing at a rapid pace, making it likely to be outdated fairly quickly. These factors can be make it risky to invest in an on-premise quantum machine. Further, because the quantum ecosystem is composed of a very limited number of individuals skilled to work with quantum hardware, it can be difficult for enterprises to find and hire quantum specialists.

Unlike the development of classical computers, the cloud makes accessing quantum computing technology a reality. Cloud service providers that partner with multiple quantum hardware vendors enable enterprise to experiment with various types (i.e., superconducting, trapped ion, photonic, etc.) and generations of quantum technology without fear of vendor lock-in or the need to bring on board quantum specialists. Hardware-agnostic software enables developers within these enterprises to develop quantum applications and algorithms, which can be run on multiple systems in common programming languages.

Additionally, today’s quantum systems may not be suitable for solving some of the intractable problems organisations are looking to solve. The consulting services and networks offered as part of the quantum hardware and software vendors’ and cloud service providers’ quantum-as-a-service solutions provide the needed resources for enterprises to begin their quantum journey. Developing algorithms and applications today will save time tomorrow. As new technology is released, businesses have the flexibility to shift from technology to technology. As a result, cloud consumption is currently, and will continue to be, the primary method for consuming quantum computing technology.

How big a security risk could quantum computing utilised by cyber attackers pose, and how can businesses prepare for such threats?

The great thing about quantum computers, is that it can be used to solve bigger problems that entail a lot of data quickly because of the qubits’ super positioning and entanglement properties. However, this also means that quantum computing technology can also solve the algorithms that are currently used to protect or encrypt data.

So, quantum computing could pose a threat to data protection and data security. Some organisations may feel that quantum computing is not suitable for them and will not impact them. This may be true for quantum computing consumption. However, when it comes to data protection, quantum computing may affect them, and not in a positive way as their data can still be breached using quantum algorithms.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently announced their fourth round of candidates for a post-quantum cryptography initiative. In 2016, NIST released a call for proposal seeking recommendations or submittals for post-quantum cryptographic standards and solutions. Over the course of the last eight years, NIST has announced four rounds of potential algorithmic standards that promise to be the best approach for encrypting data in a post-quantum era. In 2024, NIST is expected to release its final list.

While organisations are awaiting the list of NIST’s post-quantum cryptographic solutions, they can begin to determine which data assets need to be secured from a potential quantum computing breach. This won’t be an easy lift, as data is collected across organisations at a rapid pace and accessible to a number of organisational users. Additionally, organisations can begin to research the current post-quantum cryptographic solutions that are available based on the current list released by NIST. Investing in the consulting services or partnering with quantum vendors can help ease this burden.


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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.