The Killer App for Quantum Computing by Jonathan Reichental, PhD
Cool. I got your attention.
Your curiosity has brought you here. You're expecting to read an article where I will state with confidence what I believe to be the killer app for quantum computing. After all, knowing this, even if somewhat specious, has value. But, I'm not going to tell you. Sorry to disappoint. I know, momentary fury. Did you just succumb to clickbait, the pest of social media?
No, wait, don't go. This article is actually about something bigger and better. It's about the fact that a quantum computing killer app doesn't yet exist.
Look, this means the opportunity to build and bring one to market is wide open.
If Only We Could Go Back in Time
Not convinced that's useful? OK, let's try this. Imagine we're back a few decades and, because of my magical powers, I can tell you that Microsoft Windows will be a phenomenally popular operating system. I'll tell you that you should start working on the killer apps for it because first-mover opportunities will provide you with sizeable market share and fortune. Perhaps you can relate too if I could have done the same for the iPhone or Android platforms.
You'd be pretty grateful.
Of course, I'll acknowledge that there's still massive opportunity to innovate on these platforms and deliver value. However, I think we agree that the competition is more intense and it's arguably riskier and more complex than it was in those earlier, more innocent times.
Back to the Future
Fast forward to today. Here I am, absent of magical powers, telling you all that the massive opportunity to be a first-mover in quantum computing is still ahead. This window may be a rare opening to what could be a several decade, multitrillion dollar opportunity to re-engineer the entire computing stack in every industry and to create completely new, trailblazing solutions.
Sound like hyperbole? Quite possibly. But I may just be right too.
Wait, What is Quantum Computing Again?
Let me step back just a bit. What is this quantum computing thing anyhow and why does it matter? What we're talking about here is a completely new science for computation. While classical computing – the technology that powers your laptop computer and the smartphone you're probably reading this on – works by essentially leveraging how we direct electricity, quantum is something entirely different. Quantum computing takes advantage of the unique qualities of subatomic particles. You see, when you study the science of the very small – that's what quantum means – nature behaves in even more remarkable ways. If we take advantage of these unique qualities, we can build a computing platform for processing information. The broader field, quantum mechanics, has historically been the domain of physicists, chemists, and mathematicians. But now, the computer scientists are in on it.
The Limits of Today's Computing
With classical computing, we've been able to achieve remarkable things. We've been able to innovate for several decades and today, with each new day, we continue to do that. But, there's a dark cloud on the horizon (no, not that cloud). We've been so successful in engineering our microchips to contain even more capability with each new version and in squeezing more performance out of them that we're approaching a point where the processing gains are in a downward slope. The pure physics of this technology can only be miniaturised so much. Sure, we have some distance to go, but we can't completely ignore this eventuality.
Quantum computing, however, promises us something so alluring, so mind-expanding, that the right reaction is a healthy dose of scepticism. If the trajectory of current research continues, we may soon be dealing with computing performance that is hundreds, thousands, and perhaps eventually millions of times faster than the quickest classical computers that exist today. In addition, we'll be able to store, move, and secure information in vastly superior ways.
Yup, you read that right: subatomic particles are awesome.
Quantum for the Masses
Soon, quantum computing won't just be the purview of a few. Heck, we can use quantum computing power today. Many organisations already do. This is not just some theoretical exercise. Sure, that's some of it, and the research phase is where the big investment is right now, but there are real, physical quantum computers you can buy and cloud-based quantum processing capacity you can tap into that's being provided by several mainstream enterprise technology players. Broad availability and accessibility of quantum power to enterprises big and small is still a few years out, but it is becoming tantalisingly close.
Why Does it Matter?
Let's return to my original two questions. I've briefly answered the question about what quantum computing is, so that just leaves why it matters.
It might seem that classical computing is completely adequate to meet our needs. I mean, it's giving us self-driving cars, 5G, and a mission to Mars. The truth is, we grapple with the limitations of today's computing power all the time. We continue to achieve great things because we're just really creative. With vastly greater computing power, we'd be better at forecasting the weather and climate changes, developing better medicine, reaping improved harvests, managing energy, and solving a ton of important maths and science challenges. This is just scratching the surface of possibilities. In other words, we'd solve and improve upon real human challenges we face today.
However, The Real Promise
But it doesn't end there. In fact, it's at this point that things get interesting. The history of innovation informs us that breakthrough technology doesn't just solve existing problems and incrementally improve our position. No, breakthrough technology often transforms us. It creates revolutions. It redefines the human experience. It creates winners and it creates losers. It produces big wins and exhausts us too with its complex and surprising challenges. Quantum computing meets and exceeds these criteria. As an example, combining quantum computing with artificial intelligence alone will create quantum leaps (ugh!) in innovation.
So, what is the killer app for quantum computing? You tell me. What would you do with this processing power and other quantum capabilities? What problem would you solve or new innovation would you create? You don't need to be a physicist or computer scientist to get excited by the eventual broad arrival of quantum computing. You just need the curiosity to learn more and determine what your role might be and what it may mean to your organisation.
Only then will one of us discover the killer app for quantum computing and change the world.