Any modern-day CIO who has been keeping an alert eye on the latest trends will, at some point, have come across quantum technologies.
And while grasping the peculiarities of qubit behaviour might be out of reach for some, a PhD in quantum mechanics isn't necessary to understand that this technology could disrupt entire industries during the next decade, thanks to the advent of unprecedented quantum compute power.
From financial services to agriculture, the extraordinary properties of quantum computing are set to improve efficiencies and boost productivity, to save time and cut costs, solving in minutes intractable problems that classical computers are incapable of addressing.
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The pitch sounds promising, and the benefits that could be reaped from quantum can easily seem beguiling. In other words, there's little reason to not want to get involved.
But getting started with quantum computing is not easy. Here are the first steps that decision makers can take now to kick-start their business's quantum experiment.
1. Work out the relevant use cases for your business
It might seem obvious, but the first place to start is to discover what problems quantum technology might be able to solve. Business leaders need to develop a roadmap of potential use cases that reflect how value can be captured both in the short and the long term.
"The nearest-term use case to consider is machine learning," Christopher Savoie, CEO of quantum software company Zapata, tells ZDNet. "Quantum computing could massively accelerate capabilities in this area. If your company has an artificial intelligence or a machine-learning strategy, that strategy should include quantum computing."
A good idea is to identify spaces that currently require a lot of high-performance and complex computing, and lay out the tasks that might benefit from quantum capabilities. As Savoie explains, these spaces are likely to include quantum-enhanced databases for AI; but it's also worth paying attention to the optimisation of supply chains, or molecular developments in chemistry and pharmaceuticals.
2. Start building your quantum workforce
One of the keys to deploying quantum technology is access to quantum-trained staff. "You need to understand the level of knowledge and expertise in the company," says Heike Riel, head of science and technology at IBM Research Quantum Europe. "We are going into a future where, as quantum computing becomes more important, it'll be crucial to develop quantum expertise in your own company."
Qualified talent will be essential to identify and execute the right use cases for the technology. And since quantum-capable employees aren't exactly in the mainstream yet, securing and retaining talent should be a priority. This can be done, for example, via partnerships with universities and specialised consultancies, but also by upskilling existing staff.
3. Know your way around the quantum ecosystem
The quantum space is growing increasingly crowded with companies small and big, which are all offering different services. It's easy to get lost between abstract concepts such as quantum volume, annealing processors, emulators and simulators, not to mention trapped-ions, gate-model systems and quantum algorithms.
Zapata's Savoie tells ZDNet: "Against this background of uncertainty, it can be hard to answer questions like: which hardware is best? Which software works best with which hardware? Which problems should I pursue first for my business? Finally, if I do invest, who is going to do the actual work?"
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CIOs have to ask those questions and do the research to make sure that they know, even before they start browsing, what technology stack and capabilities they will need to solve industry problems. From there, it will be easier to figure out who the right partners are and how those partners can ensure that experiments move at speed and scale.
4. Adopt a flexible set of tools and technologies
It is unlikely that many organisations will want, or be able, to invest in pure quantum hardware from the get-go. The technical infrastructure, at least to start with, will probably be a hybrid of cloud-based quantum hardware and classical computers.
Since multiple options already exist, it might also be a good idea to diversify the sources of hardware, while always keeping an eye on emerging players that might come up with innovative solutions. Recent months, for example, have seen promising silicon-based photonic developers looking at brand-new ways of manufacturing universal quantum computers.
"The fact that quantum computing technology is still evolving can make it challenging," says Savoie. "There's a lot to consider and no-one wants to get locked into a single vendor framework or invest in a particular technology that turns out to be a dead end."
5. Don't set the bar too high
Quantum computing will not deliver business value in the near-term, because quantum computers are not powerful enough yet. Rather, businesses should engage with the technology with an eye to being first in line to reap benefits when a large-scale quantum computer is ready.
Tony Uttley, president of Honeywell Quantum Solutions, suggests starting with small-scale problems that classical computers can already solve in order to test and validate the usefulness of quantum for those specific use cases.
As capabilities increase, so will the size of the problem that the quantum computer can solve -- until qubits start running applications that classical computers cannot. "You can plot out when quantum is going to have a meaningful impact on your business," Uttley tells ZDNet. "And by planning it now, you are able to integrate it into your infrastructure. The proof-of-concept algorithms being run today will become meaningful executive-level business decisions."
That is the point that businesses should be working towards now. Uttley believes that the next 18 to 24 months could bring early results. The quantum race is on.