Quantum computing is coming. Now is the right time to start getting ready

CIOs must start exploring potential use cases now or risk being left behind in the quantum race. They also need to be wary of technical and ethical concerns.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

From supporting a continuing shift to the cloud to embracing data-led services, CIOs already have a jam-packed digital transformation agenda for 2022 – and now the evidence suggests they need to make room for another line item: quantum computing.

"It will take some time – and therefore, now is the right moment to prepare for quantum," says Alberto Di Meglio, head of CERN openlab, who spoke at a recent event arranged by IBM Research.

CIOs who start investigating quantum will find a fast-growing area. Consultant Deloitte reports that venture capitalists invested more than $1bn into quantum-led businesses during 2021. The next 12 months will bring even more interest, with total VC spend likely to top $5bn by the end of the year.

SEE: What is quantum computing? Everything you need to know about the strange world of quantum computers

This injection of cash will help technologists to develop reliable and useful quantum computers. That's a big priority right now, as efforts to boost the number of quantum bits – or qubits – available for computation will help businesses in their quests to identify potential use cases. 

Deloitte recognises the nascent nature of quantum means practical applications remain thin on the ground. It estimates that fewer than a dozen companies worldwide will use quantum computers as part of their day-to-day operations this year.

But while quantum computing won't deliver big benefits during the next 12 months, Deloitte says the technology will generate billions of dollars in value annually one day, which is why CIOs should start preparing for quantum advantage now. 

Evidence suggests that message is already getting through: three-quarters (74%) of senior executives believe organisations that fail to adopt quantum computing soon will fall behind quickly, according to a recent survey by quantum company Zapata Computing and Wakefield Research.

Di Meglio believes the secret to successfully understanding where your business might potentially create a quantum advantage is to focus on developments that are already being made around new instruments, tools, and methods of collaboration.

He says early preparatory work will help CIOs and their businesses to identify the right skills, technologies and partners for quantum success in the longer term. 

As part of this process, CIOs and their executive partners must look to build collaborative teams, where all the necessary skills for quantum are brought together and then exploited in the most useful way.

"Quantum computing is a very multidisciplinary area. Organisations, institutions and universities really need to work to break the silos in-between these areas," he says.

Di Meglio says the most effective approach will be to create networks – or hubs – that allow people from across a wide ecosystem of internal and external partners to think about the challenges that businesses face and to posit potential quantum-based solutions.

"For us, the model of the hub is the right way of working," he says. "It is inherently about collaboration with all the other institutes and researchers across the world. Building this ecosystem is an essential ingredient to be able to move towards usable applications."

Panellists at the IBM Research event referred to pioneering approaches that are already underway, such as QUTACH in Germany, which brings together 10 major businesses to explore practical applications of quantum. 

Deloitte suggests quantum chemistry, materials science and optimisation problems will likely be the first useful use cases to materialise. Transportation is another sector with quantum potential.

However, the path forward won't be as clear in all industries. If CIOs are going to convince their boards that it's worth spending time and money investigating the complex world of quantum computing, then the IT industry is going to have help tech chiefs build a strategy for collaboration and exploration.

Hannah Ventz, the head of the Competence Network for Quantum Computing at Fraunhofer Institute, Germany, says research organisations like her own must make it easy for companies to get their first experiences in quantum. 

"We try to convince them that now is the right time," she says. "And then we offer experts to quantum labs and hubs where people can get their first experiences."

For CIOs who do want to give their staff exposure to quantum, Lidia del Rio, a physicist at ETH Zurich, says there's already a range of summer schools, hackathons and free online courses being run by some of the major tech firms. 

However, del Rio also issues a word of warning. While these kinds of initiatives can help companies to build knowledge, there are still gaps in education programmes – particularly when it comes to the more technical elements of quantum.

"My one criticism about these things is that they focus on things that are already known, like algorithms, and they are restricted in range. I understand why – it's because these are the things that are easy to teach to a non-technical audience. But I think you need to have a much broader view of what quantum theory is," she says. 

Del Rio says her organisation is aiming to raise awareness across industry and government about the risks and opportunities of all elements of quantum technology.

SEE: Status Report: Is quantum computing worth the leaps of faith?

One of the key areas for consideration going forward will be governance. Arunima Sarkar, AI lead in the Centre for Fourth industrial Revolution at the World Economic Forum, says it's crucial that all interested parties – including CIOs – ensure any quantum advantage is exploited in an ethical way.

She says emerging technologies both shape society and are shaped by society. Businesses, technology firms and public bodies must work together now to ensure governing principles are established as use cases are discovered. 

"I would say that the most appropriate and effective time to consider the societal, ethical and legal implications of technology is when the technology is still in the design and the development phase as it allows for early intervention," says Sarkar.

To this end, WEF has started a series of discussions with multi-stakeholder communities globally to debate ethical implications and potential risks of quantum. It has also initiated the creation of the first set of quantum computing governance principles.

"These are a set of shared principles that we believe will help guide the ecosystem for responsible development and innovation in this field," she says.

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