Deep Dives

What Every Executive Needs to Know About Quantum Computing

Corporate giants such as Airbus and Volkswagen are testing the technology’s

Computing power has been doubling every 18–24 months for the past 50 years, but industry experts say we are rapidly reaching the limits of what is possible. The timing couldn’t be worse, because promising new technologies
ranging from autonomous vehicles to personalized medicine demand huge leaps in computing power to process data sets that are growing exponentially, says Ashish Nadkarni, program vice president and analyst for computing
platforms at the research firm IDC.

That is why financial services companies and corporations manufacturing everything from autos to airplanes are starting to test quantum computing — a rapidly developing technology that manipulates atoms to perform immensely
complex calculations that today’s computers can’t handle. While the prospect of a massive leap in computing power is welcome, for corporate chieftains the new technology also represents a cloud of uncertainty and anxiety.

Nobody wants to fall behind when a technology shift transforms industry. Yet, there are enough unknowns about quantum computing and enough fundamental scientific riddles to solve that no one can say for certain when it might be ready to make an impact. Also of concern is that the power of quantum computing could easily crack current encryption standards, which are too complex to be broken by today’s computers. Beyond potentially exposing everything from health and financial records to military secrets, the fear is that such immense computing power could bring about other unintended consequences.

Against this backdrop corporate giants such as Airbus and Volkswagen are gingerly wading into unchartered territory, investing at the margins to experiment and understand the potential. The challenge is to try to find the right balance between financing exploratory projects that help them stay current in this emerging field without feeling like they’re flushing money into a speculative exercise they can’t be sure will ever pay off. Martin Hofmann, CIO for Volkswagen Group and a scheduled speaker at Viva Technology, says the company recently ran a traffic-flow analysis in Beijing using data gathered from taxis. Using that limited data set, the company wanted to understand how that data had to be organized for a quantum computer, and how to write the applications and algorithms. It wasn’t anything the company couldn’t do with standard computing systems, says Hofmann, but it was a chance to start learning how to develop for quantum computers in anticipation of a time when such data sets will become exponentially larger.

“We’re interested in how we can use it and how we can solve real world problems, such as traffic optimization,” Hofmann says. “We are among the first doing this. It’s really pioneering work.”

A Computing Revolution?

It’s almost impossible to overstate how revolutionary quantum computing would be if it eventually replaces the current computing architecture. Computers today process information using bits, either zeros or ones, stored in electrical circuits made up of transistors. Quantum computers harness the power of quantum systems such as atoms or superconducting circuits in a quantum state. These systems can simultaneously exist in multiple states and can be used as “quantum bits” or “qubits,” which can handle far more complex calculations.

Researchers believe such power and complexity will enable the creation of more detailed molecular models that could lead to radical advances in medicine and material science. They also promise to be able to handle large
optimization issues, such as simultaneously charting the best route for every autonomous vehicle in a city, a puzzle that would be too tough for current computers. But we are not there yet. The scientific knowledge around quantum mechanics and quantum computing has advanced dramatically but major limitations must still be overcome. Qubits only exist for brief periods of time, before losing their power and the informationthey were processing. Researchers need to extend those lifespans while also figuring out how to get a much larger number of qubits to work in unison.

Like many basic scientific problems, it’s next to impossible to predict when enough breakthroughs will happen to make quantum computing ready for prime time. “We’re somewhere at a point where classical computing was 50 or 60 years ago,” says Marc Ganzhorn, a postdoctoral researcher at IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory. “Back then, it was difficult to predict what would happen in the next 10 years. Or that one day we’d have smartphones.”

Companies like IBM, along with Google and Microsoft, are investing heavily to solve the basic physics issues and have been announcing a steady stream of new milestones over the past couple of years. They’ve made enough progress that they’ve started to lay out some general timetables and roadmaps for quantum computing that range from a few years to a decade. To progress faster, they’ve also started reaching out to corporate partners to get them
to start playing with the technology. For instance, in December, IBM announced IBM Q, a program that lets corporate partners and research institutions have access to the company’s online quantum computing system. Initial participants included JPMorgan Chase, Daimler AG, Samsung and Oxford University.

IBM wants these partners to start imagining the use cases and begin laying the groundwork for creating the tools and services that might eventually harness quantum computing. “We’re trying to build up this whole quantum ecosystem,” says Daniel Egger, also an IBM postdoctoral researcher in Zurich. “Sometimes people do things with the setup that maybe you might not have thought of.”

The Interest for Corporates

Quantum computing represents a steep learning curve for corporations. The entire set of digital tools, software applications and algorithms used every day would have to be completely rewritten for quantum computing. This is
one of the reasons Airbus started investing in quantum computing research and development, says Vincent Galinier, enterprise information technology architect for the aviation giant Airbus.

“Our philosophy is to not go too fast and not get in front of the technology,” say Galinier. “What is key to us is to focus on the now and our key challenges, which are to design and build aircraft that are more secure and powerful and
green but at the same time, we must prepare for the future.” In one experiment, Airbus used quantum computing to map about all the possible interactions a single component in a plane might have. “We had to start with a little use case because currently there is not enough quantum computing power,” he says.

For its project, Volkswagen partnered with Google and the Canadian company D-Wave Systems, one of the only companies selling commercially available quantum computers. With both partners, Volkswagen is engaged in several
research projects, such as the simulation of powerful EV-batteries or quantum-boosted machine learning. Founded almost two decades ago, D-Wave has raised $194.7 million in venture capital, an indication of just how capitally intensive research and development of the technology remains. In addition to the traffic project, D-Wave is also working with Volkswagen on modeling new types of batteries. Meanwhile, Google and NASA are using D-Wave’s computing to explore things like more sophisticated transportation traffic management systems.

D-Wave president Bo Ewald, a scheduled speaker at VivaTechnology, says he believes the technology will hit an inflection point this year, with the company on track to release a new quantum computer that more than doubles the power of the previous one. Ewald says this next version will allow, in some limited cases, users to perform calculations not possible with current computers.

Soon, quantum computing will “be able to solve real-world problems,” he says. ”I do think by the end of this year, and the next couple of years, there will be a set of problems where quantum is better. For companies who want to be leaders in computing the time to get started is now.”

Still, even committed partners like Volkswagen say they are trying to take a balanced approach. At the same time that quantum computing is emerging, so are several other potentially revolutionary technologies that could disrupt
businesses and markets. In the case of Volkswagen, the company is also investing heavily in things like artificial intelligence and robotics. And it’s monitoring closely the roll out of 5G wireless networks, which could fundamentally change the connectivity in vehicles as well as the use of data in the manufacturing process.

“All this technology is coming at the same time,” says Hofmann. “So you get this exponential effect. It’s a tremendous challenge because we are an operating company that is building and selling cars every day. We have to do that well. And yet, tomorrow is more and more complex and it’s impossible to be in lock step with so many changes.”

About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.