Deep Dives

How Japan’s Largest Companies Are Helping To Co-invent Quantum Computing

Since quantum computing is a step-change technology with substantial barriers to adoption experts say early movers will seize a large share of the total value, while laggards will struggle with integration and talent. They are advising corporates to start exploring the technology now. Some of Japan’s largest companies are doing just that and more.

“Japanese companies are not just trying to understand but to create the future of quantum computing,” says Kohei Itoh, President of Japan’s Keio University and the founder of the university’s IBM Quantum Network Hub.

Itoh, who has been working in the field since 1998 and is also a Chair of the Advisory Board on Quantum Technology and Innovation to the government of Japan’s Cabinet Secretariat, is the founder of one of the first IBM quantum networks. The Keio University IBM Quantum Computing hub, which was launched in 2018, has been among the most successful in attracting corporates, he says. Participants include Sony  Group Corporation, Hitachi, Ltd.,  Toyota Motor Corporation, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group , Inc, Mizuho Financial Group, Inc, Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank, Limited, JSR Corporation and Mitsubishi Chemical Group Corporation.

Corporate participants in the Keio University hub fund research grants, pay for cloud access to IBM quantum computers and commit scientists and engineers to work full-time at the hub. Each corporate partner develops applications and technologies with IBM, Keio University, and other company members, provides feedback on improvements needed in hardware and software and is involved in discussions on the economic impacts of advanced quantum algorithms on specific sectors, says Itoh. The participating corporates gain value by gaining insights into the technology development timeline as well as access to talent and the most advanced quantum computers available today. “Everything we do is done on today’s real quantum computers,” says Itoh.

The three participating banks are competitors but have decided to pool their efforts on the application of quantum computing to financial services, an unusual development. “At first they thought the scientists would be separated in different rooms but very soon they realized that they share problems and decided to work together,” says Itoh.

Tomoki Tanaka, a scientist at Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, said it makes sense for the banks to collaborate. Through the hub “we can obtain a wide variety of information and collaborate in ways that are not possible within a single company,” he says.

The chemical sector is adopting the same philosophy, says Qi Gao, a scientist at hub participant Mitsubishi Chemical Group Corporation. “Since quantum computing is still in its infancy and there are enormous common fundamental science problems needed to be solved for the development of applications in the chemistry area, we do not think companies necessarily compete at this time,” says Gao. “We believe that the progress of pursuing the new technology can be amazing when many people from different chemical companies get together to share their own experiences with each other and work on common goals.”

Participation in the Keio University IBM Quantum Computing Center “helps us to validate real world chemistry problems with different quantum algorithms on IBM quantum devices,” says Gao. “In the past a few years we have published several joint scientific papers and we think all the research achievements has value for us to develop practical applications for business use in the future. Another benefit is that we have great opportunities to recruit the best students educated at the hub.”

Early Insights

No company 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 many believe it is impossible to say for certain when it might be ready to make an impact.  Itoh disagrees. “We had the advantage of getting to know quantum computers from the very beginning and we know at what rate they are being developed,” says Itoh. He foresees that the tipping point can be reached in as little as six years.

The tipping point will depend on factors such as technological advancements, the development of practical applications, and the uptake of quantum computers by businesses and other organizations.

“Participating corporates know from five years of hands-on experience how quantum computing is developing, and each company’s scientists can actually compare this with the existing technology their company is using,” says Itoh. “That is why they definitely see quantum as the future.”

Early applications being tested at the Keio University Quantum Computing Center include object recognition, graph data classification for bioinformatics, image research and pattern matching, finding hidden correlations in the stock market, lithium air battery chemical reaction, organic LED calculation and optimization of molecular design.

Algorithms being developed include super parallel processing for Monte Carlo calculations that would significantly speed up the time it takes banks to calculate the best time to transfer currencies; efficient transfer of classical data to quantum; space efficient quantum speed-up protocol and classical quantum hybrid artificial intelligence.

A Major Inflection Point

IBM has declared 2023 as a major inflection point. The company has said that its recently announced 433 qubit Osprey processor brings it a step closer to the point where quantum computers will be used to tackle previously unsolvable problems.

The value of the hub for corporates is a co-development approach, says Itoh. “We program the real quantum computers, examine the output, determine the limitations and what needs to be solved and then feed that back to IBM’s hardware developers,” he says. “They take our suggestions and use them to improve the next generation of quantum computers,” says Itoh.  

Next Steps

Given that it is now believed that quantum computing will help define the competitiveness of countries, the Japanese government is funding the hiring of scientists with quantum and mathematics backgrounds who work half time for corporates in the hub and half time on basic research.

Worldwide there is a huge talent gap in quantum computing. By some estimates there are not enough people to fill as many as 90% of positions. The problem is even more dire in Japan, which has a low birth rate and “severe shortage of young people,” says Itoh.  “We have been busy establishing our hub but now we want to invite people from all over the world to join,” he says. “We need talented, motivated people to come and work with us.”

The country will have some stiff competition in the quantum race. China has announced the most public funding to date of any country, more than double the investments by EU governments ($15.3 billion compared to $7.2 billion) and eight times more than US government investments, according to McKinsey. And the Israeli government has announced plans to make the country a quantum technologies innovation hub.

But Japan’s corporates have an edge over companies in many other parts of the world. Most scientists and engineers work for the same company for life, says Itoh. And, he says Japanese companies “think long-term and are willing to invest in research,” says Itoh, a practice that he says will prepare them well for making a quantum leap.

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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.