Derek O’Halloran is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Executive Committee and Head, Future of Digital Economy & New Value Creation. He has global responsibility for strategy, industry and stakeholder management and the development and delivery of high-impact private-public collaborations across the digital transformation agenda. His areas of responsibility include digital transformation of industries, universal digital inclusion and frontier technologies such as 5G and quantum. O’Halloran, the co-author of “Beyond Cybersecurity: Protecting Your Digital Enterprise” (Wiley, 2015), is also responsible for ICT industry verticals. He previously worked in the technology and services industries across Asia, the United States and Europe, serving both private and public-sector clients. He holds an MPA in International Finance and Economic Policy from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, an MA Hons in Philosophy from the University of Edinburgh and is a graduate of the Global Leadership Fellows Program at the Forum. O’Halloran recently spoke to The Innovator about why it is important for corporates to start transitioning to quantum computing
Q: The World Economic Forum recently published a paper entitled State Of Quantum Computing: Building A Quantum Economy, Why, in your opinion, should quantum be on the radar of big business?
DO: Quantum computing is set apart from a lot of other technologies. The digital technologies now making rapid progress such as 5G, Internet of Things or AI are all within the same paradigm of digital computing. Quantum computing is a completely different form of computing. It is as different as digital is from vacuum tubes. Digital computing is about ones and zeros. It is based on circuits; each gate in the circuit is either on or off – each ‘on’ or ‘off’ creates one bit of information.. The growth of digital computing is based on how many of these processes we can get to work in parallel so that you can get large amounts of processing power. There has been incredible progress in digital computing, which has led to exponential growth, but you are still dealing with a binary process. With quantum computing instead of having circuits switch on and off, you have qubits, which mimic the continuous, probabilistic features of reality at the atomic level. This continuous nature means that qubits can be ones or zeros or both states at the same time. At first this can sound hard to grasp, but what’s important is that it allows us to tackle different mathematical problems that correspond to different opportunities in the real world. We are at a stage similar to the beginning of computing in the 1950s, with a completely new way of performing computations and the possibility – particularly around basic science and the industries that look at molecular and atomic structures – of tackling problems, including climate change, in ways that were not possible before. We are entering into a new age of discovery as quantum gives humankind the tools to really understand and manipulate the fundamental properties of matter.
Q: We have been ten years away from quantum computing for many years. What is holding the sector back?
DO: Different physical techniques are needed to create and control qubits. People are trying all sorts of things. We are not sure which approach will reach maturity first. For quantum computing to work you need to be able to create a qubit, control it, and correct the errors and you need to be able to do all that at scale. When it comes to investment, technical progress, or skills we are making progress. There is ongoing work around standards, there are growing numbers of researchers and there is growing awareness and development of roadmaps. However, more needs to be done. Compared to the amount of investment pouring into other types of technologies, there is not that much going into quantum. Talent is a critical issue. It is important to have a strong pipeline of people who are excited and engaged and ready to enter this market with a strong desire to help improve the world by doing cutting-edge research. Quantum is a whole new frontier, a game changing opportunity.
Q: While it is hard to predict when quantum computers will be perfected, once access becomes available all existing public-key algorithms and associated protocols will be vulnerable to criminals, competitors, and other bad actors. Is this why the Forum is urging corporates to begin the quantum safe transition?
DO: One of the types of math problems quantum computing can tackle is solving large prime factors. Large factoring is the basis of public key encryption and the basis of a lot, but not all, of cybersecurity. The concern is that once quantum is viable and can operate at scale you will effectively break any of those secrets. People are worried about this because there is very real risk that bad actors will harvest and collect data now and wait until quantum computing is available to unlock it.
Q: What kind of impact will quantum have?
DO: The impact broadly falls into three buckets. The cybersecurity domain is one that people are focused on. The second area is practical applications like logistics and managing risk across financial performance – basically areas in which there are a large number of variables with a high degree of interdependence. The third and most exciting is raw materials. Quantum gives us the ability to simulate any number of possibilities so we can discover what are the most viable ways of doing things. Quantum will allow us, for the first time in history, to simulate molecules and processes that we used to try and do with long, expensive, and ineffective trials. An example of this would be identifying optimized membranes and catalysts for energy-efficient production of green hydrogen. Cost-effective green hydrogen would transform the energy, industry and climate landscape.
Q: How do you advise organizations to approach quantum computing?
DO: As with any driver of change, the priority is to understand the strategic opportunities and risks to your organization. Let’s start with the risks. It is critical that organizations understand any dependencies of their strategic assets on cryptographic tools that quantum technologies will disrupt. While it will take some time for quantum to be able to decrypt such information, the threat of ‘harvest now, decrypt later’ attacks means that for many organizations this is a clear and present danger. This is especially true for regulated industries who must keep data confidential for long periods of time and for sectors with long intellectual property life cycles. While cyber security resources and budgets are already at a premium, it is strongly recommended for these organizations to prepare , complete an initial risk assessment and identify an appropriate quantum-safe strategy from there. In many cases, this will involve developing a transition timeline, clear accountability and building awareness with executive leadership.
With regards to opportunities, this is certainly an area where organizations should start investing in exploration and knowledge building. First, it is critical to understand the impact quantum technologies will have in your sector. Ask yourself which of the three archetypes of quantum applications will have the biggest impact on your competitive landscape; then start building relationships and domain knowledge of the quantum technology sector. There are already hybrid solutions and opportunities for early stage experimentation available. Consider understanding and connecting with different types of quantum computing providers, to build understanding and be ready for breakthroughs that different approaches are likely to make. Start developing the use cases – and start building an intuition of the possibilities with your executive, leadership and innovation teams.
All of this can be summarized very simply – be ready. In recent years, organizations have struggled to play catch-up as new technological capabilities become available – both in terms of responding to the transformation of their competitive landscape and the potential risks and liabilities they bring. With quantum, there is a rare opportunity to get ahead of the curve. There will be organizations who wake up one morning and realize the world has changed around them. Equally, there will be those organization that take the small steps to get ready now – and who will reap outsized rewards later.
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