From simulating new materials to predicting weather patterns, quantum computing could have significant implications for businesses. But there are also concerns, including the risk that it might be used to break encryption and compromise data security.
Quantum computers use a special kind of code. Like a coin that can be both heads and tails until it is flipped, qubits can be in multiple states simultaneously until measured.
There’s a lot of hype around quantum computing, with claims that it can speed drug discovery, crack encryption, optimize financial transactions, improve machine learning and develop revolutionary materials. But the technology’s potential impact extends far beyond that, and many companies and governments are starting to prepare for it.
When it comes to complex computational tasks, traditional computers approach them like a maze: they try every possible path until one leads out. With the help of superposition, quantum computers can explore multiple paths simultaneously, greatly reducing the time to find an answer.
This enables them to perform calculations that would take a supercomputer 10,000 years to solve. And it may even get quicker: a 2022 paper from Microsoft and ETH Zurich suggests that simulating molecular interactions could take as little as eight hours on a large quantum system with just over two million physical qubits.
In addition to speed, quantum computing has a profound impact on security. As powerful quantum computers enter the marketplace, they threaten to break the encryption techniques used to keep sensitive data and electronic communications secure.
For instance, a quantum computer could decipher encrypted financial or personal data in a fraction of the time it takes for conventional computers. And since the critical lifespan of such data is much longer than a coin flip, such threats can be very real for companies holding long-term data with substantial value.
To combat these potential threats, organizations need to begin the process of future-proofing their systems and products today by transitioning to post-quantum cryptography. Those who do so will be better positioned to take advantage of the gains and mitigate the risks as this new paradigm of computation makes its way to market.
From a scientific perspective, the ultimate goal of quantum computing is to perform calculations that classical computers and even today’s best supercomputers cannot. From a business standpoint, the enduring value of quantum computing lies in its ability to solve real-world problems.
The processing power of quantum computers can help crack complex optimisation problems that are currently unsolvable with current technology. This can be applied to everything from finding new catalysts or molecules to optimizing supply chains and creating customer service strategies.
Quantum computing could make it possible to tackle persistent sustainability challenges such as curbing methane production in agriculture, making the production of cement emissions-free, bringing down the cost of green ammonia as a shipping fuel and fertilizer, and speeding up the time it takes for new drugs to reach market. This would significantly reduce carbon emissions, a significant factor in limiting global warming to 1.5°C.
A quantum computer capable of accelerating drug discovery, cracking encryption, speeding up financial transactions and improving machine learning would need a large number of physical qubits. However, engineering qubits with sufficient coherence time and error correction capabilities is still a daunting task for researchers.
Moreover, quantum computing could enable cybercriminals to design fake land records or lease documents that would be indistinguishable from digitally encrypted originals. This could threaten the entire economy by facilitating fraudulent activity, such as identity theft or extortion attacks.
To address these concerns, technology leaders must build and implement solutions and safeguards now to mitigate the risks of quantum computing. This will require significant investment dollars and new skill sets that are scarce in the marketplace today. It will also require a mindset that recognizes that scientific breakthroughs don’t always come on a predictable timeline.
Currently, we protect private messages and financial data using cryptography, a system of encryption that renders a message unintelligible without the key. But if an adversary obtains a quantum computer in ten or twenty years, they could use it to decipher any information that we assume is secure today.
This is because quantum computers employ qubits that can represent both a “0” and a “1” at the same time, so they can try all possibilities simultaneously. In a more straightforward example, think of a coin flipping in the air—quantum computers can influence its downward path while it is still in the air.
Executives need to prepare for this imminent technology shift by understanding—and seriously assessing—the implications for their business. Otherwise, they risk missing out on a major competitive advantage that will spur digital investment and reshape industries.