IBM Q System One quantum computer at 2020 Consumer Electronic Show

Is your business ready for the inevitable impact of quantum computing?

Image credit: Boykov/Dreamstime

Practical applications of quantum computing may be emerging at different rates in different sectors, but the overall message from executives across industry is that they need to start preparing now.

Quantum computing continues to dominate the emerging technology news agenda. A series of big moves have been made in the field in the UK recently, including the Ministry of Defence’s purchase of the first government-owned quantum computer and the prediction by Kwasi Kwarteng, secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, speaking at the 'Quantum Computing Summit' in London recently, that national investment in quantum technologies is set to surpass £1bn by 2024.

Quantum computers (QCs) harness the peculiar behaviour of atomic and subatomic particles to execute certain types of algorithms faster and more efficiently than the most powerful conventional supercomputers available today. Although a fault-tolerant and commercially viable QC is yet to be built, it’s clear the momentum is there.

The foundations of the mathematical framework to describe quantum physics were created around 100 years ago and we’re now starting to see fledgling QCs emerge. Public and private investment is growing quickly and these computers are rapidly building in capability. If current trends persist, quantum computing, alongside related quantum technologies such as communication and sensing, is likely to cause disruption sooner than many people think. This is because quantum could address critical business problems, which are difficult to solve using conventional digital technologies.

For example, in cyber security, a QC may in the future have the power to crack algorithms that are responsible for much of modern encryption in our digital economy. Many estimates suggest that there is a high likelihood that key parts of the security in use today will be broken by QCs by 2030, with data already being ‘captured’ today to be decrypted at a later date. In other areas, a QC could also enhance machine learning, improving myriad applications using artificial intelligence, as well as enabling modelling and simulation of the tiny molecular building blocks of materials and drugs, which might allow companies in the future to discover chemicals and cures to diseases faster.

While the number of organisations working on quantum technology was originally restricted to a handful of universities and big technology firms, the ecosystem has expanded to include all manner of start-ups, with mergers and acquisitions increasing. As the supply chain crystallises and becomes more economically viable, the technology will quickly move towards a commercialised state.

Quantum computing is a technology that businesses must start planning for now, especially those who may expect to see disruption in their industry within the next three to five years. Alongside the National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC), EY conducted a survey in early 2022 of 501 UK-based executives, examining the level of quantum readiness among UK business, as well as perceptions around the impact that quantum may have on their industry. All respondents had to demonstrate at least a moderate level of understanding of quantum computing to complete the survey.

The research has found that, in the UK, nearly all (97 per cent) of the 501 executives who took part expect a high or moderate level of disruption to their sectors from quantum computing. Yet no more than a third of organisations have begun planning their strategies around the use of quantum computing and its commercialisation. Leading the way are companies in advanced manufacturing and the consumer product and retail sectors. Within advanced manufacturing, for example, 52 per cent have established, or are in the process of establishing, a pilot team. While the practical applications of quantum are emerging at different rates in different sectors, the overall message from executives is ‘start preparing now’.

Developing relevant skills and talent, ensuring senior leaders are aware of the state of development and business potential, and maintaining technical awareness of the rate of development and potential applications were the three most important initiatives respondents listed for quantum computing. There’s a crucial difference, however, between being able to make the technology work and having leadership within the business who can take advantage – 55 per cent of respondents said this was the biggest skills challenge around quantum.

Tackling this will require businesses not only to set up pilot teams to gauge quantum’s impact on future products, services and operations, but also to give those teams a voice at the leadership table and allow appropriate changes to be made to the business. Reporting back to senior executives and enabling them to develop a roadmap for mitigating quantum’s impact will make it much easier to scale up the resources needed to develop responsive and adaptable organisational capabilities based on a careful monitoring of the signals of the technology’s progress and likely future path.

Even if a particular organisation isn’t preparing for quantum already, there’s an overwhelming belief among executives from every industry sector that their competitors are. This is an incredibly powerful technology, which has the potential to be completely transformative – especially when considered alongside other quantum technologies, such as sensing and communication.

It’s vital that companies act now, to prepare proactively not only for the transitional cyber-security risk, but also for the broader opportunities quantum will offer if adopted in a way that aligns to an organisation’s strategy and purpose.

Piers Clinton-Tarestad is head of quantum computing at EY, UK & Ireland.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles