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The Business Case for Quantum Computing

January 24, 2022

Q&A With Jonathan Ruane

Quantum Computing is fast transitioning from a scientific possibility to a technical reality. The history of the field can be traced to a three-day event called the Physics of Computation Conference, held at MIT’s Endicott House in 1981. It remained an intellectual curiosity until the mid1990’s when researchers, including Peter Shorr (now a professor at MIT), developed algorithms that would address practical applications.

The researchers showed at a theoretical level how a quantum computer could beat any classical computer hands down in solving certain problems, if a sufficiently large one could someday be built. But no one knew how to go about building even the most basic elements of a quantum computer then. Today, the field is advancing in important areas, but many challenges lie ahead. We can’t be sure if recent progress will continue, decline, or increase. What is clear, though, is that given the potential magnitude of impact quantum computers could have on the world, it is time for business leaders to start engaging with the technology.

In an article published in the current Harvard Business Review, co-authors, Jonathan Ruane, Andrew McAfee, and William Oliver dive into the topic and explain why businesses need to understand– and seriously assess– the implications of this emerging computing paradigm for their organizations and businesses. Ruane is a lecturer in the global economics and management group at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a research scientist at MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE). McAfee is a founder and co-director of the IDE, and William Oliver, is professor of electrical engineering and computer science and physics at MIT.

IDE Editorial and Content Director, Paula Klein, spoke with Ruane about the article and the state of quantum computing. Highlights of the conversation follow.

IDE: Let’s establish a quick definition of quantum computing and how it departs from current or ‘classical’ computing models.

Ruane: One important difference is that while a classical-computing binary unit, or bit, can hold a value of either 0 or 1, a qubit (short for quantum bit) can represent 0 or 1 – or an entirely different state that has an arbitrary weighting of 1’s and 0’s simultaneously.

In the article we explain that an 8-bit classical computer can represent only a single number from 0 to 255, but an 8-qubit quantum computer can represent every number from 0 to 255 simultaneously. This allows you to probe many possibilities to complex challenges at the same time.

IDE: Describe the biggest potential—and challenge– for the technology going forward.

Ruane: Quantum computers can solve some problems exponentially faster than classical computers. They will bring about two important changes: a phasing out of current cybersecurity infrastructure over public networks, and an explosion of algorithmic power. Quantum computing will eventually help businesses better optimize investment strategies, improve data encryption, and discover new products–especially in areas such as chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

There are myriad technical challenges to developing scalable and reliable quantum computers that will be commercially transformative. This type of development will require enormous investment, which is likely to come from both public and private sectors. Experts estimate the disruption caused by the move to quantum-resistant cryptography will eclipse that of the efforts needed to mitigate Y2K challenges, which cost the United States and its businesses more than $100 billion.

Remember, quantum computing will be a parallel form of computing with classical computing– not a replacement. Quantum computing will be mainly delivered via the cloud, and it will be used for specific applications that will work in collaboration with classical computing.

IDE: What is different about quantum computing now, as we enter 2022, and why should business take notice? Is there urgency?

Ruane: There is a wide gap between understanding the complexities of quantum computing and harnessing the physical capabilities. Researchers have been working on this for decades, and we shouldn’t expect 2022 to be the year it is seen everywhere; it’s an evolution. It is slowly emerging, and we hope substantial progress will follow. Even so, businesses need to take note now.

One sign that things are heating up is the huge amount of resources being applied. Tremendous levels of investment, private-sector competition, and scientific talent are focused on quantum research. Venture capital funding grew by 500% from 2015 to 2020, according to CB Insights. Research and development heavyweights Google, Amazon, Honeywell, IBM, and Intel are also in the race to deliver the next quantum breakthrough.

When we see the public sector, academia, and industry getting involved and investing in a technology at this rate, breakthroughs often happen. There is no physics-based reason why quantum progress is not achievable. Many of the processes we are trying to harness already exist in the natural world – that’s why it is such an exciting space.

Executives need to think about how new computing models will spur digital investment, reshape industries, and spark innovation. A solid understanding of quantum applications today is crucial for positioning a company to reap the benefits—and avoid potential catastrophe—during the next decade.

IDE: Discuss the cybersecurity gains and risks posed by quantum computing and the timeframe for implementation.

Ruane: Today, most encrypted data–whether at rest or in transit — would be useless if a nefarious third party got access to it. Data safety is ensured because it would take an unfeasible amount of time to break the security protocols using classical computers, not because it is theoretically impossible to break them. Quantum computers, on the other hand, have the potential to break important elements of current cryptography. Even though quantum machines of requisite scale are a long way off, any data that is captured today could be stored and eventually unencrypted once quantum computers are widely used.

An end to our current infrastructure for ensuring digital privacy and security over public networks could leave companies that have not upgraded their infrastructure open to devastating attacks. And while the cybersecurity threat is long term, work has to begin now to prepare and to consider replacing infrastructure.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the U.S. government body tasked with developing cybersecurity standards, launched a public competition in 2016 to source algorithms that could resist a quantum computer’s attack. The resulting set of algorithms is due to be published this year, and over the next 2-5 years we will see global organizations work to adopt quantum computing level infrastructure and cryptography. But even when post-quantum algorithms are identified, the process for deploying the new cryptosystems will require massive upgrades to software, hardware, and communications.

IDE: What should business leaders consider today? Can you offer some specific recommendations?

Ruane: Quantum computers won’t be widely available this decade, but it takes time to realize the impact of a new paradigm like this and how it will be used. Businesses can start building teams to understand what data changes will be needed and how new architecture will work with current data, systems, and computers. One immediate approach is to run small internal experiments and to build relationships with quantum cloud providers.

There is already a shortage of talent. Up-skilling of data scientists to be quantum-capable is a great way to address this within an organization. Application developers will have to be retrained, too, and executive buy-in is needed. Advocates must get the conversation started while speaking realistically about the benefits.

There are four primary talent needs: data specialists, quantum developers, use-case identifiers who understand both the business needs and the technology, and executive sponsors.

Businesses don’t have to start from scratch. AI and machine learning teams can work in tandem with quantum teams. In fact, machine learning is one of the major use cases we identify for quantum.

IDE: What are the biggest bottlenecks to progress?

Ruane: Talent is certainly a bottleneck for both leading-edge and fast-follower firms today. Technology corporations can find it difficult to hire people with deep technical expertise –and this is not limited to America. China, the EU, Japan, and other regions are all pursuing QC vigorously.

At MIT we are approaching quantum computing education from several disciplines. In addition to core physics, electrical engineering, and computer science courses, I co-teach a course titled Global Business of Quantum Computing that is jointly offered by MIT Sloan and the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department (EECS) where we aim to integrate science and business insights. It is an extremely popular course and we believe this is the first of its kind at a business school. These initiatives are very much in line with U.S. government policy which has set out a specific quantum computing-ready workforce priority.

It’s important to understand that much of the commercial value will not be in owning quantum hardware in the long term, but in the development and application of quantum- specific algorithms, especially for life sciences, energy, and chemical processes. Finance, logistics, and engineering are also prime candidates for quantum computing. Just about every industry would benefit from improvements in optimization somewhere in their processes, and that might be one of the biggest commercial impacts of quantum computing of all.

Jonathan Ruane