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What Amazon’s Entrance Tells Us About The New Era Of Quantum Computing

2020 January 12
by Greg Satell

This past December, Amazon announced that it was launching a new quantum computing service, called Braket, joining the ranks of tech giants like Google, Microsoft and IBM. However, it quickly became clear that Amazon was not creating its own technology, but offering that of other companies to its customers through the cloud.

The story gets even stranger when you consider that the purpose of the service is not to do anything of any immediate practical value, but to allow “scientists, researchers, and developers to begin experimenting” with quantum technology. The companies providing the hardware, D-Wave, IonQ, and Rigetti, are themselves fledgling companies.

So why would Amazon promote, with great fanfare, a technology it doesn’t own and that doesn’t really work to customers who can’t use it to solve any practical problems? The reason is that we are entering a new era of innovation in which it is no longer enough to simply move fast and break things. We need to do more than just adapt. We need to learn to prepare.

What Is Quantum Computing?

Quantum computing, as any expert will tell you, uses quantum effects such as superposition and entanglement to compute, unlike digital computers that use strings of ones and zeros. Yet quantum effects are so confusing that the great physicist Richard Feynman once remarked that nobody, even world class experts like him, really understands them.

So instead of quantum effects, think of quantum computing as a machine that works in three dimensions rather than the two-dimensions of digital computers. The benefits of this should be obvious, because you can fit a lot more stuff into three dimensions than you can into two, so a quantum computer can handle vastly more complexity than the ones we’re used to.

Another added benefit is that we live in three dimensions, so quantum computers can simulate the systems we deal with every day, like those in materials and biological organisms. Digital computers can do this to some extent, but some information always gets lost translating the data from a three dimensional world to a two dimensional one, which leads to problems.

I want to stress that this isn’t exactly an accurate description of how quantum computers really work, but it’s close enough for you to get the gist of why they are so different and, potentially, so useful. The three dimensional quantum world can create computing spaces that are exponentially larger than anything we’ve ever seen before, making them ideal for certain tasks, like simulating physical systems and large optimization problems.

The Knowledge Gap

Quantum computing is still very much a nascent technology. The most powerful machines are only about 50 qubits (quantum bits), while it will probably take more than 1000 qubits for a quantum to be really useful. Most experts estimate that will probably take 10-15 years, although it is possible that some practical application may be found in 5-10 years.

However, just as important as the technology gap is the knowledge gap associated with the technology. Quantum computers aren’t just potentially vastly more powerful than digital computers, they’re also very different. They operate according to a different logic, will need new programming languages and algorithmic strategies.

To understand the challenge, consider Daimler’s recent announcement that it is working with IBM to develop advanced batteries. Quantum computer’s ability to simulate physical systems makes them potentially very useful for this type of application. However, no one really knows how to do it, because it’s never been done before.

So over the next 5-10 years, battery scientists will be working with quantum computing scientists to learn how to use and understand the data coming out of a quantum computer, which is unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. Once they figure that out, they will have to explain it to engineers who will build advanced batteries. We’ll have to repeat this same process for every area of application. That will take a lot of time and resource.

An Evolving Quantum Ecosystem

We tend to see things in terms of inventions, but ecosystems are what really drive change. For example, for cars to be useful, they needed a basic infrastructure of roads, gas stations and mechanics. Digital computers needed more than just hardware, but also software developers, systems integrators and others to actually make an impact.

We’re beginning to see a similar ecosystem for around quantum technologies. The journal Nature recently published an analysis which showed that over $450 was invested in more than 50 quantum startups between 2012 and 2018. However, only part of that has gone to quantum hardware manufacturers.

For example QxBranch, Zapata and QCWare focus on software, tools and services to support quantum computing, much like firms like Accenture and Deloitte do with digital technology. Others, such as ID Quantique, QuintessenceLabs and MagiQ offer quantum cryptography. Still others are working on quantum communication and other services.

So while practical applications for quantum computing are still years away, there is already an active ecosystem forming around the technology. Obviously, Amazon believed that it could no longer afford to be shut out and figured that leveraging its strong market position in cloud services would be the best way in.

Learning To Prepare

Over the past few decades the focus has been on adapting to rapid change. Digital technologies forced firms to become more agile, more responsive and more innovative. However, what Amazon’s move into quantum technologies should make clear is that adapting isn’t enough any more. You have to prepare.

Certainly this is true for quantum technologies, which are vastly more complex—and potentially vastly more powerful—than anything we’ve ever seen before. That’s why companies are willing to pay to experiment with the technology, because they know if they wait to adapt it may very well be too late.

It also shows why it is becoming so important to have an ecosystem strategy. Amazon didn’t even try to go it alone, but entered the market with partners (and other quantum companies take a similar approach). In an ecosystem driven world, power doesn’t lie at the top of value chains, but at the center of networks and you get to the center by widening and deepening connections.

Make no mistake. The future will not be digital and digital strategies are unlikely to succeed in a post-digital world that will likely includes not only quantum technologies, but neuromorphic computing, synthetic biology, and other things as well. We can’t just move fast and break things anymore. We need to learn to prepare for a world we can’t see, much less understand, yet.

– Greg


Image credit: Amazon Press Center

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