Christopher Savoie, PhD is the CEO & founder of Zapata Computing. He is a published scholar in medicine, biochemistry and computer science.
When it comes to deciding whether to make a strategic investment in quantum computing now or later, business leaders need to weigh the costs and potential benefits of each path. For leaders in industries like finance, transportation, chemistry and cybersecurity, the question takes on an additional dimension of urgency because advances in quantum computing could have an even greater impact on these fields.
There are two ways to frame this decision. On one hand, companies that invest in quantum capabilities now may gain a valuable — even insurmountable — advantage over competitors. This can result from creating better models of financial markets, discovering new materials, or even optimizing operations. On the other hand, working to develop quantum capabilities is expensive, and the return on investment may be a long time coming.
The fact that quantum computing technology is still evolving makes deciding what path to pursue challenging. There’s a lot to consider, and no one wants to get locked into a framework or invest in a particular technology that turns out to be a dead end. Against this background of uncertainty, it can be hard to answer questions such as: Which hardware is best? Which software works best with which hardware? Which problems should I pursue first for my business? Most importantly, if I do invest, who is going to do the actual work?
Due to the prevailing belief that the true promise of quantum computing is still years away from realization, decisions about quantum get robbed of their urgency. On this front, however, it’s worth noting the significant milestones (like Google’s) that the broader quantum computing community has very recently achieved. And when quantum crosses the threshold and begins to outperform classical computers for applied use cases in particular industries, it will be challenging for those who are not already quantum capable to catch up.
Since the emergence of commercially viable quantum computing is likely not a matter of if but when, I believe all organizations will eventually need quantum capabilities to remain competitive. Unfortunately, the resources essential to unlocking the power of quantum computing are scarce, and that scarcity may only increase in the coming years.
If an organization decides now is the time to become quantum capable, what should it do about it? In my work with leaders across industries, I have found these three steps to be the most critical.
1. Discover industry-relevant quantum use cases, looking first at machine learning.
Business leaders need to determine both how quantum computing will impact their industry and how they hope to best leverage this technology. Beyond the previously mentioned use cases, quantum computing could also have a broad impact on encryption and cybersecurity. This should be a concern for companies in the security space, of course, but also for companies in finance, healthcare and high tech, not to mention governmental and military organizations. Thinking about the general impact of quantum, however, the nearest-term use cases to consider concern machine learning (ML). Quantum computing could massively accelerate capabilities in this area. If your company has an ML strategy, that strategy should include quantum computing.
2. Build a quantum-capable team, including upskilling data scientists and others with doctorate degrees.
Qualified talent is essential for identifying and executing on the right use cases. The major challenge in this regard is the sparsity of quantum computing talent. A 2018 New York Times story (paywall), in which my company is mentioned, pointed out that while some estimates put the number of experts in deep learning at less than 25,000 globally, the number of experts in quantum computing could come in at fewer than a thousand. This means that the development of quantum talent should include everything from partnerships with universities and specialized consultancies to making key hires and upskilling existing talent.
Considering the somewhat uncertain timeline to a quantum advantage, many organizations may be tempted to rely on external partners rather than making strategic hires and upskilling. Although this approach is entirely reasonable, it is risky because quantum expertise could take at least two to five years to build (think about how long it took to build an AI/ML capability). For this reason, organizations may choose to build internal quantum teams to secure strategic intellectual property (IP) and develop foundational capabilities. These initiatives often involve the upskilling of current employees, especially those with backgrounds in data science, math, physics or chemistry who are already familiar with advanced computational techniques. Ultimately the most valuable talent will combine vertical domain expertise with an in-depth understanding of the quantum paradigm.
3. Adopt a flexible set of quantum computing tools and technologies.
Once use cases have been identified and talent acquisition and development efforts are underway, the organization needs to start building out its technical infrastructure. This infrastructure will be a hybrid of classical and quantum from the get-go. Few companies will want to invest in (or be able to afford) quantum hardware in these early days. For many, the best option will be to access hardware capabilities through the cloud. A cloud-based route also provides the flexibility required to quash previously mentioned concerns about getting locked into specific vendor road maps or having to choose one particular quantum computing method. The hybrid model also offers more options when it comes to the “classical” elements of their quantum computing stack.
In addition to the hardware and software (analytics, workflow orchestration and industry-specific software suites), a quantum-capable organization needs to develop the relevant algorithms for quantum devices and simulators. These algorithms will ultimately constitute the organization’s unique quantum computing advantage.
In conclusion, while many are quick to dismiss quantum computing as “hype” due to the current state of the technology, there is no denying that quantum computing will soon disrupt the core of most businesses. While a healthy skepticism can be constructive and prudent, it should not blind organizations to the reality of what quantum computing will accomplish and how rapidly that day is approaching. Given this, I believe taking the first steps and exploring quantum use cases for your industry and your business is not just practical; it’s critical.
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