Emerging Technologies

What does the future hold for quantum computing? Experts explain

The panel joined the issue briefing virtually.

Joe Myers
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Technological Transformation

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  • A World Economic Forum issue briefing on quantum computing explored the technology, where it's come from and where it's heading.
  • Experts from academia and industry discussed the challenges, next steps and where we might be in five years and beyond.
  • There's a lot of uncertainty, but all participants stressed the need for collaboration.

Most of you are probably familiar with computers. But what about quantum computers?

Commercial quantum computers may still be a way off, but Goldman Sachs announced quantum algorithms could price financial instruments in the next five years.

At a World Economic Forum issue briefing, experts from industry and academia looked at the technology - what it is, where it's come from and where it's heading.

Taking part were Dario Gil, Senior Vice President and Director Research, IBM; Freeke Heijman, Founding Director at Quantum Delta, NL; Jeremy Jurgens, Managing Director, World Economic Forum; Robert Hackett, Senior Writer, Fortune; John Preskill, Amazon Scholar, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Caltech.

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Here are some of the key talking points. You can watch the full session here.

How is a quantum computer different from a regular computer?

"When many particles interact with one another, according to the principles of quantum mechanics, then it turns out it's extraordinarily complex to describe what those particles are doing using ordinary language or classical computers," explained John Preskill.

"And so, if we can control how those particles interact, then we should be able to perform information processing tasks that wouldn't otherwise be possible."

What could we do with quantum computers?

There's lots we still don't know though, said Preskill, including the areas where quantum computers will have a big advantage.

At the moment, the most important applications will be in reference to how matter behaves, chemistry and the discovery of materials, he explained. But, it will still take time to understand how we scale this up, he added.

"It's not that we understand all the science now, and we just need to put the resources together to do the engineering. We're going to need a lot of innovation to get to quantum computers that can solve those very impactful problems."

Equally, though, Preskill emphasized that it's important to understand we have "very limited ability at this stage to imagine the applications of quantum computing down the road in the near term".

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Where do things stand with the technology and where are we headed next?

About five years ago, we were able to build a small quantum computer and make it available through the cloud, explained Dario Gil. And, as a result, we started exposing a growing community to the concept.

Since that point, the number of systems available has grown and "what we're starting to see is a broad set of institutions getting interested in the topic".

We need to work to deliver better and better quantum computers and systems every year, he said. "But, it's very important to bring people along on the journey." We can't just say 'one day we'll have a magical computer that does all these things', we need to come together and work through it together, he urged.

Just a few years ago, we used machines with just 5 cubits. But, IBM hopes to build a machine with over 1,000 cubits by 2023, Gil said.

But, the number of cubits alone doesn't tell you the power of a quantum computer, he added. "The capacity of the machine, how many circuits you can run, the quality with which you can run these circuits. All of those are extraordinarily important."

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What other factors do we need to consider beyond just the technology?

"What we're looking at is not only the technological roadmap, but an ecosystem approach," explained Freeke Heijman. "How do you get the right talent, how to educate the right people to move into the field?"

Investment and capital are also important - and the opportunity exists for start-ups, she believes. Equally, collaboration will be key. "We're working very closely in a European context," she said. "For instance, we just signed a memo with the French."

This Memorandum of Understanding will enable collaboration, but it's vital it's not just about high-level policy but concrete action, Heijman emphasized. For example, there's now a website where you can see all the relevant available jobs in the Netherlands and France.

"We would just like to see as much openness in the ecosystem as possible so that people can connect and build new technology together."

Of course, it's still competitive, she said. But, because the industry is still in its early days, there's already a lot of collaboration and exchanges of ideas and people.

"We're all looking forward to much better performance, which we're hoping to achieve both through improvement in the hardware and through software methods for mitigating the imperfections of the hardware," added Preskill.

"We all want to see those innovations happen and that'll bring us closer to the day when quantum computing can have a broad impact on humanity."

The sentiment was echoed by Gill. "I think one of the things that unites all of us is we want to see a quantum industry thrive and be successful... I think we're all excited about the historical moment that we're witnessing," he said.

How can we enable this collaboration in quantum computing?

There are still a lot of unknowns in the field, explained Jeremy Jurgens. That's why this collaboration is so important. The World Economic Forum has established the Quantum Computing Network, which facilitates collaboration with companies like Amazon, IBM and Microsoft, as well as academic institutions and national governments.

And this extends beyond the technology itself. What are the skills we'll need? How can we make sure the benefits are extended across society?

"We need to both harness the opportunities in front of us... as we also manage the risks and prepare society more broadly for the significance of the transition," said Jurgens.

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