Quantum computing. It’s a term most of us are familiar with and yet very few people – if pushed – could provide an adequate explanation of what quantum computers will actually do once the technology moves on from interesting research to a more or less common and useful tool.
So here is some kind of good news. If you can’t put your hands on your heart and honestly say you’re fully aware of the implications of the quantum computing revolution, you’re not alone. Despite all the research going on right now, the actual use cases are still being worked out.
And it’s a fact that makes life interesting for companies run by entrepreneurs – often university spinouts – working in the field.
Think of it this way. Unsurprisingly, the behemoths of the tech ocean are hard at work on quantum computing technology. Players include Microsoft, Google, AWS and IBM. These are companies with considerable resources, some of which can be allocated to trans-horizon technologies, which may not show a commercial return for many years.
Startups, on the other hand, face a more difficult landscape. They may be developing game-changing technology, but with no use cases (and therefore no customers) they just have to fund themselves and stay motivated while playing a long game.
So what does this mean in practice? I recently spoke to Richard Murray, CEO and co-founder of ORCA Computing, a quantum startup spun off from the University of Oxford in 2019 with Kris Kaczmarek as lead inventor.
The company – which uses photonics – as the basis of its technology has recently made some commercial breakthroughs in the form of sales of its machines to the UK Ministry of Defense and the Israel Quantum Computing Centre.
But according to Richard Murray, no one knows exactly when quantum computing will begin to make its presence felt. “The question is how soon apps will emerge,” he says.
Some assumptions were made. It is believed, for example, that quantum technology will enhance cybersecurity – for example, through stronger encryption – while allowing actors ranging from nation states to cybercriminals to open encrypted files. In some scenarios, we may witness a quantum arms race.
Murray says that may be overkill. It points out likely use cases around machine learning and system optimization. The question for potential users is probably whether it’s worth it. “There are questions around the price/performance ratio,” says Murray. “Quantum is not for everyone. You have to see where the opportunities are.”
To look forward
But he believes businesses and organizations are looking to the future. From a layman’s perspective, the technology exploits the properties of quantum states to enable extremely fast computation. But companies don’t necessarily want to know too much about science. The reality is that we are talking about advanced computing power that promises a competitive advantage for early adopters. “So businesses need to see a roadmap. They have to see how it lines up with their own plans,” says Murray.
So where could the uses be? Besides decoding, Murray cites examples such as rapid drug development and fixing errors in systems. At the industry level, there is already a lot of interest from the banks.
But here is the challenge. Potential customers don’t necessarily understand the opportunity of quantum computing yet. At the same time, developers like ORCA need to make sure they understand the needs of these businesses. So what’s needed is not just research and development, but also good lines of communication with potential buyers in order to develop the real-world applications. “A lot of it is about making the customer aware,” says Murray. Only a few, like the MOD, will have the luxury and budget to buy a system in order to experiment.
ORCA took the decision to develop not only the hardware but also an operating system and applications. Perhaps crucially, its technology is provided by conventional telecommunications components, including fiber optics. This means that its kit can be hosted with other servers, without the need for a specialized environment. For example, it is not necessary to have very low temperatures to improve conductivity.
Additionally, the company is pursuing the idea of hybrid computing, where the quantum element will only be deployed when ultra-fast processing is actually required. This could be a future battleground.
Markets and Markets said the market will be worth $1,765 million by 2026 as banks and other institutions buy in. But can a small company – even one that has attracted funding – survive in a market where big tech is also playing and there are a number of competing technologies as well? Murray believes there is room for various players, offering their own advantages and disadvantages depending on the use case. He also thinks the skills of companies like ORCA mean they can bring something unique to the market.
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