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The Long Road to Quantum: Are We There Yet?

A quantum pioneer reflects on his quantum startup days in the 2000s and discusses how the power of quantum is being applied today and where it has yet to go.

On November 4th, the UK and the US issued a joint statement to enhance cooperation on quantum information science and technology. The statement reflects a high-level commitment between these two countries, and I'm optimistic this is just the start of a multi-national collaboration to advance quantum science and technology.

International cooperation among academic researchers is taken practically for granted, but that is not the case with governments and companies. The impact of quantum technology will be global, and thus, so should be its development.

Reading the formal statement between the UK and US takes me back to earlier days of what is now called “quantum technology,” and just how far we've come since my own foray. Those of us who founded quantum startups in the 2000s thought the value of our endeavor would be seen just around the corner; maybe five years distant. The startups that I knew of emerged as spin-offs from universities, built upon stunning scientific achievements made in the 1980s and 90s.

Quantum: The (Very) Long Trek

I particularly remember when two tech entrepreneurs that I admired asked how many customers we envisioned for our newly developed, and very costly, products. My response was “perhaps eight just now” It was an honest assessment of the number of research groups that might become our customers. Their look of doubt about the success of the quantum business was intended to be gentle. Surely, we thought, the demand for quantum products would rise rapidly as the significance of the technology and its practical applications were recognized.

In hindsight, it took a long time for the quantum landscape to change, but then rapidly change it did. In 2013 the UK became the first country to formally acknowledge the economic and national security importance of quantum science and technology through a targeted government initiative. It was funded to the tune of £270M ($370M USD) to stimulate academia-industry collaboration and commercial development. Other countries followed, with the US establishing its National Quantum Initiative Act at the end of 2018. Our newest achievement between the UK and US is a testament to the commitment and shared vision of these two countries.

I believe quantum technology is beginning to hit its stride after years of slow growth. With all the excitement and investment in quantum in the past few years, customers are now asking when they can purchase a shiny new quantum computer for their data center. And enterprises want to understand how quantum can be used to take classical computing applications to entirely new levels, while an optimistic emerging community is counting on new use cases that have yet to be discovered for quantum.

Are we there yet with quantum? No, we are not. In my view, the best way to power quantum innovation is to provide the power to innovate over the cloud.

Harnessing the Power of Quantum Today

In the minds of many, the word “quantum” is implicitly followed by the word “computing”. In part that's because everyone knows what a computer is, and they have heard that a quantum computer can address problems in drug discovery, finance, logistics, and other problems that are difficult for classical computers to solve.

In the past few years, we have witnessed that access to quantum computing hardware has catalyzed an entire ecosystem involving algorithms, middleware, firmware, control system. Indeed, there's an entire supply chain of quantum computing-relevant hardware and services. It includes Zapata, QCWare, Riverlane, Q-Control, and many others. The same will happen with the larger quantum ecosystem when access to other categories of quantum hardware systems are made available over the cloud: quantum simulators, quantum emulators, analog quantum machines, and programmable but targeted purpose quantum systems.

Consider quantum sensing, quantum signal processing, quantum analog machine learning, communications. The list goes on. The barrier to entry to any one of those applications is enormous. Speaking specifically to cold atom-based quantum technology, which is what I know, it takes something like three or four Ph.D. physicists, two or more years, and $2M or so to establish a credible effort that involves hardware.

Now, suppose the barrier to creating the hardware is removed; hardware expertise, the development time, and the capital costs of hardware now go away. Simply focus on the problem solving at hand, and not the hardware portion of its solution. Suddenly, the design, test, and validate development cycle is substantially accelerated. One hardware machine supports several innovators, and another ecosystem is soon catalyzed, or a larger quantum ecosystem altogether. A community of researchers and innovators who become adept at utilizing sophisticated quantum hardware on the cloud can solve real world problems.

Looking back over the last few decades, to say that those of us who were pursing quantum technology early on were naïve is an understatement. Quantum science was difficult back then and it remains so. Somehow it seemed we were moving very fast, but the road has proved to be very long, and the travel time has seemed to approach eternity. The progress of quantum science and technology should be accelerated, and it can be, through the power of cloud access to a broad spectrum of quantum hardware.