As cloud providers search for new markets, many are turning their attention to quantum computing, a science that's long been touted as the ultimate disruptive technology, but which is currently limited to a handful of select niches, such as academic research, cryptography, and blockchain.
While quantum computing adopters are currently few and far between, many observers believe that it's only a matter of time before the technology gains the momentum necessary to become commercially viable. That's why cloud providers are now beginning to position themselves to tap into what could eventually turn out to be a very lucrative market.
Quantum and the cloud
Quantum computing's high cost and deep complexity will likely drive most applications off premises and into the arms of cloud providers like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. While the major cloud players all have extremely deep pockets, most early adopters, such as startups and research labs, aren't particularly well heeled. Even enterprises that can afford to deploy their own quantum systems may wish to spare themselves the time and effort needed to place the technology on premises.
The quantum computers available today are far from "plug and play" systems, observed Celia Merzbacher, deputy director of SRI International's Quantum Economic Development Consortium, a collection of stakeholders dedicated to building and supporting the emerging quantum industry. "It's not practical to install and maintain current quantum computers on premises," she stated, noting that quantum computers are still in development, generally sensitive to the local environment, and require highly trained technical experts to keep them operational.
The current generation of Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum (NISQ) computers are large, temperamental, and complicated to maintain, said Konstantinos Karagiannis, an associate director at business, finance, and technology consulting firm Protiviti. They are also very expensive and likely to be rapidly outdated, he added.
Karagiannis, like most other sector experts, believes that the enterprise path to quantum computing access is more likely to go through the cloud than the data center. "Providing cloud access to quantum computers ... allows researchers and companies worldwide to share these systems and contribute to both academia and industry," he said. "As more powerful systems come online, the cloud approach is likely to become a significant revenue source [for service providers], with users paying for access to NISQ systems that can solve real-world problems."
The limited lifespans of rapidly advancing quantum computing systems also favors cloud providers. "Developers are still early along in hardware development, so there's little incentive for a user to buy hardware that will soon be made obsolete," explained Lewie Roberts, a senior researcher at Lux Research. "This is also part of why so many large cloud players ... are researching quantum computing," Roberts noted. "It would nicely augment their existing cloud services," he added.
Flexibility is another factor favoring the cloud. "For the foreseeable future, quantum computers will not be portable," observed Jake Farinholt, lead scientist at management and IT consulting form Booz Allen Hamilton. "Cloud can provide users with access to multiple different devices, as well as simulators, right from their laptops."
Quantum system support is another headache that most enterprises would prefer to offload to an outside partner. Farinholt points out that quantum computers are extremely fragile, must be maintained at cryogenic temperatures, and require supervision by teams of engineers and physicists. "Cloud infrastructure is the clear choice to provide widespread access at a reasonable price point," he said.
There's not going to be a single leading application, Merzbacher predicted. "Just like classical computing, quantum computing will have high-impact applications across many -- perhaps even most -- aspects of business and daily life," she noted.
Quantum simulations, in particular, will likely have a major impact on a wide range of enterprises. One example is the pharmaceutical industry. "Many of the challenges in drug discovery boil down to the computational challenges involved in simulating quantum chemistry," Farinholt said.
In fact, virtually all industries and government organizations stand to benefit from quantum computing. "The Department of Defense spends over $1 billion a year fighting corrosion," Farinholt observed. "Quantum simulations may enable more rapid discovery and development of novel corrosion-resistant materials, which could drastically reduce costs." Quantum simulations could also have a massive impact on the environment. He noted, for instance, that quantum technology may lead to the development of more efficient fertilizer production methods, "a process that's currently responsible for an estimated 1% to 3% of the entire world’s total energy consumption."
Bob Sutor, vice president of AI, blockchain, and quantum solutions at IBM Research, predicted that chemists may soon turn to quantum computing to create more efficient and longer lasting lithium batteries. "Consumers will see this in electric vehicles, for example," he said.
Although quantum computing promises an avalanche of research breakthroughs, Kazuhiro Gomi, president and CEO of NTT Research, advised patience. "We expect these applications to become a reality in the next 10 years," he predicted.
Sutor is more optimistic. "We expect the first quantum advantage applications to come at roughly mid-decade," he stated. Sutor cautioned, however, that early applications will be isolated and may seem at first more like research experiments than actual commercial applications. "However, the techniques will spread to other industries; they will be improved and new algorithms developed," he said. "I think we'll see wave after wave of greatly enhanced quantum applications coming every few years after that."
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John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous business and technology publications, including Computerworld, CFO Magazine, IBM Data Management Magazine, RFID Journal, and Electronic ... View Full Bio