The Next Quantum Revolution

Quantum computing will produce a discontinuous "super-exponential" disruption.

Posted May 16, 2019

Moses Ma/DepositPhoto
Source: Moses Ma/DepositPhoto

Over the next decade, we can look forward to something extraordinary – a hard shift from the “normal” exponential change we’ve been experiencing for the last few decades, to something even more disruptive.

As Moore’s Law tells us, computers have become steadily more powerful every year, while dramatically shrinking in size and cost. The predictability of the decline in the cost-to-performance ratio of computing and communications technology has allowed us time to adapt in a manageable way. The Internet revolution resulted from the combination of these two factors, computing and communications, but the future holds an even bigger surprise: It won’t be just another bout of predictable and continuous change that we can understand and prepare for, but rather unforeseeable, discontinuous change: a massive phase transition for humanity is coming.

This is because quantum computing technology is fundamentally different from today’s transistor-based computers. Quantum computers can tackle complex problems that are currently impossible today, or that would take a prohibitively (impossibly) long time to solve: In one experiment, a single quantum computer solving an optimization problem bested 1 million computers at Google by a factor of 100. That’s 100,000,000 times faster, which is a whole lot more than doubling.

Now, you may ask, “Are these peer-reviewed or marketing numbers? How urgent is this challenge, really? When, that is, will our current systems become obsolete? Isn’t quantum computing still 20-30 years away?”

While it may indeed take years to develop reliable, general purpose, quantum computers, the potential of the impact of quantum computing-driven change is already being proven in labs of major corporations and institutions all over the world, which suggests that radical change is probably on the near horizon, not the far one.

So yes, the full and pervasive impact of quantum computing is probably a decade away. But at the same time, this also means that the next five years offer an unprecedented opportunity to gain first mover advantage in the market, to secure intellectual property (IP) rights, and to position your firm to be first to market with your particular applications in the quantum computing puzzle.

And so, every company today needs to understand how these coming discoveries will affect its business. The true leaders will not hesitate to stake out their positions in this emerging technology over the next few years.

Quantum Killer Apps

Past computing revolutions have been driven by killer apps. Military applications, e-commerce, social media, and frankly, porn have all played a part in bringing classical computing to mass scale, but the special capabilities of quantum computing are likely to lend themselves to computational problems that involve very heavy math.

For the quantum computing revolution, the killer app will be the first demonstration of quantum supremacy – also, more humbly referred to as Quantum Advantage –which is defined as the time when quantum computing will be able to solve problems that classical computers practically cannot solve. Consider, for example, that the encryption technologies widely used on the Internet are all based on the manipulation of large prime numbers. Use a large enough number, and the decryption/hacking problem could take today’s fastest classical computer a million years to solve. But a quantum computer could cut through it like a hot knife through digital butter, rendering current encryption technology essentially useless.

Every website in the world would become defenseless in the face of such a capability, and cryptography experts in the government intelligence and security agencies are already quite worried (although fortunately there are also “quantum defense countermeasures”). When this happens the discontinuous nature of this phase transition of quantum computing will make itself clear – in other words, you won’t have much time to figure it out. I believe that the day the first article is published that demonstrates that “quantum decryption” actually works, every CTO around the world will be on a mad scramble to upgrade their systems to become quantum resistant. While the estimated cost of Y2K was about $100 billion, it’s likely that this “quantum defense” may cost an order of magnitude more. Something like $1 trillion...

It’s important to note that quantum computing is not only a harbinger of dystopic security breaches. While we do expect it to disrupt our existing encryption systems, quantum computing will also unleash countless positive breakthroughs that will transform every industry – finance, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, materials science, and transportation will be fundamentally altered. Additionally, this quantum progress will enable more sound decision making, the scaling of blockchain-based systems, and making effective use of billions IoT-connected sensors and devices. Quantum computing will likely help us find cures to deadly diseases, discover new sub-atomic particles and properties of physics, address climate change problems, improve our cities, and travel into space.

The Quantum Age

How should you start on your quantum computing journey? If you’re managing a significant enterprise, consider performing a quantum risk assessment for your industry. Does your business rely heavily on computing power, on crunching massive numbers, optimization, or artificial intelligence? Then you need to learn how to leverage quantum computers before your competitors do. Does your business rely on security or Personally Identifiable Information (PII)? You need to discover how to migrate to quantum resistant cryptography for your data security systems.

The threats and opportunities should not be underestimated, as quantum computing is going to be both the next digital gold rush, and also the next disruptive tsunami. The consequences will be massive and could be perilous, and any leader who wants their organization to survive and succeed in this brave new quantum computing-powered world will require entirely new strategies for adaptation through innovation.  

Someday – sooner than you think – the streets in your city will be filled with driverless cars and trucks, and universal smartphone adoption will provide services that we can hardly imagine today. Powering them all will be decentralized infrastructures that leverage quantum computing processors. Adapting to the Quantum Age will bring massive challenges. And it will demand unstoppable commitment, enhanced agility, and breakthrough creativity. You must let go of the comfort of idea-killing, non-dynamic business processes, linear thinking, and even competitor-copying in the name of “best practices.” Quantum computing will bring also discontinuous change to the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence, blockchain, genomic medicine, virtual and augmented reality, and other domains for which we don’t yet have names. It's all part of the emerging "quantum stack" that will complete the information revolution to bring us into the future.

It’s time to get ready.

NB: This is an excerpt from my book, Quantum Design Sprint.