A new era of computing in the cloud is about to take off, but despite the near limitless compute power of the quantum world, it requires a new approach to the market to become a success
The word ‘quantum’ has been used in computing for many years. The traditional big tech firms like IBM, alongside the world’s leading academic institutions, have been theorising and putting into practice an entirely different way to make a computer – and not just in the way they look!
Quantum computers are a completely different entity, mainly because they don’t ‘compute’ on the same basis as every other computer, no matter how powerful, that has ever existed before. Quantum computers don’t perform calculations in simple binary, either a zero or one (a bit), because a quantum ‘qubit’ can be both a zero or one at the same time; essentially the state of the bit can be multiple things at once, allowing all possible computations to be arrived at simultaneously, not one by one which even the fastest computers would have to do with the data flowing into them.
How is this magic possible I hear you cry? Well, it’s down to some pretty wacky concepts like superposition and entanglement, which takes quite a bit of time to get your head around. But all you really need to know is that it’s set to change the world of data forever.
What’s involved in quantum computing, and where can it be used?
As each week passes in the world of big tech, supercomputers are getting faster and faster, with a growing number of incredible supercomputers pushing the boundaries of computation. But all these machines have the same limiting factor. Because of the binary numbers on which they depend – ones and zeros – they offer a much more limited set of mathematical possibilities than the continuous, and seemingly endless, quantities of the real world.
And when we say fast, we mean staggeringly so. One recent scientific boundary was broken by a new type of quantum computer called Jiuzhang which uses a novel light-based processor at its heart. A longstanding Chinese mathematical problem has been estimated to take today’s fastest computer, Japan’s Fukagu, millions of years to solve. The Jiuzhang quantum computer can crack it in 200 seconds. It’s like living the far future today in terms of colossal computing power.
Such power will be transformational for some of the world’s biggest problems: climate modelling, gene sampling, chemical analysis, particle physics, cyber crime/encryption etc. There’s a growing set of specific problems that quantum computers are set to solve too, many involving spotting patterns quickly in very disparate and large data sets. Don’t forget that the rate of the world’s computer data generation is roughly doubling every two years, so today’s supercomputers will eventually struggle to keep pace.
So why the cloud for quantum?
Rather than being a question of why, it’s more of a question of how can it not be cloud-based? Like the phenomenal abilities of quantum computers, the cost of developing and procuring an on-premises quantum computer for a business is practically out of reach for 99.9% of those who would like to have one. So, it’s no accident that those leading the charge on quantum are heavily invested in the cloud: IBM, Microsoft, Amazon and Google. In fact, Google was the first company to claim so-called ‘quantum supremacy’ recently with its Sycamore quantum processor (though Jiuzhang is also claiming it). Quantum supremacy is achieved when a quantum computer is proven to produce results that no classic computer today could realistically replicate within a sensible time frame.
So, all that power is very enticing, but what tangible services are being offered? As you would expect there’s been a gold rush to get services up and running, but the concept and real-world benefits are not easy to sell.
Microsoft was early to the quantum cloud party in 2019 with Azure Quantum, a general-purpose cloud solution for deploying quantum applications. Amazon’s Braket was available in late 2020 while Google Cloud has Tensorflow Quantum for machine learning, as opposed to a general purpose quantum compute offering. IBM’s Quantum Experience is also a rapidly advancing offering.
In common with these cloud providers is having remote data centres with quantum computers, similar to how they do with ordinary computers. Users connect to them via an interface and either build their own software or use current software to take advantage of the computational power without having to learn the physics. They are not accessing the quantum hardware directly, that kind of service is highly experimental and still many years away from being production ready. It’s obvious that quantum faces a bit of an identity crisis as a result, and the key players will have to work hard on capturing the imagination of big business to use quantum at all.
Positioning cloud companies for super success in quantum
1: Low barriers to entry – cloud computing has become a success because of a flexible approach (the ability to try one instance and move to another without traditional frictions), so quantum has to follow suit. The user-facing software has to be every bit as familiar and easy to use as it is today.
2: A balanced offering – cloud instances change very quickly and try to cater for every tiny nuance of computing need. Quantum’s problem will be offering something that isn’t adequately catered for in existing kit and having it at an attractive price point. After all, quantum’s benefits today are very much theoretical rather than practical.
3: Position on the cloud journey – as most businesses adopt cloud and move away from on-premises environments, the place they inhabit on that cloud journey can be extremely varied, with stop-gaps or medium-term solutions like hybrid, proving ideal for today’s demands and the immediate demands of tomorrow. Quantum is difficult to position on this journey for now, it might even be considered an entirely separate path to what most organisations are on.
4: The future now – Despite the challenges already mentioned, it’s clear that those companies that adopt early and begin their development on quantum will get ahead in what is certain to be tomorrow’s compute platforms. The future is hard to predict, but cloud access to quantum is what we’ll be hearing a lot more about in the next few years, and the key vendors will be ramping up their drive to adopt it. Watch this space! Or spaces, if we’re being quantum accurate!