It used to be that geeks bragged of computers’ sheer speed—clock rates and teraflops—but the machines of tomorrow will be measured in volume. In March, Honeywell unveiled the world’s highest-performing quantum computer, the System Model H1, which boasts an effective quantum volume of 512—four times…bigger?…than its previous incarnation. If seeing Honeywell’s name in this context looks odd, that only underscores how different quantum computers are from the semiconductors we take for granted. But thanks to its experience with the lasers, cryogenics, and ultra-high vacuums necessary for subatomic manipulation, the industrial giant has at least temporarily surpassed IBM as the early leader in quantum supremacy.
With just 10 quantum bits, or “qubits,” Honeywell’s system is still little more than a toy model. Even so, farsighted customers, including JP Morgan Chase, DHL, and BMW, are already lining up to run experiments with far-reaching consequences in everything from cryptography to deliveries and supply chains. As its name implies, what sets quantum computers apart from binary machines calculating 1s and 0s is their use of quantum logic gates able to superimpose bits simultaneously, unlocking a vast new space (or volume) for computation. This, in turn, opens the possibility of solving fiendishly complex problems within a human lifetime—or someday, within the milliseconds we’ve come to expect. But then again, it’s not really about speed, is it?
“Dispelling that myth has been fun, because people’s first thought is that it’s just a faster classical computer, and it’s not,” says Tony Uttley, president of Honeywell Quantum Solutions. “It’s the difference between never even trying to solve the problem—because it would have taken 10,000 years—and being able to solve it now.” He made this point during an online discussion of quantum’s promise to transform computation as we know it during Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies Summit in March, a virtual event sponsored in part by Honeywell (which was ranked fourth in the enterprise category on the publication’s annual list).
One of those problems is factoring very large integers into a product of smaller ones, a mathematical technique of deceptive complexity underlying nearly all encryption—which has governments and financial institutions spooked. “The current methods we use ubiquitously for identification and confidentiality are going to be exposed,” warned Lisa O’Connor, managing director of global cybersecurity research and development at Accenture. While this is well beyond the capabilities of current quantum computers, it’s only a matter of time. In response, her firm and others are already exploring “postquantum cryptography,” by sponsoring competitions to produce a new generation of algorithms bred for “hardness”—effectively making it more difficult for a quantum machine to crack.
One of those unsolvable exercises is the “traveling salesman problem”—given enough locations, and tasked with finding the optimal route between them, even the fastest supercomputers will grind for centuries seeking the right answer. “There are a lot of problems like that in logistics, where if you add just a couple of more variables, the complexity increases exponentially,” said Justin Baird, vice president and head of innovation at DHL. An industry that spends billions of dollars on IT annually seeking to save a few percentage points worth of efficiency could be transformed by quantum. “Whether it’s dispatching DHL delivery vans or trying to pack a bin so you’re not leaving any air—quantum could drive an efficiency we’ve never seen before,” he added.
Another field where mature quantum computing might immediately make an impact is in vaccines and pharmaceuticals, applications that have special resonance during a pandemic. Simulating protein folding—the process through which a two-dimensional coil of polypeptides translated from mRNA is synthesized into a three-dimensional protein—has been a top priority for computational biology since the 1960s, with not much progress to show for it until recently. If quantum can move more drug research and chemistry out of the lab and into simulation—”if I could understand how this reaction was going to change this material’s properties,” said Uttley—it could make the relatively blazing speed of mRNA vaccines even faster.
SOLVING THE PROBLEM OF PROBLEM-SOLVING
Unsurprisingly, banks and financial services have also dipped a toe in the water to explore what O’Connor called “quantum portfolios.” “Imagine the complexity of all these possible investments, how risk-averse you are, and what the portfolio and performance could look like,” she mused. “Being able to model that would be a complete differentiator in the marketplace.”
But perhaps the ultimate disruptive impact of quantum computing will be its entanglement with how to structure problem-framing and structure itself. “Imagine a ten- or hundred-step problem, and of those hundred steps, you’re going to use the quantum computer for one,” Uttley explained. “What does it do best? It says, ‘This is the starting point,’ and then you run the rest classically. What we’re finding is that it’s even better at finding that starting point than today’s computers are.”
And that changes everything. It means that as quantum evolves, the space of problems it can solve—the volume, if you will—is rapidly expanding to encompass nearly everything.