When will quantum computing go mainstream? The answers to this question can be found by examining:
- The status of quantum hardware;
- The status of quantum kernel development;
- The quantum application development environment; and,
- The readiness of the quantum vendor ecosystem.
To further this discussion, I’d like to use IBM’s Quantum computer platform and associated programming environments as an example of how quantum development is tracking. (My reasons: I see some of the most advanced quantum hardware and kernel development coming from IBM – and IBM has a long history in advanced system development – it knows how to build full systems stacks).
I will also make heavy use of a recent survey conducted by the Unitary Fund (survey found here) to better illustrate what is currently happening in the quantum computing development community and ecosystem. Note that 40% of the respondents are performing quantum research, and they see themselves as algorithm or application developers (about 1/3 of these respondents are directly involved in circuit development and optimization or quantum simulation/physics). Thirty per cent of the respondents are developing quantum software applications; 26% are involved in quantum information theory.
In other words, I’ll be using data coming directly from quantum practitioners.
The state of IBM quantum hardware
In a quantum computing blog that I wrote back in 2019 (found here), I stated that:
“The roll-out of quantum solutions is being throttled by quantum computing capacity… much more computing capacity (and better noise reduction combined with fault tolerance and better qubits) are needed to tackle larger problems. In short, quantum computing at present is ‘hardware constrained’.”
The good news in this respect is that by the end of 2023, IBM will introduce quantum computers capable of using 1,000 qubits. IBM says that the importance of the 1,000-qubit milestone is “to explore the limits of what is possible to condense on a single chip. What really matters for applications is our ability to implement modularity in our systems, along with expanded capabilities.”
My read is that at 1,000 qubits, quantum computers cross a threshold wherein a new set of complex commercial problems can be addressed and solved. According to technology magazine IEEE Spectrum: “In 2023, IBM plans to begin prototyping quantum software applications. By 2025, the company expects to introduce such applications in machine learning, optimization problems, the natural sciences, and beyond.”
After 2023, expect performance to grow rapidly. In 2024 IBM will deliver a 1,386+ qubit system; 2025 will see a 4,158 qubit system; and 2026 will see a scaling environment ranging from 10,00 to 100,000 qubits with classical and quantum intercommunication.
Along the above-mentioned scaling route, IBM will introduce control hardware that will allow classical communication between separate processors; it will then introduce multi-chip processors, followed by parallelization (IBM is expert at parallelizing systems – look at its Sysplex architecture as proof).
The state of IBM kernel development
Probably the biggest challenge in quantum kernel development is error handling. The good news from an industry perspective is that researchers at IBM, Google, Microsoft, University of Innsbruck, AWS, Quantinuum – and others across the entire quantum community– are hard at work developing various techniques to address quantum error correction as they strive to achieve quantum fault tolerance. (Some of these techniques include honeycomb code, fractal surface codes, magic state distillation, error mitigation and others).
Only a few months ago, in November, 2022, IBM announced “dynamic circuit” availability (a means to trade off circuit depth and width, which IBM says “can be the difference between a circuit which works and one whose output is indistinguishable from noise”). To quote another IBM technical paper: “Dynamic circuits aren’t just a nifty new tool for today’s processors, but part of our broader mission to bring about useful quantum computing.”
This “broader mission” includes “throttling” capabilities in the Qiskit Runtime in 2023 to help improve circuit reliability and reduce errors. With this throttling capability, performance is traded-off for error correction.
The state of quantum software development
This is where the Unitary Fund survey (mentioned in the introduction) comes in handy. The Unitary Fund is a non-profit organization that is helping to build the quantum ecosystem. In its survey of 1,000 quantum users/programmers/managers, the Unitary Fund looked at quantum user demographics, the quantum development experience (cloud services, full-stack development platforms and simulators, and software for applications and tools). Unitary also looked at open source software development and research.
- What did the survey show?: 90% of the survey respondents use quantum software.
- How do they get access to quantum services? 80% of the respondents are using IBM cloud services to connect to quantum processing units (QPUs). (21% are using AWS Braket; followed by Xanadu, Microsoft, Google, Rigetti, IonQ and Honeywell).
- What quantum stack development tools are quantum developers using? IBM’s Qiskit (including Qiskit Aer) tops the list as the most popular library, followed by Google’s Cirq, Xanadu’s PennyLane, AWS, and Quantinuum.
- What tools are being used for quantum application development? The answer: various Qiskit packages, PennyLane’s QML repo,OpenQASM, Qiskit-finance, tensorflow for quantum — and Unitary Fund’s Mitiq for quantum error correction. And there is strong interest in using other tools as they are developed in the future.
- What are the most popular programming languages: Python (used by 94% of respondents); followed by C/C++, Julia and Rust.
- How has quantum computing been received? At present, IBM quantum clients include 210+ Fortune 500 companies, academic institutions, national labs and startups. Early adopters include Exxon Mobil, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Samsung, Fraunhofer, Goldman Sachs, Sony, JSR, Boeing, Mitsubishi Chemical, Capgemini, Mizuho. And there are research activities at various universities around the world – and governments are also investing in quantum computing. Further, skills are being developed in the professional services community to provide “for hire” quantum expertise.
Clearly, with all of this activity, the tools and development environments are in place to start building quantum solutions.
The state of the vendor ecosystem
Although this blog has focused on IBM, there are several other vendors building “full stack” quantum solutions. These include Microsoft, Google, Intel, AWS, Alibaba, D-Wave Systems, IQM, Origin, Oxford, and Xanadu. (A list of 81 vendors involved in quantum development can be found here).
As stated in a previous Clabby Analytics blog (here), “as quantum volume increases, expect to see advances in chemical simulation, scenario simulation, optimization and artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML). After this, the next phase of use cases in chemicals and petroleum will include advances in oil shipping/trucking, refining processes and drilling locations. Advances in distribution and logistics will include freight forecasting, irregular behaviors (Ops), disruption management and distribution supply chain improvements.
In financial services, quantum computers will bring advances in derivatives pricing, irregular behavior analysis (fraud analysis) and investment risk analysis. In healthcare and life sciences, advances can be expected through accelerated diagnosis, in clinical trial enhancements, in genomic analysis, and in medical/drug supply chain activities. Finally, in manufacturing, quantum computing will aid in quality control, process planning, manufacturing supply chain activities and in fabrication optimization.”
Over time, when quantum computers reach the ability to control thousands of qubits (2030 timeframe), expect to see advances in seismic imaging, in consumer offer recommendations, in financial offer recommendations, in disease risk predictions and in structural design and fluid dynamics.
In short, with more system power, more complex quantum applications can be processed. As quantum computers become more powerful, expect the list of applications that can be developed to track system scalability – and expect the vendor ecosystem to mushroom as these more powerful systems are delivered.
IIBM’s Institute for Business Value report entitled “The Quantum Decade: A playbook for achieving awareness, readiness, and advantage” (available here) has this to say about quantum readiness:
Complex real-world problems may not be solvable until we progress toward fault-tolerant quantum computing —the Quantum Decade’s culmination. This is a class of quantum computing where you can run general-purpose quantum programs compiled across both quantum and classical resources. Fault-tolerant computers incorporate procedures that help prevent errors from multiplying and spreading, allowing them to run quantum circuits arbitrarily close to correct even when their physical components are faulty.
Also consider this summary of the IEEE Quantum Week conference:
“Quantum computers are real and available to program, but constructing large, reliable quantum computers remains a significant challenge. Extracting the full potential of these systems will likely require major advances in quantum error correction technology.” (IEEE Quantum Week conference, October, 2022 – available here).
The bottom line: quantum computing will introduce a new era in computing – one that conquers previously unsolvable problems. If your enterprise has very complex computing problems that are difficult to solve using traditional computing systems – it is time to evaluate quantum systems .
Early adopter enterprises will get a significant strategic jump over their competitors by building quantum computing applications. And with the hardware in place at the end of the year – and with the advancements in kernel, software development and the ecosystem – and the new opportunities that quantum computing will process – enterprises need to proactively get a quantum development and deployment strategy in place.