It’s early days, but quantum technology is rapidly evolving and businesses need to prepare now for the paradigm shift.  

Inside a room crammed with tangled fibre-optic cables at the top of a skyscraper in downtown Toronto, researchers at Xanadu Quantum Technologies have just one mission to fulfill: to build quantum computers that are useful and available to people everywhere. “We’re aiming for a full fault-tolerant, error-correctable quantum computer,” said Christian Weedbrook, a University of Queensland and Australian National University alumnus who founded Xanadu in 2016. 

The team are developing cloud-accessible quantum computers that use particles of light to represent qubits, the basic units of information in quantum computing. They are also building hardware out of existing silicon components. So far, Xanadu researchers have managed to pack 40 qubits onto a single thumbnail-sized chip by squeezing laser light. But the ultimate dream is to create a chip with 1 million qubits. 

Xanadu’s light-powered approach could one day lead to smaller quantum computers that are cheaper than others on the market. The six-year-old company has already caught the eye of forward-looking investors. In May 2021, Xanadu landed US$100 million in new funding in a Series B round led by Silicon Valley heavyweight Bessemer Venture Partners, taking the company’s total funding to US$145 million to date. 

The start-up’s meteoric rise reflects the blazing speed at which quantum technologies have evolved from a distant possibility to a commercially viable opportunity. In 2021 alone, investments in quantum computing start-ups surpassed US$1.7 billion, more than double the amount raised in 2020. And some big players are already getting ‘quantum ready’, with the likes of Alibaba, Amazon, IBM, Google, and Microsoft launching commercial quantum computing cloud services. “People are seeing that the technology is mature enough to get serious about, rather than an emerging technology that’s coming in the future,” said David Garvin, principal researcher of quantum computing at NEC Australia.  

Time to ride the learning curve 

Unlike classical computers, quantum computers harness the strange laws of quantum mechanics to process information at lightning speeds for some computational problems. While today’s computers use bits that are represented by either a 1 or a 0, quantum computers use qubits that can be both 0 and 1 simultaneously, a phenomenon known as superposition. Qubits are also able to seemingly interact with each other even when they are light years apart thanks to quantum entanglement. These bizarre properties give quantum computers the ability to crunch certain calculations that would take standard computers thousands of years to solve. “Quantum computing is a totally different paradigm,” said Weedbrook. 

While quantum computing is still a new kid on the commercial block, it’s growing up fast to become a revolutionary. This rapid advancement indicates that now is the time for chief information officers and other business leaders to gain a grasp of quantum technology and begin developing quantum strategies, particularly those in industries that are projected to see an early payoff, such as cybersecurity, pharmaceuticals, finance, logistics, and materials science.  

The first step to becoming quantum-ready is to gain an understanding of the threats and opportunities it presents. It’s also important to keep in mind that mastering a whole new paradigm of computing doesn’t happen overnight. Xanadu for instance spends at least a couple of years working with customers to clarify their biggest computational challenges and whether they can be solved with quantum computing. “You need to get started today, as it takes time to understand how to map it to a customer’s problems for them to get the most out of it” said Weedbrook.   

This means that late adopters risk lagging far behind their fast-moving competitors and may end up spending exorbitant amounts to get up to speed down the track. “It’s an exponential technology, meaning that you can get a big benefit very quickly,” said Garvin, who has previously worked at Rigetti Computing, which develops quantum-integrated circuits and provides quantum cloud services. “First movers may well capture big market share, so it will be hard to catch up.” 

It’s also important to remember that with great opportunities come great risks. Quantum computers could have the power to break conventional cryptography schemes that keep data and communications secure. And while no one has yet managed to build a quantum computer that renders current cybersecurity infrastructure useless, putting mitigations in place now is imperative as lead times are often much longer than expected.  

Take action today for a quantum tomorrow 

Both Weedbrook and Garvin joined a panel at Sydney Quantum Academy’s inaugural Quantum Australia Conference and Careers Fair last month delving into how businesses can prepare for a quantum future.  The event attracted over 800 researchers, investors, students, and decision-makers across government, industry, start-ups, and big tech, demonstrating growing interest in quantum’s potential.  

At the event it was discussed, once leaders have a clear idea of how quantum technology could impact their business, they need to develop an action plan that outlines what they want to do and when. This could involve building their internal quantum ‘brains trust’ that can stay on top of how the technology is evolving, its impact on industry, and how the company could reap rewards.  

Fostering and building this talent base early could also give businesses an edge over their competitors as quantum computing skills become more highly sought after. “When the competitors scramble and try to catch up, they’ll also have the problem of having no people available or having to pay huge amounts to poach them,” said Garvin. 

The next step on the quantum ladder is to begin exploring the areas where quantum computing could accelerate a business forward and developing use cases that could benefit. Some organisations already have their foot in the door, with investment bank and financial services giant Goldman Sachs exploring how quantum algorithms could be used to evaluate risk and price assets. Pharmaceutical company Biogen is also experimenting with a quantum algorithm that compares drug molecules more efficiently than a standard computer, which could speed up the drug discovery process.  While in Australia, Transport for NSW and the state government are looking at using quantum computing to crunch vast amounts of road and rail data to solve big challenges, such as tackling service disruptions quickly.   

While the dawn of the quantum age is inching closer, Weedbrook said that it’s important for business leaders to keep their expectations in check as quantum technology evolves. A useable 1-million-qubit computer that can potentially solve a company’s biggest problems in months is still a few years away, so he cautions against being swept away with the hype. “It’s a long-term journey,” said Weedbrook. “Be wary of anyone that’s promising to improve your bottom line in the next year or two.”  

If you missed the Quantum Australia Conference on 23-25 February 2022, you can still catch all recorded panels and presentations on-demand until 30 April.  The program included over 60 local and international experts covering the latest developments and ideas in quantum technology.  Or contact Sydney Quantum Academy to find out more how you can engage with the Sydney quantum community.