A quantum computing arms race has taken hold of the IT industry, with Google recently claiming "quantum supremacy" in its efforts to take another step closer to the finish line.
In a peer-reviewed study, the technology giant recently claimed it had used a quantum computer to solve in minutes a complex problem that would take today's most powerful supercomputer thousands of years to crack.
Although quantum computing rival IBM unsurprisingly was quick to pour cold water on Google’s announcement, the breakthrough has been hailed as a milestone in what ultimately will transform not just the IT industry, but organisations and governments across the world.
But like any new frontier, the impending dawn of quantum computing, begs the question: will there any role for the channel to play in quantum computing? And how much should channel players be readying themselves for the impending quantum revolution?
Beyond human imagination
Before assessing any kind of opportunity, it’s important to consider how far-flung a quantum computer is from the ones we know of today.
Rather than a question of chips and connections, a quantum computer at its core is a case of physics and chemistry. Essentially, the idea is to harness quantum physics, laws governing the behaviour of sub-atomic particles that can simultaneously exist in different states. While traditional computing relies on bits, or ones and zeros, quantum computing uses quantum bits, or qubits, that can be both one and zero at the same time.
As Gartner 'distinguished vice president' and analyst Martin Reynolds explains, it’s a process looking at the spectrum across 150 dimensions. “It’s something we as humans can’t imagine even possibly doing,” he said. “For a conventional computer, it would take until the end of time to figure out. But for a quantum computer, seconds.”
This ability to harness physics in the quantum scale can, in theory, allow calculations to be done in tandem with each other on a huge scale, which in practical terms means crunching a lot of data very rapidly.
The practical implications of this have been envisioned from everything including long-term weather forecasting and financial modelling, development of new drugs, to even space exploration.
“The power it would provide is going to be exponentially greater than a traditional and there is a lot more than what we can do now,” according to Ashwin Pal, director of cyber security at global systems integrator Unisys. “When it does become mainstream, the opportunities are going to be massive.”
However, he warned, it does bring some serious implications for cyber security, saying: “Encryption today takes a lot of power to break through. But with quantum, it can get broken in five seconds flat and encryption goes out the window. However, then you can build better security at the same time. The opportunities are twofold.”
Where the channel can play
Currently in the race for quantum supremacy alongside Google and IBM are Amazon Web Services, Honeywell and Microsoft, to name a few.
“The vendors are spending a lot of R&D dollars on quantum computing and it’s a case of who will be first to market,” elaborates Pal. If you look at mainframes, IBM paved the way there and have the lion share of the market today.”
Meanwhile, quantum activity has been heating up for some time in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere in the local region, with institutions such as the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T), based at University of NSW, and Microsoft’s Station Q program at the University of Sydney leading the way.
In New Zealand, the University of Auckland was among several institutions in the broader region to benefit from an investment of more than NZ$215 million over 10 years to find and develop companies involved in "disruptive innovation", including quantum computing.
Two years ago in Australia, the NSW government pledged A$26 million to fund the commercialisation of quantum computing. Efforts escalated earlier this year when the state government-backed the creation of the Sydney Quantum Academy (SQA), which brings four institutions, University of Sydney, UNSW, Macquarie University, the University of Technology together backed by more than A$35 million. And, as an illustration of its importance to the country, quantum physicist Michelle Simmons was crowned Australian of the Year in 2018.
However, all researchers and vendors face some serious hurdles ahead in harnessing quantum computing. As Reynolds explained, finding qubits that work effectively, can be stabilised and then harnessed is a deeply difficult task, one that even the best minds in science and technology are still grappling with.
“There’s a lot of research going on in the basic physics and everyone is doing it in their own way but knows who are going to go out and win this,” he said.
As such, different analysts and organisations have given varying timeframes ranging from five to 10 years before practical applications emerge, and even 30 before the full power of quantum computing is realised.
But there will be (some) opportunities on the horizon for Australian channel partners, especially considering Sydney’s push to becoming a quantum capital. But as Reynolds warns, it’s largely the big resellers and systems integrators who will have the time and mammoth resources to even consider investing in the technology.
“If you’re a big-sized agricultural player and you want to use quantum computing to create new fertiliser, you won’t have the expertise to make this happen,” explains Reynolds. “But someone like DXC could set up a Quantum Computing practice that can work with your chemists and come up with these new solutions.
“Businesses may very well turn to service providers to provide them with quantum expertise to help them with say their drug research or logistical program. For a big service provider, these skills are very leverageable across a whole range of industries.”
In addition, according to a recent report by Technology Business Research, opportunities for professional services vendors such as Accenture and Atos will be available to "invest in the education of future generations".
Although Reynolds adds that quantum computing “won’t be a mainstream IT thing”, for the big players in a position to create practical applications will need to invest in “new processor technology, new systems and ever-increasing analytics”.
While no major investment has been made yet, for Unisys quantum computing remains a strong priority, but at this stage the best it can hope to do is simply stay in-the-know.
“For now it’s about staying ahead of the developments and applications, so we can be among the first to take it to market embedded in our products,” said Pal.