By | November 13, 2023
Rendering of a futuristic microchip

The cloud is big business – and it still has great growth potential. The global market for public cloud services this year will be worth around $597 billion (£462 billion), according to an estimate by Gartner in April. The tech research giant expects that total to jump to $725 billion by 2024 and believes this rate of expansion is sustainable for at least the next few years. It has predicted that three-quarters of organizations “will adopt a digital transformation model based on the cloud as the fundamental underlying platform” by 2026.

But what if the massive processing power of the cloud providers’ servers could easily be surpassed by that offered by an alternative technology? Quantum computing can reportedly perform certain functions in microseconds that, it seems, would take several millennia for a conventional computer to wrestle down. Does the so-called quantum advantage mean that the demand for classical computing could decrease dramatically in the next few years?

We need to set the right expectations for quantum computing. It will be able to solve only certain types of problems more effectively

“Computing has become increasingly homogeneous over the past two decades,” notes Richard Hopkins, a distinguished engineer specializing in hybrid cloud solutions at IBM and former senior quantum ambassador at the company. “We’re going to see more speciation, because we need it. Essentially, there are lots of very powerful computers under the cloud. We can’t afford to try to solve large-scale optimization problems with conventional computers like these, because we’d consume huge amounts of power.”

Bloomberg has estimated that the cloud could use 8% of all electricity generated in the world by the end of this decade. One of the reasons for this, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, is that almost every possible efficiency gain has been squeezed out of classic computing.

Hopkins says IBM expects the quantum computer to solve complex problems, without requiring anywhere near the same amount of power, before 2030.

How quantum computing progresses

Quantum computing still has some significant development hurdles to overcome. For example, the computers require cooling to -273ºC – absolute zero – and have other demanding operating requirements. Despite this, some quantum capacity is already available. In addition, it is available via the cloud.

“We’ve launched Amazon Braket, a fully managed service that gives customers access to different types of quantum hardware,” said Simone Severini, head of quantum technologies at Amazon Web Services and professor of information physics at University College London.

He reveals that the service is still limited in scope, but “the idea is to allow experimentation and to help accelerate scientific research and software development for quantum computing”.

Hopkins believes that quantum computing “won’t enter the mainstream for a few years, but today at IBM we have 24 quantum computing systems in our cloud. Our System Two, which can run quantum processing units alongside classical central processing units, will be released later this year.”

How quantum computing can benefit businesses

But what can quantum computers do? Hopkins explains that quantum computing applies to problems beyond the capabilities of the algorithms that can be run on classical computers. “For example, in credit card processing, we used a quantum algorithm alongside a classical one and were able to reduce the number of false positives and negatives beyond the state of the art.”

Severini says that “some of the hardware available on Amazon Braket is universal – that is, it addresses all computing problems – and some of it is specific to particular problems”.

Computations have become homogenous over the last two decades, but we will see more speciation – because we need it

He emphasizes that quantum computing should not be seen as a panacea. There are some problems that are extremely difficult for today’s conventional systems to solve that will also be extremely difficult for quantum computers, such as challenges in combinatorial optimization. This is the term used for tasks such as solving the so-called traveling salesman problem, which involves calculating the best route for a salesman to visit all the cities on his schedule once and then return home. As the number of destinations increases, it becomes very computationally intensive to devise the most efficient itinerary. Combinatorial optimization has many commercial applications, such as finding the best way to cut up sheets of raw material in a factory so that waste is minimized.

“We need to set the right expectations for quantum computing,” says Severini. “It will be able to solve certain types of problems more efficiently. Uploading data to quantum computers can be very time-consuming and the concept of quantum storage is still unclear. It is potentially useful when the input is small and the number of computational steps required is very large.”

He does not expect the quantum computer to become primarily a business service. In his view, it will “be used specifically as a research instrument and have the greatest impact on areas related to quantum physics”.

However, research can cover areas such as molecular interaction simulation, price optimization and supply chain optimization, all of which have commercial potential.

Does quantum computing pose a threat to data security?

There are security concerns about the potential misuse of quantum computers. An example of “small input, many steps” is calculating the prime numbers that have been used in a cryptography key. With a 400-digit key, a classical computer running a million factorizations per second could, over the lifetime of the universe, try 1024 possibility. To be sure of cracking the key, it would need to examine 10200 potential combinations. A quantum computer, however, could possibly break the long-standing RSA encryption standard that many of today’s online security systems still rely on.

The authorities take this risk seriously. For example, the US government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology announced the first four quantum-resistant cryptographic algorithms in 2022 after a six-year competition.

Investors are also looking for solutions to the problem. Kamil Mieczakowski, a partner at venture capital firm Notion Capital, reports that they have invested in Arqit, “a company that helps companies become ‘quantum-ready’ with its quantum-safe encryption technology”.

Mieczakowski says it’s still early days for quantum computing, adding that, once it becomes more widely available, it will likely be “overkill” for most purposes. Classic cloud computing will still be the main workhorse.

He notes that “quantum computers are very expensive to build and run. They are also inherently fragile. The cloud will be the cheapest way to access quantum computing capacity.”

Quantum computers will in fact become part of the cloud as it continues to grow and add new technologies that can process data faster and more energy efficiently. But quantum computing is unlikely to usurp the cloud as the “fundamental underlying platform” on which tomorrow’s businesses will be built.

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