Quantum Computing: Why The Board Should Care

There is a growing interest across the world in the feasibility of quantum computing and when it will finally become a reality in business. And that’s for good reason. Quantum would enable problem-solving capabilities to address simulations and complicated optimisation questions involving a formidable number of variables and potential outcomes at amazing speeds not attainable with conventional computers. Quantum-inspired algorithms could bring innovative solutions and approaches to product development, reduce time to market, optimise customer delivery, and speed up data transfers. There isn’t an industry that wouldn’t be significantly affected once one or two competitors harness quantum’s disruptive computing power. The remaining players in the sector will be left scrambling to catch up.

Importantly, general purpose quantum computers could significantly weaken, even kill, current cryptography systems used to hide and secure data so that only certain people can view it. In other words, a quantum computer of sufficient power will instantly render today’s security systems obsolete and break the encryption of sensitive data protected by today’s strongest security. When this performance threshold is met, an organisation’s data, intellectual property (trade secrets, proprietary systems, formulas, patents, customer information and data) will be at risk. Any information shared on public channels now or in the future will be vulnerable.

Clearly, this would have huge implications for industries such as financial services and healthcare that have significant regulatory requirements for data privacy and security. And the impact wouldn’t be limited to the private sector, as government and military communications would also be compromised.

So, for boards, there are three relevant questions.

Quantum computers are machines that use the properties of quantum physics to store data and perform computations. Conventional computers store data using bits, which have a value of either zero or one, whereas quantum computing uses “qubits” (short for quantum bits), which can represent both zero and one simultaneously. Think of it this way: a coin is binary, heads or tails — the “value” is either one or the other. But when a coin is flipped, it’s both heads and tails, as well as all combinations of the two. This fundamental ability of a quantum system to exist in more than one state at any time is called superposition. Instead of coins, quantum abilities use atoms to fuel this new way of computing.

Some believe that Moore’s Law — the ability to double the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit about every two years — has hit the wall of physical limitations. So, while conventional computers will have a role to play in the foreseeable future, there are complex problems they’ll never be able to solve. Algorithms written to take advantage of qubits can perform certain types of computations much more quickly and with much less energy than conventional computers. Herein lies the promise of quantum.

No one knows for sure how to answer this question. True, there is hype that some characterise as overreach. But as time passes, the forecast for practical use cases compresses. Certain things are clear: technology companies are investing heavily in quantum capabilities, and when quantum is commercially feasible, it will be a game-changer for how business is done. Companies in various industries are already experimenting with the technology to address logistics and investing in startups focused on the hardware, software, algorithms, security and analytics that will make quantum computing a reality. Therefore, as companies assess the “when” question and keep a watchful eye on market developments, they should also prepare for this brave new computing world. Numerous cloud environments already exist that allow companies to access quantum simulators and real quantum computers. Microsoft Azure Quantum, Amazon Braket and IBM Quantum Experience are a few examples, each one featuring rich development interfaces and tools.

There are several steps companies should take today:

Select a quantum champion. Obtain executive sponsorship. Designate someone responsible for following industry progress on quantum capabilities and for leading preparations for the eventual quantum world, possibly within the CIO organisation.

Conduct a quantum-readiness assessment. Ask questions such as: How much do we know about quantum computing? How will it likely be applied in our industry? What do we need to remain relevant and competitive as this advanced computing environment evolves? 

Identify quantum computing use cases and assess their value to your organisation. The quantum champion should work with all business units to determine important business and technology issues the company is unable to address today but may be able to address using quantum.

Uncover potential risks to encryption and other aspects of company security. The threats quantum presents to conventional cryptography are formidable. That’s why it’s time to start thinking about cryptographic agility and assessing necessary changes. 

Chart a quantum course and multiyear road map. Based on the identified priority use cases and encryption and security exposure, lay out a road map for developing quantum capabilities. 

Start your journey and reassess the road map every six to 12 months. Update the road map based on new quantum–computing discoveries and developments, the emergence of new use cases, and relevant changes in the industry and business environment. 

For a discussion on why quantum computing offers companies a powerful value proposition for solving complex problems in ways not attainable today, read the article here.

(Board Perspectives: Risk Oversight — Issue 139)