‘Blockchain’, ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘big data’: the usual buzz words. Quantum computing is less discussed but presents significant opportunities and potential risks for all businesses. The Council of the EU has recently announced a €1billion fund for businesses for the development of quantum technologies including quantum computers. But what are quantum computers? And why are they important ?

What are quantum computers?

Classic computers process data using ‘bits’ that take binary values – ‘1’ (on) or ‘0’ (off) – and these bits can only be in one state at a point in time. Tangibly these are electrical switches (transistors) allowing or blocking electricity through a wire. Quantum computers use advanced chipsets that can store, change and manipulate atoms and other sub-atomic particles using quantum ‘bits’ (‘qubits’). Qubits harness the laws of quantum mechanics to test the probability of an answer being a ‘1’, ‘0’, and/or both. The result of qubits processing the probability of an answer (and therefore many more possible solutions) means they are significantly faster than classic computers. Classic computers struggle where the probability of each answer is similar e.g. brute force hacking by testing passwords one at a time; a quantum computer can instantly test the probability of each password being used and answer with that which is most likely. The Financial Times reported that: “Calculations that would take advanced supercomputers thousands of years to perform will eventually be done in less than a minute by quantum computers.” Quantum computers are nevertheless expected to supplement rather than replace classic computers due to bits remaining a more efficient way to store information and them being hard to build and even harder to maintain.

Opportunities and risks

Disruption and innovation are ironically the new business normal. It’s predicted that quantum computers will not be commercially viable until 2040 so change is not imminent. However, there is significant current investment in these projects and their impact could be staggering.

Quantum computers’ use-cases could include:

  • immediately defeating standard encryption technologies rendering them obsolete;
  • comparing new pharmaceuticals for testing within seconds giving a significant speed-to-market advantage; and
  • increasing the speed of trading and transactions meaning regulators will need to find new ways to effectively monitor securities activities.

Businesses and regulators are already thinking about quantum computing. The National Institute of Standards and Technology in the United States, among others, are trying to create ‘post-quantum cryptography’ to minimise the risk of standard encryption being unexpectedly defeated. For now, quantum computing is far from mainstream, but the immense opportunities and risks that quantum computing presents cannot be ignored.