Get Into the Quantum Game: Use Cases Are Emerging

By Jim DeLoach


Emerging Technology Quantum Technology Oversight

Just over a year ago, I posted a blog focused on why the board should care about quantum computing. Since then, use cases for quantum computing continue to emerge.

One of the most misleading phrases found in articles about quantum computing goes something like this: “When quantum computers are available….” It turns out that quantum machines are not only available now but also powerful enough to tackle practical problems. In fact, they already do certain things better than classical computing, with some trade-offs.

Why Is It Time to Get Into the Game?

Quantum machines may not be able to crack encryption yet, but they’re already showing advantages in specific use cases. Some end-user companies are claiming “customer advantage” with quantum computing—meaning they’ve considered several leading options and found that a quantum approach provides some advantage, considering such aspects as price and speed.

Quantum computing has the potential to revolutionize all types of optimization and machine learning problems. Getting started now positions companies to be counted among market leaders. Think back to the first companies that took full advantage of the Internet. There is only one:

We don’t know exactly when true quantum advantage (satisfying the scientific community that a quantum computer can best a classical computer at a task, considering all relevant factors such as speed and accuracy) will be reached; however, some use cases in optimization could get there within a year. The key point is that when the advantage is achieved by one or more industry players and new use cases fundamentally disrupt manufacturing, logistics, and finance, companies that are not quantum-ready won’t be able to simply flip a switch and get in the quantum computing game. Bottom line, this journey is about readiness, for quantum computing can disrupt and destroy. Laggards will pay a price.

Beginning the Quantum Journey

To begin the journey to quantum readiness, companies need to task quantum technology champions with selecting areas of the business that this new technology may revolutionize. Design thinking exercises help stakeholders recognize the possibilities by brainstorming the types of problems currently being solved with technology and ascertaining whether to attempt use cases involving quantum algorithmic approaches that add more variables and constraints that haven’t been considered before.

Implementing quantum use cases can’t happen in a vacuum. Governance structure and support are needed. The right people from executive management, business, and technology leadership should be involved. This team needs to consider the applicability and potential benefits and risks of quantum computing and the appropriate investment level for the business.

Next comes a resource plan. There is a serious skills shortage in quantum technology software development. Companies will have to train people, find talent and resources, and develop processes to support this radical shift in computing looming on the horizon. Leadership can consider hiring college graduates with relevant coursework as trainable developers. Bring in outside consultants with the right skills to help get initial proof-of-concept use cases off the ground and provide some hands-on knowledge transfer for staff.

Recognize that failure is a necessary part of the discipline. Not every use case will work out at first and lead to a solution, and some will only provide learning experiences.

Compelling Use Cases are Demonstrating Value

One of the most promising use cases gains its edge from a rapidly maturing technology. Optimization problems are performed on quantum annealers, which map variables to thousands of qubits in a way that can be thought of as a field of peaks and valleys. The computer finds the lowest energy state to give the best possible answer.

One way to visualize this process is to imagine searching for the lowest valley on a continent. With a traditional approach, you would have to drive up and down all over the terrain to measure and find the answer. Thanks to quantum tunneling, the annealer can quickly identify the answer by moving through all the hills without a slow road-trip approach. These “peaks and valleys” can be applied to things such as asset portfolios to solve for optimal returns. Specific constraints can be assigned, such as how long to hold an asset and the minimal gain before selling.

Hybrid annealers allow a classical computer to parse out those parts of the problem best handled by annealing. The hybrid annealer then stitches the answer together to quickly provide the best results. This capability has already outperformed traditional computers in speed at portfolio optimization, and it’s expected to be a likely first example of true quantum advantage.

It is already showing some advantage in solving the classical traveling salesman problem, where a mythical salesperson has to visit every city in a country using the shortest routes without ever passing through a city twice. An actual situation that the annealer addressed involved a vehicle routing problem that added real-world constraints such as downed power lines and other hazards to make the problem more complex. One run had the quantum approach providing a route with 20 kilometers of driving to make deliveries. The classical solution needed 27 kilometers of driving. An edge such as this would multiply quickly when dealing with thousands of kilometers or miles daily. Many use cases are easily adaptable in this fashion, such as to certain pricing decisions for hospitality and airlines. This is but one example. There are other types of quantum computers that address other kinds of use cases.

Implications for Boards

Forward-thinking boards should see that their companies start planning sooner rather than later for quantum computing to avoid facing resource challenges that could leave them missing the near-term benefits and necessary long-term protections of this emerging area of computing. Understanding the opportunity and issues with quantum computing and preparing to seize and address them when the inevitable inflection point arrives could yield dramatic business advantage and disruption. Early movers across the globe may end up as top players in gaining quantum supremacy.

Questions for directors might include the following:

  • Have we conducted a quantum-readiness assessment?

  • Are any of our competitors focusing on how to harness quantum computing? Should we sit and watch them and other industry developments, or should we appoint an executive sponsor, designate a quantum champion, and get into the game?

  • Are there business challenges we are unable to solve today that quantum computing will be well suited to solve? If we don’t know, should we find out?

  • Is there effective governance over where and how we invest in quantum computing?

Boards that can answer these questions put their companies in a better position to consider quantum computing and maximize its opportunity.

Protiviti is a NACD partner, providing directors with critical and timely information, and perspectives. Protiviti is a financial supporter of the NACD.

Jim DeLoach
Jim DeLoach is managing director of Protiviti. DeLoach is the author of several books and a frequent contributor to NACD Directorship Online.