Why the Board Should Care About Quantum Computing—and What It Can Do Now
Quantum computing offers companies a powerful value proposition for solving complex problems at speeds not attainable today, with compelling use cases in consumer products; manufacturing; chemicals; materials movement; energy; financial services; health care and life sciences; and technology, media, and telecommunications. Those unprepared to harness quantum capabilities risk being left in the dust by competitors who are.
Quantum-computing algorithms could bring innovative solutions and approaches to product development, reduce time to market, optimize customer delivery, and speed up data transfers. However, general-purpose quantum computers could significantly weaken, or even kill, current cryptography systems used to hide and secure data. A quantum computer of sufficient power will instantly render today’s security systems obsolete.
While this may sound like science fiction, both the opportunities and threats posed by quantum capabilities are real. Companies need to start laying the foundation now for this computing system of the future so that they don’t become obsolete as well. To start, boards should ask themselves three questions:
- What is quantum computing? Quantum computers are machines that use the properties of quantum physics to store data and perform computations. Whereas conventional computers store data using bits, which have a value of either zero or one, quantum computing uses qubits (short for quantum bits), which can have a value of 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 as a coin is flipped, it is both heads and tails, as well as all combinations of the two, at the same time.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. 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 computing.
- When does quantum computing become real in our industry? No one knows for sure how to answer this question. There is hype around the technology that some characterize as overreach, and as time passes, the forecast for practical use cases compresses. But certain things are clear: technology companies are investing heavily in quantum capabilities, and when quantum computing is commercially feasible, it will be a game-changer for how business is done. Companies are already experimenting with the technology to address logistics and investing in start-ups focused on the hardware, software, algorithms, security, and analytics that will make quantum computing a reality.As companies assess the “when” question and keep a watchful eye on market developments, they should also prepare for this brave new computing world. Many companies think that when a competitor builds a better mousetrap, they can replicate it in a relatively short period. But that won’t be possible with quantum technologies since computing applications will be proprietary and it takes extra time and talent to prepare for their use.
3. What do we do now?
- There are several steps companies should take today:
Select a quantum champion. Obtain executive sponsorship and designate someone who will be responsible for following industry progress on quantum capabilities and leading preparations for the eventual quantum world, possibly within the chief information officer’s group.
Conduct a quantum-readiness assessment. Ask questions such as: How much do we know about quantum computing? How might it be applied in our industry? What do we need to remain relevant and competitive as this advanced computing environment evolves? There will be a shortage of skills required to take advantage of quantum computing, for example, at companies that wait too long to begin developing and acquiring them.
Identify quantum computing use cases and assess their value to your organization. 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 technologies. Rank the various data analysis, simulation, and optimization issues according to priority.
Uncover potential risks to encryption and other aspects of company security. Start thinking about cryptographic agility and assessing necessary changes. Note that the National Institute of Standards and Technology is currently evaluating new algorithms to replace those at risk from quantum technologies.
Chart a quantum course and multiyear road map. Based on the identified priority use cases and the company’s 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, new use cases, and relevant changes in the industry and business environment.
Positioning a company for the quantum revolution is all about being watchful, prepared, and flexible. Boards should advise their companies to start planning sooner rather than later to avoid resource challenges that could leave them missing out on the benefits and necessary protections of quantum computing.
Jim DeLoach is managing director of Protiviti. DeLoach is the author of several books and a frequent contributor to NACD BoardTalk.