What corporate customers really do with quantum computing

“What do companies do with quantum computing? Nothing of commercial value yet,” laughs Philipp Harbach, head of In Silico Research at Merck, when Sifted asks him the question. this is just a market exercise. Companies have just started researching this new technology and taking it seriously. “

“What do quantum computing companies do? Nothing of commercial value yet.”

Harbach’s job is to evaluate emerging technologies for the pharmaceutical company, and he tends to find solutions that would help Merck accelerate the discovery of new drugs or faster through research and trial data. He worked with quantum computing companies SeeQC, HQS and Rahko to assess what quantum computing could do for them. So far the answer has been: not much.

In August last year, Google published an article claiming that its Sycamore quantum processor could simulate a chemical reaction, and Harbach was interested – could this be a success that the company could use?

The results are not yet applicable to Merck’s actual issue. “Noisy” or error-prone quibbles are likely to eliminate any speed advantages. But Harbach has been impressed and says it is an encouraging sign that quantum computers will have an impact on quantum chemistry in the future – once the error rates can be verified.

Struggle to invest in quantum computing

Quantum computing receives an increasing amount of VC investment. Last year, quantum technology companies raised more than $ 635 million, according to Dealroom, including $ 215 million in funding for PsyQuantum, which develops silicon-based quantum computers, and $ 45 million for Cambridge Quantum Computing, a developer of quantum computer software.

Dealroom chart showing investment in quantum computing start-ups
Investing in quantum computer companies, year after year. Source: Dealroom

In March, U.S. IonQ announced plans to list on the New York Stock Exchange through a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company. The deal is worth $ 2 billion, and if approved by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, IonQ would become the first publicly listed quantum computer company.

With companies like Riverlane and Cambridge Quantum Computing launching quantum computing software, many in the industry claim that quantum computing is reaching the point where it will become useful for companies.

33% of large companies are researching applications for quantum computing.

According to a recent study of Seeqc, about 33% of large companies are researching quantum computer applications – it was the fourth most popular area of ​​deeptech investment.

“It’s part of the research technology portfolio of every CTO they research,” says Oliver Graham-Yooll, a deep-tech business partner at SIA Partners, the managing advisor. “Companies know there will be winners and losers in this and if they’re not ready when the technology comes, they’ll be on the wrong side of it.”

Some companies have established quantum computing task forces. BBVA Spanish Bank set up six projects in 2019 to study the applications of quantum computing for the financial services sector. This included researching whether quantum computing could accelerate optimizing an investment portfolio. This becomes a slow and complex task for a classic computer when there are over 100 different variables to calculate.

BMW set up a project team in 2018 to make feasible quantum computers work with QCWare, a Palo Alto-based company that develops hardware-agnostic quantum computing software for large enterprises. BMW envisioned using quantum computing to accelerate complex calculations, such as optimizing auto production lines and simulating the way materials would behave under different conditions.

Quantum computing is potentially useful for any problem that requires enormous computing power – anything with a large number of variables that need to be calculated quickly.

Massive Analytic, a machine learning company, combines quantum computing and AI to create quantum neural networks capable of calculating in real time, for example, whether it is safe for a self-driving car to change lanes on a freeway. It works with at least one automotive OEM to test the concept.

Massive Analytic also believes that a combined quantum and AI system would be useful in health technology, for example to track the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain.

Analyzing a classical point cloud of the surface of the human brain is a very intense activity on a computer processor. To clearly record the surface of the brain, such a point cloud will have millions or even hundreds of millions of points. As a result, classical computers often crash when operating a point cloud of the human brain with very great detail, “says George Frangou, Massive Analytics founder and CEO.

Another 10 years away from being useful

But early research left many of the company’s quantum pioneers quite skeptical.

“Our use cases could not show immediate practical value,” a BMW spokesman told Sifted. “Our experts predict that it will take another year for real quantum computers to be used for business gain.”

“A lot of investors are betting that a commercial quantum computer will become available in three years – but what if that doesn’t happen?”

“A lot of investors are betting that a commercial quantum computer will become available in three years – but what if that doesn’t happen?” says Harbach. “It’s extremely difficult to predict when a quantum computer will become usable.”

The first commercially useful quantum computing applications are likely to arrive in the latter half of the 2020s, says Thierry Botter, head of Airbus Blue Sky. And the first useful applications of quantum computing will be narrow and applied to specific business segments – a widespread shift to quantum computing will require more time and more success from quantum machines.

“The problem is that quantum has been forced out of the proof of concept stage faster than it should be due to all the exacting,” says Graham-Yooll of SIA. “It’s not like we have fully functional quantum computers in university labs and we just haven’t applied them to a business problem yet. The technology just isn’t broken yet. “

Applying quantum to industrial problems

Like Harbach, Botter spent time evaluating quantum technologies as part of Airbus ’Blue Sky unit, a small team set up in 2017 that would explore emerging technologies such as synthetic biology and neuroscience. Botter also worked with QCWare to see what could be done with quantum computers.

Botter attempted to apply the technology to a classical engineering problem — a fault-tree analysis that attempts to understand what combinations of small, low-level failures in engineering structure could result in a larger problem.

“The quantum systems were too small to deal with the problem for Airbus but the solutions were promising.”

“It was a low fruit problem and one where we believed that quantum computing could provide acceleration,” says Botter. “The results were interesting,” he says. “The quantum systems were too small to deal with the problem for Airbus but the solutions were promising. There was potential for faster solutions – not necessarily better but faster.”

Next Airbus set a quantum challenge in January 2019, asking quantum companies and researchers to propose solutions to five problems specific to the airline industry. They received 36 proposals. The winner was from the Italian consulting firm Machine Learning Reply, which proposed using quantum computing to calculate the optimal way to load cargo on an aircraft. Calculating an optimal load is a complex combination problem that classic computers struggle with, as several different factors such as weight, price, center of gravity, volume, and shear limits all need to be considered.

This solution is not planned for soon commercial deployment, but Botter sees the exercise as an important learning experience.

“It helped explain a thought inside,” he says. “We had a desire to deal with this early on and we are convinced of its future potential.”

What types of quantum computing do companies bet on?

The fact that it is not yet clear which type of quantum computing hardware will work best – superconducting quits (made by IBM, Google and Rigetti), captured ion-based quits (by IonQ and Honeywell) and not to mention a dozen others – is one of the biggest roadblocks for many companies.

Some, like BMW, use quantum computing as a service offered by companies such as IBM, Google and AWS. This means that they do not have to compromise on owning or operating any of the hardware and can test several types of quantum computer with minimal hassle.

Many, like Airbus, continue to be agnostic about which technology to use and tend to test them all. Botter says it is possible that several types of quantum computer would exist in the future, each adapted to a different kind of problem.

Winter is coming

That future doesn’t come as fast as current quantum boom would suggest, however, and Botter and Harbach are worried that quantum companies are heading for a winter of disappointment.

“Quantum computing is booming in the spring, not even in the summer yet.” says Harbach.

“There has been a rapid increase in the level of interest in quantum computing. [It] caused some unrealistic expectations. “

Botter agrees: “There has been a rapid increase in the level of interest in quantum computing. This has helped the sector further accelerate its growth but has also caused some unrealistic expectations,” he says. “Quantum computers have enormous potential for advanced computing applications in the future. However, the field is still young and much more work is needed to mature the technology to commercial readiness. It is important to remain prudent in formulating future technology expectations.”

Harbach says it can be frustrating to work with quantum computing-backed companies that tend to sell solutions to business problems when the technology is simply not ready yet.

“I like to work with start-ups that are honest and straightforward and accept that they may not have a usable product for us yet. They are working with us to research and evaluate the technology,” he says.

Merck has a long-standing partnership with SeeQC, a New York-based start-up developing digital quantum computing in which Merck’s venture capital arm, M Ventures, invested $ 5 million in April 2020. They are also exploring quantum chemical applications with HQS Quantum Simulations.

“Everywhere you look today, the tide of protectionist sentiment is flowing. Even as a science and technology company active in both areas, we must first explore the possibilities and benefits of quantum computing. “

As a first step, says Harbach, Merck is looking for cases where a quantum computer can solve a particular business problem considerably faster than the way the company solves it now. He is looking for savings in time or cost. “We have to find out and I’m looking forward to it,” he said.

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