Quantum computing is coming: How can your company prepare?

By Sven Blumberg, Duygu Öztürk, and Henning Soller

Since the 1950s, the possibility of quantum computing has been discussed in the scientific community. Its potential is significant. While traditional computers may take years to unravel a complex problem, quantum computers might solve the same problem in a matter of hours, thanks to the use of qubits (quantum mechanical bits). Despite numerous efforts to make quantum computing a reality at scale, however, its use in business settings could still be decades away.

This does not mean that companies should sit back and wait. Recently, we have seen large technology companies make significant investments in quantum computing, which have accelerated progress. We estimate the first applications in industries such as pharma or chemistry (“first-wave sectors” for quantum computing) could come within the next ten years. For example, quantum computers could simulate the behavior of chemical compounds, allowing companies to overcome the need for in vitro testing.

Separately, the possibility of hackers breaking into legacy systems in banking and insurance, which keep decades of financial data, has spurred preparation for attacks that could possibly overcome current security protocols and measures.

To focus preparation, companies can explore three options. Where they begin depends on their current situation and business model.

The power of quantum computing

The vast potential of quantum computing can be understood through the phenomenon known as “entanglement,” which refers to the possibility of many particles forming a common wave function, allowing changes in one particle to affect all others instantaneously and in a well-ordered manner.

This gives rise to the possibility of massive parallel computing, which can easily outpace the multicore systems currently available. This process makes it possible to store and process massive amounts of information, since storage and computing power scale exponentially with the addition of more particles. Classical storage and computation increase in a linear fashion.

Preparing for the future now: Three actions to take

The effort required to make quantum computing a reality, combined with the long time required to see any benefits in daily business operations, has led most IT leaders to believe that quantum computing has no relevance for today’s business.

But quantum computers could solve many of IT’s most difficult problems, such as achieving completely secure communication, combating hackers for all known traditional communication protocols, and achieving complete and exact simulation of large-scale systems, such as stock and trading markets.

To prepare for this future and for quantum computing at scale, companies should consider three courses of action—and some might pursue all three.

Option 1: Watch for latest developments

Who this option is for: All companies.

Action: You’ll of course want to task your innovation department with helping you avoid surprises—by staying abreast of the latest developments in quantum computing through, for example, trade publications and industry surveys that monitor trends. Similarly, watch for key private-equity investments into quantum start-ups related to your industry to identify possible new developments. In addition, numerous companies already have talent with a background in quantum computing, but they are currently assigned to different tasks. Identifying your existing talent in the field and possibly reengaging them on the topic through focus groups can be a way to keep their knowledge up to date and your company in contact with the latest trends.

Option 2: Secure your data

Who this option is for: Any organization with data that will be desirable to attackers, even 20 to 50 years from now. Insurance companies and banks, which have decades of data, are especially at risk.

Action: Companies should flag sensitive data and ensure that governance measures are in place for it, particularly in legacy systems that attackers might target in the future. Preparation can happen quickly once quantum encryption technologies become available. This groundwork typically includes the centralization of data and enabling transparency and lineage specifically for the sensitive data elements.

Option 3: Prepare for a change of business

Who this option is for: Industries that will be revolutionized by quantum computing as soon as it becomes available; examples include semiconductor fabrication, high tech, and chemical research.

Action: Set up research teams so your organization can shape the technology transition to come instead of losing business. This will require hiring key talent with knowledge of quantum computing and setting up the necessary facilities to start the R&D journey.

Quantum computing will provide industries with new and interesting possibilities for how to process data and solve complex novel problems. However, targeted early preparation is required regardless of whether companies hope to disrupt their industry or protect their data.

Sven Blumberg is a senior partner in McKinsey’s Istanbul office, where Duygu Öztürk is a consultant; Henning Soller is a partner in the Frankfurt office.