Quantum computing: The time to act is now

by Martina Gschwendtner, Hussein Hijazi, Nicole Morgan, and Henning Soller

Quantum computing (QC) is gaining momentum in the market. In a recent survey of 24 senior executives, academics, and start-up executives and founders,1 33 percent said they are developing new QC use cases (as opposed to QC hardware), either for their direct use or for the benefit of third parties. Some of these use cases—such as quantum random-number generators—have already been implemented and have demonstrable outcomes. Other use cases that are still under development typically use QC technology to address problems that classical machines cannot solve efficiently, such as molecular dynamic simulation.

Given that the industry had very limited applications only a few years ago, the increase in new use cases for QC is a meaningful trend, matched by a surge in investments and growing companies. Companies wishing to capitalize on this momentum can build a springboard to develop more use cases for QC by using a new approach: combining QC hardware technologies. In this post, we discuss emerging use cases within the QC sector and describe what a combined approach to QC hardware might look like.

Emerging trends

Participants in our survey described several emerging use cases in QC. For example, quantum simulators could provide a powerful tool to explore quantum applications in pharmaceuticals, quantum chemistry, materials science, and more. In pharmaceuticals specifically, QC could make lab-based R&D more effective and thereby reduce development costs in the next five to ten years. In the longer term, a universal, fully fault-tolerant quantum computer could replace lab-based R&D altogether.2

As the number of QC use cases has grown, so has the size of QC companies. For example, large companies are becoming interested in QC, and QC-oriented companies are growing bigger. Fifty-six percent of respondents stated that their company has more than 30 employees (Exhibit 1). This contrasts with earlier stages of the QC industry, when companies were typically start-ups that operated with smaller teams of five to ten employees. As these companies mature, they prepare to enter commercial markets. Their readiness is supported both by the capital they previously secured for QC projects and by the growing demand for a wider scope of QC initiatives across sectors.

Quantum computing companies are growing, with teams shifting from smaller start-up sizes to larger, more established sizes.

Despite this growth in QC, 67 percent of survey respondents did not yet have a use case in production. They pointed to several reasons for this. Some companies specializing in QC hardware are focused on developing and improving the QC hardware itself, rather than creating specific practical uses for it. Other companies found that there were only limited practical applications for QC in their everyday business operations. Most QC use cases focus on solving complex scientific and mathematical problems, including cryptography, optimization, and simulations. For many companies, these applications may not align with their immediate needs or goals. Finally, QC is still an emerging field, and the technology is not yet fully mature.

Adopting a combined approach for quantum computing technology

Responses to our survey reflect the fact that the future of QC is dynamic and far from settled (Exhibit 2). There has not yet emerged a single, all-encompassing hardware solution that fully taps into the potential of the technology. Developing this baseline hardware will be crucial for QC use cases to take off, particularly in this period of growth and possibility.

Responses vary as to which technology will emerge as the quantum computing 'winner'--the most prevalent adoption in quantum computing.

Today, across different use cases, quantum computers are constructed using a variety of hardware technologies, such as photonic networks and trapped ions. Similarly, in the future, quantum computers may not rely on a single hardware technology, but instead could be based on combining different technologies for greater effectiveness. For example, companies may decide to use a quantum computer that combines photonic networks with neutral atoms or trapped ions. These different technologies can fulfill different functions in the computer and play to each other’s strengths while mitigating downsides.

Photonic networks are about a thousand times faster at computation than hardware that uses neutral atoms or trapped ions. This makes them suitable for use as processors (CPUs) within quantum computers. However, photonic networks cannot effectively store large amounts of information, meaning they are not suited to function as system memory or as a hard disk drive.

Neutral atoms have demonstrated high precision and long coherence times, which are important for reliable quantum computations. However, they typically have slower gate times compared with photonic networks. As a result, hardware that uses trapped ions is potentially better suited to perform the role of memory or a hard disk drive in a quantum computer.

By combining complementary technologies, companies can potentially accelerate the process of making quantum computers effective at solving a wider array of problems.

Preparing for QC

Leveraging the various QC hardware technologies based on their respective strengths may accelerate quantum computers’ time to market and enable players in multiple fields to quickly harness the potential benefits. However, significant challenges remain. For example, once an effective quantum computer is created, companies will need to develop software that seamlessly integrates with diverse QC systems.

To prepare for the advent of QC, companies may establish a small group of specialized QC teams that scout for relevant use cases and technologies. These use cases can then catalyze the implementation of business strategies. In addition, the team could identify necessary investments to develop their own use cases or establish partnerships to foster further development of use cases.

Given the growth of QC in company size and use cases, it is imperative for companies to take proactive steps to evaluate how QC breakthroughs could revolutionize their operations. This is particularly important because of the time gap that often exists between formulating strategic visions and implementing them, particularly in the realm of IT systems. Conversely, leaders of companies that aren’t positioned to take on QC need to assess how their existing operations might be affected by the increased prevalence of QC in their industry. In this rapidly evolving landscape, embracing QC or preparing for its impact is not a strategic choice but a necessity for companies looking to secure their future competitiveness.

Martina Gschwendtner is a consultant in McKinsey’s Munich office, Hussein Hijazi is a consultant in the Dubai office, Nicole Morgan is a consultant in the Prague office, and Henning Soller is a partner in the Frankfurt office.

The authors wish to thank Scarlett Gao, Dale MacDonald, Sara Shabani, Matija Zesko, and Sheila Zingg for their contributions to this post.

1 This sample size is roughly 10 percent of a relatively small market.
2 For instance, quantum testing could allow researchers to test new drugs and vaccines without causing adverse side effects on real patients.