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Quantum computing could be the next big thing for cloud providers

Quantum computing could eventually revolutionize the way medicines are developed, financial options are priced and climate change is managed, experts say. It’s been lauded for its ability (or, at least, its potential) to complete complex calculations in a fraction of the time it would take even the fastest traditional computers today.

But until recently, access to quantum computing has been largely limited to researchers in specialized labs. Now, IBM, Microsoft and Amazon are working to provide broader access to the technology by implementing quantum computing as a service in the cloud.

The technology is in the very early stages of development, but access to quantum computing over the cloud is giving companies the chance to explore potential business applications. Such services also indicate how people are likely to use quantum computers for years to come: in the cloud and in conjunction with traditional computers.

“We’re all very excited about quantum, it’s amazing how it’s moving forward so fast,” Jeffrey Welser, vice president of IBM Research told CNN Business. “Putting it on the cloud has helped accelerate that, because you can have access without building a quantum computer yourself.”

Microsoft in November announced that it would start providing access to quantum computers in its Azure cloud for select customers. A month later, Amazon Web Services announced a similar service. IBM has offered quantum computing access in its cloud since 2016, and last week announced that 100 companies now use it to experiment with quantum computing, including Delta Air Lines, Goldman Sachs and Daimler.

Broadly, the quantum cloud services will look something like this: Cloud providers will have remote data centers with quantum computers, just as they do with regular computers. Users will tap into them from their personal computers and either write their own software, or use existing software to harness the computing power without actually needing to understand how it works.

“Ultimately, the belief is that we’ll use all of these devices probably just like we access regular computing,” said Andrew Fursman, CEO of 1QBit, a company partnering with Azure and AWS on their quantum cloud projects. 1QBit will work with Microsoft and Amazon cloud customers to build software that addresses their business needs using quantum computing.

“When you access Gmail, you’re using your computer as a portal into Google’s big computer system,” Fursman said. “There are lots of entities building quantum computers, they’ll be accessible through the cloud.”

The benefit of quantum computing

Quantum computers process information in a fundamentally different way from regular computers, so they will be able to solve problems that today’s computers can’t.

Traditional computers do calculations using bits: data that exists in one state at a time, a one or a zero. Quantum computers use quantum bits (or “Qbits), which can be zeros, ones or any combination of both, making for much faster processing speeds.

Most people are likely to access quantum computers in the cloud for the foreseeable future, rather than buying individual quantum computers for their homes or offices.

For good reason -— quantum computers must be stored at extremely cold temperatures (as in, around 200 times colder than outer space, Welser said). And while they can address new kinds of problems, quantum computers aren’t good at most of the things people want their computers to do. They wouldn’t, for example, be useful for storing photos or divvying up the dinner bill after a meal with friends.

The real benefits will stem from users having access to both traditional and quantum computers in the cloud simultaneously.

“It’s almost like … a jet fighter plane that can do mach six or seven versus an automobile,” Horan said. “(Jet fighters) can solve problems that an automobile can’t, but in most cases, you’re not going to use it. And the fighter pilot is still going to need to take a car to the jet.”

Quantum computing is especially good at modeling complex scenarios, 1QBit’s Fursman said. One his company’s earliest customers was chemical company Dow Inc. Developing new chemicals has long required physically pouring different materials into test tubes and watching what happens. But 1QBit’s software instead simulates those experiments on a quantum computer.

Quantum computers aren’t quite advanced enough yet to replace the old method, but the capability could eventually save Dow significant amounts of time and money. Experts say other potential use cases include developing new battery technology for electric cars or revamping the system used for air traffic control.

A long-term investment

Those major benefits, however, are years away. IBM’s Welser said he estimates it will take at least five years to start seeing business applications and returns from the technology.

Oppenheimer senior analyst Timothy Horan said that while the technology is promising, it’s not clear what kind of financial impact it will have for cloud providers or their customers because the business applications are still in an experimental phase.

But there’s no question companies are grappling to lead in the quantum computing space. Google in October said it had achieved “quantum supremacy” with a machine capable of superfast calculations, a claim that competitors quickly called into question. Google has also said it is working on providing access to quantum computers on its cloud.

The United States and China are also racing to develop the technology, which could have significant military applications.

Welser said the way to ensure that significant business applications come about is to get companies and developers experimenting with quantum computers as soon as possible.

“It’s sort of unique what we’re seeing right now, the number of companies and groups that are jumping in so early in the evolution of the technology,” Welser said. “Part of what you need to do is train your people and your workforce to be able to use it.”

Companies are willing to start investing money in the technology at this early stage because the potential is so great.

“If it starts to take off, we can invent new materials, we can create new drugs,” Oppenheimer’s Horan said. “99% of the use cases we just can’t predict at the moment. They’re going to span the overall market.”

CNN