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May 25, 2023

Quantum computing: closer than you think

Once a largely theoretical phenomenon, quantum computing is becoming real for an array of business use cases.

In the news

Quantum computing has been discussed for years but typically in a vague manner that essentially meant—in the popular mind, anyway—“really cool, really fast computers that are even faster and cooler than today’s computers.”

But the phenomenon is growing less hypothetical and more real every day. India has declared it will create a 1,000-qubit quantum computer within eight years (more on qubits in a moment), and Moderna and IBM are teaming to explore quantum as it relates to vaccine development.

A quick refresher course: Quantum computing relies on quantum mechanics, the tendency of small-scale matter to possess properties of both particles and waves. Quantum replaces the bit in traditional computing with the aforementioned qubit, which expands possibilities beyond the 1s and 0s we’ve all come to know.

What does it all add up to? Speed. To illustrate with an example, while today’s computers require millions of years to find all the prime factors in a number with 617 digits, “a quantum computer can do the job in minutes.”

The Cognizant take

“If you believe quantum computers are 20 to 30 years away, think again,” says Aakash Shirodkar, a Senior Director in Cognizant’s AI & Analytics Practice. Businesses are already exploiting the technology, he notes. Indeed, there is now a boutique sector of quantum service providers that offer quantum computers as-a-service to large enterprises. These providers can adjust the way their superconducting circuits work, analyze use cases and adapt their hardware to deliver better outputs.

Currently, it’s only enterprises with large R&D budgets, as well as physicists, chemists and similar professionals, who are making use of quantum computing. “Companies with billion-dollar research investments find it wise to leverage quantum computing now,” he says, “rather than later.”

Scale is one of quantum’s strengths; when an enterprise is sufficiently large, it can gain massive competitive advantage through a mere 1% efficiency improvement, Aakash points out. “Visionary early adopters have already started working on this,” he says. “Marginal improvements can be very meaningful to organizations.” For example, logistics companies and airlines optimize their routes to reduce fuel bills, saving millions each year. This is the type of problem at which quantum computing excels.

“Quantum computing has the potential to disrupt nearly every industry and endeavor,” Aakash says, from chemistry to sustainability to artificial intelligence and machine learning endeavors. It stands to reason that applying massive increases in speed and power will change everything.

However, he notes, security and privacy are perhaps the most important use cases that need attention. “Much of modern-day cryptography used to secure passwords, cybersecurity, internet communication and storage of encrypted data is based on factoring large numbers,” Aakash says. Using quantum computing’s ability to solve these problems in minutes or seconds, bad actors can break cryptography or cybersecurity protocols.

In response, “organizations are now considering quantum-safe cryptography,” Aakash says. Instead of waiting for quantum computers to become commercially viable, businesses want to start using more quantum-safe protocols to move data. This way, bad actors cannot harvest data now and decrypt it later.

Quantum computing has the potential to “solve drug discovery, large-scale logistics, materials discovery, climate change and simulation problems that classical computing cannot handle with high accuracy,” Aakash says.

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