What Google's quantum breakthrough means for you

The tech world is abuzz with the rise of quantum computing, but how will it impact your business and why should you care?
6 minute read
Adam Smith @HomebrandAdam
Technical Co-pilot
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Google claimed last week it achieved quantum computing supremacy. But what does it mean for you and your business?

Google made headlines last week with its bold claim that it had pulled off an incredible feat in computing. The tech giant says it designed a quantum computer that can solve a problem in 200 seconds that it would take the world’s most powerful supercomputer 10,000 years to work through.

There was a healthy dose of skepticism following the claim, with IBM arguing that Google had considerably overstated the complexity of the task it had assigned its quantum computer. But Google chief executive Sundar Pichai defended the company’s breakthrough, comparing it to the Wright Brothers’ first flight.

What Google is claiming is the often heralded moment of "quantum supremacy." This is the moment at which a quantum computer is able to surpass any existing traditional computer. Whether or not Google has actually achieved it may be up for debate, but its announcement shows that quantum computing is quickly heading for the mainstream.

So what is quantum computing, what will it mean for your business and how can you prepare?

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What is quantum computing?

While traditional computers use binary code, a system where information exists as either a 1 or a 0, quantum computers use what are known as quantum bits, or qubits. Qubits can exist as both a 1 and a 0 simultaneously, leading to considerably faster processing times. This is because they can essentially look at a problem and examine every possible solution.

For a point of comparison, consider IBM's supercomputer Deep Blue. The computer famously beat chess master Garry Kasparov back in 1997 because of its ability to examine 200 million possible chess moves per second. By comparison, a computer achieving quantum supremacy would be able to examine 1 trillion possible moves per second.

Let's put it another way: at the 2014 WIRED conference, quantum computing entrepreneur Eric Ladizinsky asked the audience to imagine they were given five minutes to find an "X" written on a page of one of the 50 million books housed in the Library of Congress. Examining one book at a time, this task would be impossible. But, imagine you could examine all 50 million books simultaneously. The task would be relatively simple. This is what quantum computing makes possible.

So what? What’s it mean for me?

This may sound like a lot of theoretical posturing, but quantum computing actually has some huge implications for business.

First of all, quantum computing can analyze data and produce forecasts from information that’s far more complex than what traditional computers can handle. This has applications for everything from sales forecasting and risk analysis to predicting financial markets and producing self-driving cars.

Analyzing complex datasets and producing forecasts means quantum computers could help you optimize your supply chain. Imagine a future where quantum computing could identify and predict traffic patterns, optimize driving routes and even forecast weather conditions along an entire supply chain. The kind of efficiency and cost saving this could yield is enormous.

A broad range of companies are already exploring the possibilities quantum computing will open up. Volkswagen wants to use the technology to predict traffic patterns up to 45 minutes in advance. Barclays is experimenting with quantum computing for portfolio optimization. NASA is using quantum computing to research safer methods of space travel.

So does all this mean you'll be able to replace your MacBook with a quantum laptop in the near future? Nope. The day quantum machines replace traditional computers may never come. First of all, quantum computing is great at analyzing massive datasets and creating models and predictions based on them, but not so good at running Microsoft Word or playing Minesweeper. Second, quantum chips have to be kept cold in order to work. Really cold. In fact, to create a stable qubit, quantum computers need to be kept near absolute zero, or about -460 degrees Fahrenheit. That's not a good recipe for home computing

So what does quantum computing actually mean for you, and why should you care? Well, beyond the ways it could transform day-to-day life, it opens up a new frontier of business possibilities. Smart startups are looking at quantum computing as a new horizon. And while companies like IBM, Google, Microsoft and quantum computing startup Rigetti have poured millions into developing quantum hardware, they're actively looking for partners who can build quantum software with practical applications.

And the practical applications are immense. Any problem that relies on analyzing data (which, really, is any problem at all) can be addressed by quantum computing.

How can I get ahead of the curve on quantum computing?

The quantum computing revolution is going to put some skills in high demand. In order to wade into quantum computing, engineers are going to need a basic understanding of quantum mechanics, linear algebra and probability, along with a robust understanding of algorithms and machine learning.

Now, if you're an entrepreneur from a non-technical background, that particular list of skills may already have put you off. But don't give up on quantum computing just yet. If you have an idea, you can find freelance developers and engineers with the skills to pull it off.

Using a freelance marketplace to find developers and engineers for your startup idea means you can find experts in the exact skills you'll need.

It also means you can hire them for a specific project — for example, building an MVP of your quantum computing application — without the commitment of hiring full-time staff. And, you can hire quickly rather than going through the 8–10 week process of traditional hiring.

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Finding freelancers for your project also means you aren't bound to the talent pool in your immediate geographic area. The practical application of quantum computing is still in its infancy, which means it requires a specialized skill set. Fortunately, Freelancer has a global talent pool of millions of qualified experts with skills relevant to quantum computing. If you need help finding them, or even need some help figuring out exactly which skills your project will require, you can chat to a freelancer recruiter.

Some possible business applications for quantum computing

Any industry that relies on data analysis is ripe for disruption by quantum computing. Furthermore, industries that currently lack good methods of data analysis could be totally transformed by quantum computing.

Quantum computing is all about examining massive sets of data to solve complex problems that are beyond the capabilities of traditional computers. At its core, entrepreneurship is all about identifying problems and coming up with new or better solutions to those problems.

If you're thinking about getting ahead of the quantum computing revolution, here are some areas you could consider for your startup:

Fintech

Quantum computing can build complex financial forecasts. It can be used to optimize financial portfolios, model sales forecasts, calculate risk or potentially predict share markets.

Computer recognition

Quantum computers are excellent at pattern recognition. This makes them perfect for tasks involving image recognition and categorization.

Artificial intelligence

Quantum computing will play a huge role in accelerating the capabilities of artificial intelligence. Because they can recognize patterns and integrate data from different data sets, quantum computers could overcome many of the challenges traditional computers have with artificial intelligence.

Biotech and pharmaceuticals

Quantum computers can simulate complex molecular structures, possibly discovering new chemical compounds that could be used to treat disease. They can also potentially sequence genomes to uncover causes of disease and synthesize possible treatments.

Manufacturing

Because of their ability to simulate molecular structures, quantum computers could discover new manufacturing materials that could lead to more powerful batteries, storage technology, conductors or processors.

Automotive

There are a range of potential applications for the automotive industry. The ability to recognize patterns and create forecasts has the potential to lead to better self-driving vehicles, applications that optimize driving routes and software that predicts traffic jams.

Cybersecurity

The most complex encryption that currently exists could be relatively easy for quantum computers to crack. While this presents a potential threat from quantum computing, it also presents an opportunity to develop new encryption techniques using quantum computing. Quantum computing could mean a new level of security for personal data.

Conclusion

Quantum computing broadens the scope of the solutions you can produce and the problems you can tackle. As Ladizinsky said, it's like having 50 million versions of yourself working on a problem simultaneously. The big takeaway for entrepreneurs should be that quantum computing means they can aim higher in the problems they try to solve and the solutions they dream up.

If you want to be at the forefront of startup innovation, it's worth giving quantum computing some further study. If Google really has achieved quantum supremacy, we could be at the precipice of a computing revolution unlike anything history has seen before. Smart entrepreneurs will work on solutions that ride the wave of this trend.

To read more about how to come up with a great business idea, check out our guide. You'll learn how to identify problems, validate market demand and come up with solutions. Using quantum computing to power those solutions means you'll be at the forefront of a technology with the potential to change the world.

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