If you're not ready to start using quantum computing in your enterprise, you should at least be planning how to do so.
Researchers say companies may be less than five to 10 years away from turning to quantum computing to solve big business problems.
"Quantum computing has the potential to not just do things faster but to allow companies to do things entirely differently," said David Schatsky, managing director of Deloitte LLP, a global consulting and financial advisory company. "If they have certain analytical workloads that could take them weeks to run and they could do it almost instantaneously, how would that change the way they make decisions, or the risks they're willing to take or what products and services they can offer customers?"
That means corporate execs and IT heads should be thinking now about the strategic and operational implications of having quantum computers in their tech toolbox.
There is much buzz around quantum computers because they are expected to surpass even the most powerful classic supercomputers in certain calculations -- especially handling problems that involve sifting through massive amounts of data. Quantum computers, for example, might be able to find distant habitable planets, the cure for cancer and Alzheimer's disease or revamp complex airline flight schedules.
Quantum machines offer a different kind of computing power because instead of relying on ones and zeros - or bits - they use qubits, which can be both ones and zeros.
One of the rules of quantum mechanics is that a quantum system can be in more than one state at the same time, meaning it's not known what a qubit is until it begins to interact with -- or entangle -- other qubits. Unlike classic computers that operate in a linear or orderly fashion, quantum computers gain their power from qubits working with each other, allowing them to calculate all possibilities at the same time, instead of one by one.
"It's an incredibly promising new paradigm in computing," said William Martin, a math professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass. "We have examples of things a quantum computer can do that we don't know how to do with a normal computer. It's going to be a game-changing phenomenon, if we can actually build it."
In a report released late last month, Deloitte noted that quantum computing is close to realizing its promise and having an enormous impact on fields from healthcare to pharmaceuticals, space exploration and manufacturing. As researchers continue work on building powerful, fully functional quantum machines, interest is growing.
The field has attracted $147 million in venture capital in the last three years and $2.2 billion in government funding globally, according to Deloitte.
A little over a year ago, the European Commission announced a $1.13 billion project to develop quantum technologies over the next decade. And the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced last month that it is working to build a quantum computer in the next several years.
The U.S. is considered to be a major investor in quantum computing research, as well as home to quantum-focused companies like IBM, Google and Microsoft. . Google, for instance, is working on quantum processes it can make available to companies over the cloud, while Microsoft said last fall it was ready to go from "research to engineering with its quantum work."
They're not all building a large quantum computer. Some are working on software, while others focus on hardware components or quantum-resistant cryptography.
One company now building what its executives say is the first quantum computer is D-Wave Systems, based in Burnaby, British Columbia.
Although many question whether it's a true quantum computer, D-Wave's system is still being tested by the likes of NASA, Google, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lockheed Martin. That level of interest in testing the D-Wave system - whether it's a true quantum computer or not -- shows how high expectations have gotten around this technology.
Rupak Biswas, director of exploration technology at NASA Ames Research Center, said he oversees 700 employees -- 10 to 12 of whom are now working on quantum computing. Those efforts include testing the D-Wave system.
About $3 million of the agency's research-and-development budget goes to quantum computing.
While NASA is not yet trying to solve real problems - like massive air traffic management issues or scheduling astronaut time on the International Space Station - scientists there are working to figure out the best way to use a quantum computer and understand the underlying physics, as well as the programming that will be needed for it.
Even if the D-Wave system is better at computational-heavy calculations, it's not big enough to handle real problems for NASA. Something that large could be five to 10 years away, Biswas said.
"Our focus is how do we use available technology to accelerate our main mission," said Biswas. "Quantum computing is an enabling technology. We're looking now at what it will let us do."
That plan follows the advice Deloitte's Schatsky is giving to large enterprises.
"I'd expect to see some meaningful commercial use in the next 10 years," said Schatsky. "We're not saying that companies will be buying quantum computers in the next 'n' years, but this is a real phenomenon that is progressing rapidly.... Companies should pay attention and should start to think about the strategic and operational implications of having this.
"I don't think it's worth a huge amount of time in the C-suite, but if [a company] is innovative and forward looking, they should be tracking this phenomenon, and if they have an R&D budget, they should allocate a slice of it to this domain," said Schatsky, noting that some banks have invested a few million dollars in quantum R&D. "I think interest is going to grow."
Dario Gil, vice president of Science and Solutions at IBM Research, has been working on quantum computing there for the last five years, though the company itself has been researching it since the 1970s.
A year ago, IBM announced it not only had a 5-qubit processor but was making it available to customers in the cloud.
According to Gil, IBM has had about 45,000 universities and companies running more than 300,000 experiments on the cloud-based quantum system. Those efforts are not designed to solve production problems but to learn how to work with a quantum machine.
"I absolutely agree that now is the right time to start thinking about quantum," said Gil. "Companies already are and they are engaging very seriously on this topic. I think quantum, for any serious company that relies on computing for their business, can't just be something that is out there on the horizon. At least one person in your organization should be thinking about what is this and what does it mean for this organization?"
He added that IBM is focused on trying to make quantum machines that can be, or routinely are, used on real-world problems in the enterprise within the next three to five years.
"We're already in that window of quantum emerging as a technology that has commercial value," said Gil. "If you were thinking about the web in the early 1990s or mobile in the early 2000s, this is analogous. Nobody would look back and say, 'I wish I had slowed down in my thinking about those technolgies. You have to start understanding about what it is and what it can do."