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Julian van Velzen
February 04, 2021

Sir Thomas Watson, chairman at IBM in 1943, is often quoted to have said that the world market for computers maybe five computers. Take a look around the room you are in now and know Watson was quite off with his expectations. But is there a hidden truth in his quote? What if we put his quote it in the perspective of Quantum Computers?

In today’s world, a handful of companies are in fierce competition to reach quantum advantage. Quantum advantage is the milestone when quantum computers will provide a speedup over classical computers. From there on, researchers anticipate quantum computers will become immensely powerful. Full blown, fault tolerant quantum computers are expected to solve certain problems in a matter of seconds, where classical computers would have taken billions of years. 

Building such a computer is not easy. Leveraging the power of quantum mechanics requires us to manipulate nature at the subatomic level to an extreme level of accuracy. All outside, environmental influence will destroy the quantum mechanical state, and makes the computer useless. Trying to keep the environmental noise out is hence one of the big research challenges, but it requires quantum computers to operate near the absolute minimum temperature. Refrigerators that cool the quantum machines are extremely expensive and take up the size of a classroom. Given the challenges to build a quantum computer, it is extremely unlikely that such a computer will end up in your pocket any time soon. But does this resemble a déjà-vu with early-day computers?

The 1954 IBM NORC does also not fit in your pocket

Given the extreme costs of operating quantum machines, and the massive computational power in return, it begs the question if a handful of quantum computers would suffice? With an eventual shake-out, could it be that the world will only have five quantum computer cores that offer their services to their respective market share?

(SPOILER: the answer is most likely no): there are tons of problems to which Quantum can provide solutions for, and as we’ve seen with linear computers. For a small subset of these problems, quantum computers will provide an exponential speedup over classical systems, meaning problems that would have taken billions of years would be solvable in a matter of seconds. For these algorithms, that provide the full potential of quantum computers, there is a long road ahead. Although the algorithms are already designed, there are many engineering and scientific challenges that prohibit computers to run the algorithms (if ever). For a much larger set of problems, quantum computers may provide a speedup which is less dramatic. In optimization problems, for example, quantum search can be used to provide a quadratic speedup. For such kind of problems, even quantum computers may have to work together in parallel on large clusters.

Also, there is no one size fits all quantum computer. Today, IBM, Microsoft, D-Wave, and Honeywell all pursue a different type of quantum computer, with respective challenges and merits. Some of the systems may become obsolete as technology advances, while others find their niche field of application.

So even if Thomas Watson was – which he wasn’t – talking about quantum computers, his prediction would still fall short. There are already thousands of use-cases developed for quantum computers, and its business potential would allow far more than five computers to process the demand. Quantum’s here to stay and mass adoption is required for those that want to stay in business. Are you yet exploring the power of quantum? Contact Julian van Velzen to discover the opportunities within your business.

About the author

Senior consultant | Netherlands
Julian likes to pioneer. Equipped with a master degree in physics, he put Capgemini’s quantum technology efforts on the map, and now leads the computing futures (bits/qubits/neurons) domain from within the group’s CTIO++ community. Furthermore, he initiated and led project FARM, a big data solution for small-holder farmers in developing countries.


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