ITEM: As Big Tech players like Google, Amazon and Microsoft throw a lot of R&D dollars at quantum computing, VCs are throwing their own dollars at start-ups looking to play in this hot new space. However, one result has been that quantum computing has become seriously overhyped, which is masking the fact that no one really knows when it will become commercially viable.
That’s according to Sankar Das Sarma, director of the Condensed Matter Theory Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, who is as excited as anyone about the possibilities of quantum computers and the remarkable progress that has been made in building them. However, in a column for Technology Review, he notes that we’ve seen a number of quantum computing startups pop up in the last few years with some mind-boggling valuations, such as IonQ’s $2 billion IPO via a SPAC.
The problem, he says, is that often these companies make claims about the commercial applications of quantum tech that are probably further away than they think.
For example, a commonly cited app for quantum computing is cracking RSA-based encryption. This is theoretically possible if you have enough qubits in your quantum computer – however, Das Sarma says, you’d need tens of thousands of qubits to do the computation, and millions or even billions more qubits to perform quantum-error correction.
When you consider that the most advanced quantum computers have just dozens of qubits, you see the problem:
The qubit systems we have today are a tremendous scientific achievement, but they take us no closer to having a quantum computer that can solve a problem that anybody cares about. It is akin to trying to make today’s best smartphones using vacuum tubes from the early 1900s. You can put 100 tubes together and establish the principle that if you could somehow get 10 billion of them to work together in a coherent, seamless manner, you could achieve all kinds of miracles. What, however, is missing is the breakthrough of integrated circuits and CPUs leading to smartphones—it took 60 years of very difficult engineering to go from the invention of transistors to the smartphone with no new physics involved in the process.
A number of companies are working on ways to bypass the error-correction conundrum with things like topological quantum-computing, while others are developing NISQ (noisy intermediate scale quantum) computers. But as impressive as these are, commercial applications remain theoretical, if not dubious. Various companies tout applications from drug design to high-frequency trading and AI trading – yet none have produced technical papers explaining exactly how this would work, Das Sarma says.
Das Sarma stresses that quantum computing truly is a game-changing breakthrough in technology – but the truth is no one really knows for sure what it will be used for, just as no one could have predicted in 1947 that the transistor would lead to smartphones and laptops.
And that’s okay in the sense that it takes a lot of trial, error and fiddling around to figure out how technology can best be used, just as it supposedly took Thomas Edison 10,000 tries to get a light bulb right. And odds are (as with 5G) the eventual apps for quantum computing will be things that no one is thinking about today.
But can you build a business model on that, especially when you’re being funded by VCs that expect a return on their investment in a few years time? That’s the real question, and das Sarma isn’t convinced:
I am all for hope and am a big believer in quantum computing as a potentially disruptive technology, but to claim that it would start producing millions of dollars of profit for real companies selling services or products in the near future is very perplexing to me. How?
Full article is here.