The Future: From Plastics To Quantum Computing

By Michael Mainelli
Published by Strategy, The Strategic Planning Society, pages 16-17.

Quantum Computing: Strategic Scenario or Heisenberg Hype?

In the 1967 film, The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman's character, Benjamin Braddock, is given one word of advice by his father's friend Mr McGuire, "plastics". In the 70's the word was "computers" followed in the 80's by the word "biotechnology". Are the two words in the late 90's "quantum computers"?

Some proclamations for quantum computers promise as much or more than earlier technological "revolutions" - infinite computing power, infinite storage and instantaneous communication for life in a box the size of a sugar cube. Clearly, the revolution is not here today, so what is the reality, if any.

Following some speculations by Richard Feynman in the early 1980's, in 1985 David Deutsch, a researcher at Oxford, published a paper suggesting that sub-atomic effects, quantum physics, could be applied to computational problems. He defined a "quantum parallel computer" and quantum computation as "computation that requires quantum-mechanical processes, especially interference". Deutsch believes that quantum computation "is performed in collaboration between parallel universes". Incredible as using parallel universes sounds, researchers and research funders take quantum computing seriously indeed. Various governmental research agencies within the EU and various national governments, including the UK, are increasing their spend on quantum computing exponentially each year. The working group of the Quantum Computing in Europe Pathfinder Project, set up by the Long Term Research Unit of DGIII of the European Commission and others and headed by Charles Ross, suggests that "by employing the extraordinary properties of quantum mechanical operations, such as superposition, entanglement, complementarity and uncertainty, data can be encoded in the quantum states of matter or light and manipulated with unprecedented speed and efficiency".

Over the past century many famous names have made their contribution to quantum physics - Einstein, Plank, Schrödinger and Heisenberg, to name a few. Today's goal is to build several stable quantum logic gates. Quantum logic gates have been christened `qubits' or `quantum bits'. In theory, a qubit can be in many simultaneous `states' which depend on the status of adjacent, or `entangled', qubits. For strategists, it may be helpful to have a mental image of how a quantum computer works without resorting to photons and electrons. One metaphor for a quantum computer is a spreadsheet which has the ability to place in each cell a probability distribution function which can be manipulated using probability distribution functions in other cells. Each cell's distribution function may be thought of as equivalent to a qubit. As each qubit is dynamically altered by the adjacent qubit, calculations are performed. On today's spreadsheets, the cell's calculation delivers a single number; on a quantum computer an entire function. Where small real-life Monte Carlo simulations can absorb large amounts of time, even large quantum spreadsheets would be instantaneous.

Since 1985, progress in demonstrating practical quantum devices has been more rapid than expected - Peter Shor at Bell Labs designed a quantum circuit in 1994; H Jeff Kimble at Caltech produced a stable quantum logic gate based on a single caesium atom in 1997. To date, though, less than a handful of qubits have been made to work together for the briefest of periods. The variety of quantum-related technology is astonishing - ion traps; numerical information stored in carbon molecules, `buckey balls', at room temperature; light emitting silicon; GigaHertz DNA or chloroform circuits based on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. No one is certain what will be the stable technological platform for future development. Two intriguing algorithms are already in the public domain and waiting to be implemented. Both are based on the potential existence of a quantum computer containing more than a few qubits, say 32 or more. Shor gives a formula which will decode public key cryptography, rendering current leading-edge security technologies ineffective. Grover has demonstrated how a quantum computer could analyse a large database in seconds for problems which a conventional computer would take many years to process. Likewise, people are developing applications such as quantum cryptography based on the very quantum effects which may render current cryptography vulnerable.

Yet, quantum computing is more than just another super super-computer. Quantum devices have the theoretical potential to provide instantaneous computing power at levels unimagined and, using related techniques, unprecedented storage capacity and unprecedented communication ability. Storage at the molecular level could mean that the aforementioned sugar cube provides a lifetime of data storage. Future networking may rely on quantum effects and possibly not upon electro-magnetic transmission. Although this article takes the results out of context, Professor Zeilinger in Geneva has transmitted information between `entangled photons' instantly over ten kilometres. Because of entanglement, all the world's computing could in theory be instantaneously networked in a giant, super, quantum computer with global molecular storage capacity - a true world wide web.

Strategists have to ask the basic questions - where are we now? where are we going? and how are we going to get there? The answers to all three questions are less clear than desired. In strategy, timing can be everything. It is very difficult to say when quantum computing will have an impact. Researchers give time frames of anything from five to twenty years for some basic aspects. Today's current scientific achievements, while impressive, raise serious doubts. A few leading experts believe that they may not be able to build a quantum computer, not just in their lifetimes, but ever. There are a few fundamental questions, for instance, precisely how do they work. To paraphrase another another film line, from Field of Dreams, "if you build it they will come… so long as there is no decoherence". Preventing information leaking from quantum environments into classical environments, i.e. the world we think we live in, is known as the decoherence problem. Decoherence is a bit like noise in conventional circuits. It is extremely difficult to separate a quantum computer from its environment, particularly if you need an answer. Noise fluctuations due to the outside world, no matter how tiny, are sufficient to drastically reduce the performance of these potential devices. Although researchers are proposing a number of error-correction techniques to overcome the problems, decoherence remains a significant obstacle. Decoherence has meant that only two or three entangled qubits are possible with today's technology.

For a strategist, perhaps the most straightforward way to incorporate quantum computing into organisational strategy is through the use of scenarios. Imagine "corporate stories" where computing power, storage or bandwidth are unlimited. If the organisation relies on secure transmission or cryptography, quantum computing is relevant now. People in the military and the financial sector are already concerned about the use of quantum computing to break existing encryption systems, although that does not make quantum computing real. Organisations in networks, data storage or computation are already undertaking research or keeping a wary eye on current research. For organisations where removing limits to networks, data storage or computation could transform the industry, such as telecommunications, retailing or publishing, it may be worth introducing quantum computing into some strategic scenarios. Imagine "corporate stories" where clients could instantaneously process all of the permutations of their travel plans - something which is truly bound by current computing power. Imagine wilder "corporate fairy tales" based on eliminating current processing boundaries - where speech recognition works in every day life; where people communicate from birth for life for free; where data mining predicts individual behaviour minute by minute; where no advantage in processing power is conferred by size; where language differences are not a barrier to instant communication by normal people; where arbitrage is not possible because relative advantages are instantly eliminated; where portfolios are dynamically calculated in sub-second times.

Dick Tracey had a fantastic wrist-watch which delivered many of the functions we expect more miniaturised, more communicated computing devices of the future to provide. Dick Turpin was a famous highwayman who took less from his victims than many futurologists from the corporations they advise. Whichever quantum computing most resembles in the end, Tracey or Turpin, strategists must begin to weave the fantastical story into their corporate tales or risk missing the next "plastics".

As a director of Z/Yen and former director of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA), Michael Mainelli uses a risk and reward approach in both developing strategies for new technology and commercialising technology. Z/Yen is currently involved in applying some European research to developing quantum cryptographic financial services network prototypes.

[A version of this article originally appeared as "The Future: From Plastics to Quantum Computing", Strategy, (January 1999) pages 16-17.]