April 20, 2024

Will quantum computing make the cloud obsolete?

Representation of a futuristic microchip

The cloud is big business and still has a lot of growth potential. The global public cloud services market this year will be worth around $597 billion (£462 billion), according to an estimate by Gartner in April. The tech research giant expects the total to rise to $725 billion in 2024 and believes this rate of expansion is sustainable for at least the next few years. He has predicted that three-quarters of organizations will “adopt a cloud-based digital transformation model as a fundamental underlying platform” by 2026.

But what if the enormous processing power of cloud providers’ servers could easily be surpassed by that offered by alternative technology? Quantum computing is said to be able to perform some functions in microseconds that, as things stand, would take a conventional computer several millennia to achieve. Does this so-called quantum advantage mean that demand for classical computing could decline dramatically in the coming years?

We need to set the right expectations about quantum computing. You will be able to solve only certain types of problems more efficiently.

“Computing has become increasingly homogeneous over the past two decades,” says Richard Hopkins, a distinguished engineer specializing in hybrid cloud solutions at IBM and the company’s former senior quantum ambassador. “We are going to see more speciation because we need it. In essence, there are many very powerful PCs under the cloud. “We don’t have the luxury of trying to solve large-scale optimization problems using conventional computers like these, because we would consume enormous amounts of energy.”

Bloomberg has estimated that the cloud could use 8% of all the electricity generated in the world by the end of this decade. One of the reasons for this, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, is that almost all possible efficiencies have been eliminated from classical computing.

Hopkins says IBM hopes quantum computing will solve complex problems, without requiring the same amount of energy, before 2030.

How quantum computing is progressing

Quantum computing still has some major development hurdles to overcome. For example, computers require cooling to -273ºC (absolute zero) and have other demanding operating requirements. Despite this, some quantum capacity is already available. Additionally, it can be accessed through the cloud.

“We have launched Amazon Braket, a fully managed service that gives customers access to different types of quantum hardware,” said Simone Severini, director of quantum technologies at Amazon Web Services and professor of information physics at University College London.

He reveals that the scope of the service is still limited, but “the idea is to enable experimentation and help accelerate scientific research and software development for quantum computing.”

Hopkins believes that quantum computing “won’t become widespread for a few years, but today at IBM we have 24 quantum computing systems in our cloud. “Our System Two, which can run quantum processing units alongside classical central processing units, will launch later this year.”

How quantum computing could benefit businesses

But what are quantum computers capable of doing? Hopkins explains that quantum computing is applied to problems that go beyond the capacity of algorithms that can run on classical computers. “For example, in credit card processing we used a quantum algorithm together with a classical one and were able to reduce the number of false positives and negatives beyond what the technique allows.”

Severini says that “some of the hardware available on Amazon Braket is universal, that is, it addresses any computing problem, and some is specific to particular problems.”

Computing has become homogeneous in the last two decades, but we will see more speciation, because we need it

He emphasizes that quantum computing should not be considered a panacea. There are some problems that are extremely difficult to solve for current conventional systems and will also be difficult for quantum computers, such as challenges in combinatorial optimization. This is the term applied to tasks such as solving the so-called traveling salesman problem, which consists of calculating the best route for a salesperson to visit all the cities on their agenda once and then return home. As the number of destinations increases, developing the most efficient itinerary becomes computationally intensive. Combinatorial optimization has numerous commercial applications, such as finding the best way to cut raw material sheets in a factory to minimize waste.

“We need to set the right expectations about quantum computing,” says Severini. “It will only be able to solve certain types of problems more efficiently. Loading data into quantum computers can be time-consuming and the notion of quantum storage is still unclear. “It is potentially useful when the input is small and the number of computational steps required is very large.”

He doesn’t expect quantum computing to become primarily a business service. In his opinion, “it will be used specifically as a research instrument and will have greater impact in areas related to quantum physics itself.”

However, research could cover areas such as simulation of molecular interactions, price optimization and supply chain optimization, all of which have commercial potential.

Does quantum computing pose a threat to data security?

There are security concerns about the possible misuse of quantum computing. An example of “small data, many steps” is calculating the prime numbers that have been used in a cryptographic key. With a 400-digit key, a classical computer running a million factorizations per second could, over the lifetime of the universe, try 1024 odds. To be sure of deciphering the key, it would be necessary to examine 10200 potential combinations. A quantum computer, on the other hand, could break the old RSA cryptography standard that many of today’s online security systems are still based on.

The authorities are taking this risk seriously. For example, the US government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology announced the first four quantum-resistant cryptographic algorithms in 2022, after a six-year competition.

Investors are also looking for solutions to the problem. Kamil Mieczakowski, partner at venture capital firm Notion Capital, reports that he has invested in Arqit, “a company that helps companies become ‘quantum ready’ with its quantum-proof encryption technology.”

Mieczakowski says it’s still early days for quantum computing, adding that once it becomes more widely available, it will likely be “overkill” for most purposes. Classic cloud computing will continue to be the main workhorse.

He observes that “it is very expensive to build and run quantum computers. They are also inherently fragile. “The cloud will be the cheapest way to access quantum computing capacity.”

In fact, quantum computers will become part of the cloud as it continues to grow and add new technology that can process data faster and more energy-efficiently. But quantum computing is unlikely to usurp the cloud as the “fundamental underlying platform” on which tomorrow’s businesses will be built.

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