Delivering a keynote on quantum advantage at the Quantum Computing Summit Austin, he assessed the journey towards quantum advantage.
“Quantum advantage, what the (expletive) does that really mean?” he opened. “Basically, we used to say supremacy but that caused a bunch of issues, so now we call it advantage. What we're talking about is the ability of a quantum computer to surpass the functionality of what classical computers or used to do something that you just simply couldn't do on a classical computer to prove that we're at that point in the inflection of the development of the technology.”
He explained that is because, while we have high-end computing functionalities including high-performance computing, tensor processing units and graphics processing units, the industry is reaching
“We need something new; we need more computational power to be able to do things. It isn't just building the next Facebook or Instagram. I'm a huge fan of deep tech, and quantum is an entirely new way of computing,” he said.
“We're just starting to see a fraction of the potential to actually give you a bunch of real-world use cases for what people have been doing with it. But at some point, in the not-too-distant future, that point of advantage will be reached.”
Estimates of when quantum advantage could be reached range from as little as one year to as much as 20 years, but Whurley put a realistic spin on the time frame, looking at when practical quantum computers may be available.
“A paper by Jacque Fresco and his colleagues came out last December on the proven advantages for quantum in machine learning,” he said. “They used 40 superconducting qubits for about 1,300 experiments and proved that there are inherent advantages to doing machine learning on a quantum computer that are advantageous. Not quantum advantage, not super-supreme, but advantageous today compared with classical computers.”
Whurley predicts there will be entirely new industries built on quantum computing, like how the Industrial Revolution led to the information revolution, there will be a quantum revolution.
“Every year I take a temperature check among my peers and a bunch of enterprise CIOs,” he said. “The pessimists say about seven years from now we'll have it. The optimists are at about three years now. Have what? In this case, most of these people are talking about a general-purpose quantum computer, something that's a little bit better than the equipment that we have today.
“But the realists are preparing today. Why? Deloitte did a study and they found out that if you're going to take your developers and make them quantum computing ready, that can be a 12 to 24-month or more journey. If it is three years out, then tick-tock, tick-tock, you don't have a lot of time to get prepared right now.”
The Upside to a Potential Quantum Winter
Quantum winter refers to a point in quantum computing’s early journey toward commercialization when results do not meet early investor expectations and interest wanes. Responding to a question from Enter Quantum, Whurley said that while there may or may not be a quantum winter, it might not necessarily be a bad thing.
“This is a three-part question,” he said “So one, is there a quantum winter? Maybe, maybe not. Two - how do we combat the hype and, three, is there a danger in that hype creating a hesitation for people to get into quantum or wait?”
“There probably will be a quantum winter. Don't think of winters as a bad thing. It's seasonal, right? Think about a market that gets hyped up about new tech; whether it's AI, which has been through a couple of winters, quantum or anything else. A market builds up, it gets overhyped. There's a lot of investment. There's a lot of froth.
“When winter comes it kind of cuts everything back like pruning a rosebush, then you have all the pretty roses. And then you start building again and that could happen a couple of times. I think the reason that would be most likely precipitated would be the fact that I’ve always thought SPACs [special purpose acquisition companies] were a bad idea.”
Whurley said that was the risk of investing in an industry at such an early stage saying that although it could be worth billions of dollars that money isn’t there yet. He cited an example of a company that saw its price drop 90% and added that “quantum realism” was needed to break the hype.
“One of the things that our customers love about us, whether they're pharmaceutical, energy or government or whatever, is we're just very real about the expectations and what you can and what you can't do,” he said.
“Like in the days of the Commodore 64, you can't do all this stuff you're imagining you should be able to. But you don’t say ‘Well, I'm just not going to use this new thing called a computer because I'll wait till you know we have an iPhone.’ That would be stupid, right?
“I think it's just realism and I think it's community. We have a community in quantum. We need a community in the enterprise of people who can share resources, share what they found doing experiments and share data. We’re benchmarking a lot of these things. I think we'll clear that up.”
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