Deep Tech Summit 2021 Spotlight: Realising quantum’s potential for practical value
A conversation with Dr Tan Si-Hui, Chief Science Officer at Horizon Quantum Computing. A physicist by training, she has published extensively in top journals like Physical Review Letters and international conference proceedings on quantum information theory and quantum optics. She now heads research and development activities at Horizon, striving to make quantum computers programmable for all. Dr Tan will be speaking during the ‘Chasing a quantum business advantage’ session at the Deep Tech Summit 2021.
Tell us about your work at Horizon Quantum Computing.
We are working towards bridging the gap between quantum computers and conventional software development. Quantum computers are based on the theory of quantum mechanics and promise to revolutionise many industries. However, as the theory is counterintuitive, it is difficult to write and run programs for quantum computers, and there is a limited pool of specialists able to do this currently. We are writing a full-stack compiler that will automate this process of writing and running quantum programmes from code written for conventional computers. This would unlock the power of quantum computing for conventional software developers.
What are some of the biggest issues we face today that quantum computing could solve?
The pandemic has greatly increased demand for computation. Quantum computers hold the potential to perform exponentially higher calculation capacities than classical computers, harnessing how quantum systems can interfere between different paths and efficiently produce outputs. Known algorithms with a provable advantage include those for searching a database and simulating complex systems. For example, quantum simulations could be used to design new chemical processes and molecules at a lower cost than with conventional computers. Other quantum algorithms may not provide a general speedup, but have less demanding hardware requirements. One application is optimising supply chain routes, which is relevant especially in the current context.
Quantum computing also has the potential to enable various kinds of complex engineering and scientific simulations that can reduce the need for on-site experiments, or measurements in special facilities such as wind tunnels or chemistry laboratories. In a world where people are increasingly working remotely, reducing the need for such facilities will be an important advantage.
However, some significant challenges remain before quantum computers can actually solve these problems and become accessible. For one, we will need both mature and reliable quantum processors, and efficient tools to program them with. At Horizon, we play our part to lift some of these barriers by building the tools that facilitate programming, compilation and deployment for quantum processors, while alleviating the need to learn quantum languages and algorithms.
How do quantum computing innovations give companies an edge? In which sectors do we expect quantum computing innovations to have the greatest impact?
Quantum computing innovations can give companies an edge by providing a performance increase for computing problems relevant to the business, which usually translates to cost savings or extra earnings. In other cases, they offer the promise of unprecedented security for distributing and processing data.
The sectors known to benefit from quantum’s calculation capacity include logistics, finance, chemistry and pharmaceuticals. However, Horizon’s tools can open up a much broader range of use cases. We expect to see early use cases for complex electromagnetic simulations, relevant to electronics and telecommunications, and computational fluid dynamics for aerospace, automotive and renewable energy sectors. Given the current hardware limitations for running these applications, quantum computing is not affecting the bottom line yet. However, progress on the hardware front is being made, and the situation is changing.
What effect will democratising access to quantum computing technologies have on the region’s economic development?
Global interest in quantum computing is rapidly increasing. A 2021 Boston Consulting Group study indicates a substantial market for quantum computing, but the timing to realise business-applicable computing capacity could vary widely. Current estimates pin the quantum market to reach US$450 billion to US$850 billion in the next 15 to 30 years. If critical technical milestones are achieved as planned, a value of US$5 billion to US$10 billion could be unlocked as soon as the next three to five years.
Democratising access to quantum computing technologies will let us tap into this market and hopefully aid the region’s economic development. Moreover, Singapore is well-positioned for advancing quantum computing through the Centre for Quantum Technologies. We hope initiatives like the Quantum Engineering programme will boost translation of research into more experimentation with corporations, and ultimately practical business applications.
How can we enable quantum software to deliver practical and scalable advantages over classical computing?
The current approach to developing quantum software applications relies on either engaging a domain expert to work on the problem or using pre-written libraries containing some of the more common quantum algorithms. This approach is neither practical nor scalable.
At Horizon, we believe that the practical and scalable approach to deliver the advantages of quantum computing is to automate the construction of quantum programmes based on source code designed for conventional computers. We have demonstrated critical parts of the technology, from identifying speedups in classical code to characterising and mitigating errors in quantum processors.
However, it is a massive and unprecedented undertaking, and there is a lot still to do. With this ambitious goal, we have to continually attract top talent, expanding our team with experts in quantum computing, compiler design and other areas of computer science.
Quantum computing hardware also needs to get to the stage where it can reliably outperform conventional computers for certain tasks. While we believe that software, such as ours, will further add value, progress on hardware will significantly expand the demand for quantum computing
What is one key idea you hope the audience will take away at the Deep Tech Summit?
We are still in the nascent stages of quantum computing development, but the field is rapidly accelerating. While it is not definitive that we can solve difficult human problems right now, we have signs that there are nuggets of gold hidden within. The key to unlocking the potential of quantum computers will likely require collaboration between all stakeholders, so I hope Deep Tech practitioners will join us in exploring quantum technology as a high-performance computational tool.
Dr Tan Si Hui will be speaking on Day 3 of the upcoming Deep Tech Summit 2021: Chasing a quantum business advantage. Join the discussion at Asia’s leading Deep Tech conference here.
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