Getting a Slice of the Quantum Computing PieMonday, May 27, 2019
Quantum computers herald a new age of digitalisation and progress, and startups are well-positioned to take this technology to the market, say experts.
Can a cat be both alive and dead at the same time? According to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger, such a paradoxical situation can arise in the quantum realm, wherein extremely tiny particles take on multiple states simultaneously.
It is this very property of the quantum realm that technologists are hoping to leverage to build the next generation of computers. Unlike the classical computers of today which rely on bits that can only take the value of 0 or 1, quantum computers would function on quantum bits, or qubits, that can be both 0 and 1 simultaneously—a superposition that allows for incredibly fast computing.
At the ‘From Lab to Market: Turning Quantum Research to Real-Life Impact’ panel discussion organised by SGInnovate and Entrepreneur First, a team of experts shared their thoughts on how quantum computing could be a game changer for organisations. Moderated by Mr Jeremy Youker, director of venture building at SGInnovate, the panel comprised Dr Tommaso Demarie, CEO and co-founder, Entropica Labs; Dr Shabnam Safaei, founder-in-residence, Entrepreneur First; and Dr Tan Si-Hui, chief science officer, Horizon Quantum Computing.
Computing like You’ve Never Seen Before
Beyond performing computations faster, quantum computers can capture the complexity and work with highly dimensional and heterogeneous data, Dr Demarie explained. Currently, many machine learning models still require human data scientists to curate, format and label data that goes into the training of an algorithm. This process of ‘supervised learning’ is expensive and time consuming.
“With quantum computers, more powerful algorithms for ‘unsupervised learning’ could be developed and deployed,” said Dr Demarie. For example, instead of being presented with an image of an apple that has been labelled ‘apple’, an algorithm for unsupervised learning would automatically recognise things like colour, size and shape to conclude that the image being presented is that of an apple. The computational power required for performing autonomous learning is tremendous, which is why quantum computing becomes necessary.
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“We see huge potential for quantum technology to be applied to solve problems in domains such as finance and biology,” said Dr Demarie, alluding to the massive and multifaceted nature of the datasets in both fields of expertise. In the same vein, Dr Safaei noted that materials science and chemistry also stand to benefit from quantum computing.
“My big vision is to build new types of molecules—no matter how large they are—using simulations, like in a virtual lab… but this is not possible with the hardware available now,” she said, lamenting that existing computers, with their upper limit on computing capacity, only allow her to simulate a specific chemical bond in a molecule. Such limitations would go away with quantum computers, she added.
Startups to Lead the Way
Young as the field of quantum computing may be, many advances have been made in recent years, mostly spearheaded by large companies such as IBM and Google. For example, in 2016, IBM released a simple quantum system of five qubits that allows anyone from anywhere in the world to run algorithms on it, free-of-charge, via the cloud. “[This proved that quantum computing] actually works… and it represents a shift from something that was very theoretical, abstract and university-driven into something that is very industry-driven,” said Dr Demarie.
But do startups have a role to play in pushing the frontiers of quantum computing? The panellists agreed with a resounding ‘yes’.
“Quantum computing is in its early stages and is very risky at the moment. [Hence, investing heavily in quantum computing R&D] is not going to create new revenue for companies in the short term,” explained Dr Safaei. Therefore, large corporates may leave the trial-and-error phase of developing a quantum computer to smaller companies, only stepping in to acquire successful solutions once those solutions have matured and been tested in real-world contexts.
In this sense, startups may accrue greater expertise than multinational companies in creating quantum technologies. “Currently, there is a fairly limited community of people who understand the area well enough,” said Mr Youker. “Therefore, if a startup is forming out of that limited talent pool, they will have a special knowledge base that gives them a lot of advantage.”
Mr Jeremy Youker, director of venture building, moderating the lab to market Quantum Computing panel
A Balancing Act
To build upon their advantageous position and grow sustainably, startups need to strike a balance between meeting short term business objectives and working towards long term ambitions.
Herein lies the key difference between a good research plan (which scientists coming out from academia are familiar with) and a good business plan; the latter requires one to find ways to create value in the short term to gain traction from investors while working towards a grander vision that may be 10 to 15 years on the horizon, Dr Safaei added.
Dr Tommaso Demarie, CEO and co-founder of Entropica (left) with Dr Shabnam Safaei, founder-in-residence at Entrepreneur First
Further complicating matters is the issue of compatibility between hardware and software solutions for quantum computing. “[To build a quantum computer], there are different possible systems such as superconducting qubits, trapped ion qubits and so on,” she explained. Because of this, the algorithm designed for one type of quantum computing system could become completely irrelevant on a different quantum computing system. She thus advises companies to pay attention to potential future developments in the quantum technology space even as they build up software for existing systems.
Looking ahead, the panellists think that quantum computing will prove its worth sooner rather than later. Dr Demarie, for one, feels that a tipping point could be reached within “the next two years, maybe less.”
“If somebody solves a problem that is unique to quantum computing, and which you cannot solve with classical computers, there’s no way back, and I think we’re reasonably close to that,” he concluded.
Quantum technology is one of SGInnovate’s focus areas as we believe in its potential to transform supercomputers. Be part of our future Quantum Computing discussions.
Horizon Quantum Computing is one of our portfolio companies.
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