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Updated by Charles Bystock on 01/29/2019

Quantum computing used to be the stuff of science fiction, but this technology seems to now be hurtling toward science reality. With the waves that cloud computing created in the business world, everyone wants to stay ahead on the latest and greatest tech. But sometimes that means understanding not only the technology’s potential but also the difficulties it faces before getting to market.

What’s the big deal about quantum computing?

The biggest deal about quantum computing is that it’s even remotely possible. The fundamentals of quantum computing rely on advanced and complex physics still in its early stages of research. Even Richard Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum theory, once said, “Nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

While the actual math and science behind quantum computing is still fuzzy and full of kinks, both public and private researchers are getting a clearer idea of the “how” of quantum physics (just not exactly the “why”). We are surrounded by — and made up of — atoms and their subatomic components, electrons, protons, and neutrons. Instead of using a voltage circuit to make up the digital bits that allow computers to perform calculations, quantum computers rely on subatomic particles to make up quantum bits, or qubits.

These particles are generated using superconducting circuits or levitating individual atoms inside electromagnetic fields. It’s work on an incredibly small scale but, when treated correctly, these qubits can reach this not-well-understood mode called a “superposition.”

Instead of creating 1 and 0 bits through the variable application of a current, a single qubit in superposition can be a 1 and a 0 at the same time. While this might seem counterintuitive at first, a series of qubits in superposition can blaze through time-consuming problems about 5,000 times faster than a modern computer. Yes, you read that right: 5,000 times faster.

But quantum computing isn’t just about speed. It’s also about security. QuTech, a European company, is looking into applying quantum entanglement to create instantaneous and secure data transfer. Entanglement is a whole other beast of complicated physics, but essentially two entangled qubits retain a connection no matter the distance or barriers between them. It’s been likened to the teleportation of data, since affecting one particle will instantly change the other particle too. Better yet, no one can hack the transfer of information — only disrupt it.

The moon race of our time

Governments and private entities alike are chasing down the economic potential of a quantum computer and data transferring capabilities. Google, IBM, and Microsoft are heavily investing in their own development projects, and venture investors heaped $241 million on quantum computing startups in 2017. China is building a $10 billion research facility for quantum research, and the European Union has its own billion-dollar research program.

Whoever figures out quantum computing first stands to gain the most benefit from the technology — from more increased processing power for solving other computing quandaries, such as theoretically impossible-to-break security protocols, to faster resolution of simulations for new medications and drug therapy.

Between the proposed speed and security, quantum might seem like a natural progression for computing. But even while companies such as Microsoft are projecting a five-year launch for quantum computing in Azure and QuTech is racing to a 2020 deadline for a four-city quantum computing network, researchers still have a significant number of bugs to work out of qubits.

Not so fast ... yet

And now we come to the catch. Or several catches. While theory suggests that the high-powered possibilities of quantum computing are well worth the effort, we’re still a ways off from actually bringing quantum computing to any broad market — if it deserves a place there at all.

One of the main reasons for this is that qubits are highly unstable. Shielding is a must for these computers, as are close to absolute-zero operating temperatures — which is lower than minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Processing power is also reduced to correct qubit misfiring errors. Although researchers have made progress in stabilizing qubits in large groups, it’s still an incredibly expensive and finicky endeavor.

And while quantum theory has had at least a couple of decades of academic study, actual proof of principles in labs is rare, especially on a large scale. We also have no idea what application design for a quantum computer would even look like. Plus, the field is facing a shortage of qualified physicists and engineers able to tackle these tough problems.

We’re not saying that we should lose the enthusiasm for quantum computing. It’s a matter of managing expectations of quantum computing, especially in terms of how it can affect your business. For now, it might be a better idea to keep your IT plans focused on cloud computing rather than getting too far ahead of the curve.

The Windsor Group strives to keep up with the latest technology trends so that we can fully discuss and advise enterprises on the options that fit their goals. Learn more about our team.