Apocalyptic posts are the price of mass awareness for quantum

By Dan O'Shea posted 01 Feb 2022

If you have sensed a little bit of a backlash lately against quantum computing in the general media, you’re not the only one.

From the BBC, there was the recent report on the potential for a “quantum apocalypse,” which seems to evolve mostly around the notion of quantum computing suddenly advancing to the point where it can crack anything and everything that’s encrypted. Also, from Slate, a recent post that discussed the likelihood of a “quantum winter,” a period during which technology fails to meet its full potential because of factors related to technology readiness, market readiness or both. One of the scenarios discussed in that post even suggests the possibility that quantum advantage may not be reached.

“Apocalypse” and “winter” are generally not words that you would like your exciting, young technology sector to be associated with.

In addition, after six months or so during which quantum-related stocks seemed to be capturing the attention of investors, there has been something of a backlash there, too, with share prices plummeting, although some of that probably was due to tech stocks collapsing across the board.

What should we in the sector make of all this? Did we make a big mistake devoting so much of our time to developing (or writing about) quantum?

The first thing to remember is that this is exactly what happens after a new technology achieves mass awareness. Many of you in the quantum sector have been living and working with the technology daily for years without much of the world really knowing what you were up to. That changed in 2021, with more attention from mainstream media, more attention from the financial markets and investors and more attention from people working in other industries.

Much of that was by design, as quantum companies were achieving innovations that could no longer be kept under wraps and were ready to start positioning them to address enterprise use cases across many industries. The financial attention also was stirred in large part by high-profile SPAC deals involving a couple of companies ready for next-level funding support to help realize their ambitions.

But mass awareness almost never comes with mass understanding. Concerns raised about the hacking potential of quantum are valid, but those in the quantum space know that the pursuit of quantum-safe cryptography is a sector-wide priority, and that many standards bodies around the world are working to make sure standards keep pace. 

Concerns about the industry’s ability to reach quantum advantage also are valid. This issue still is shrouded in some uncertainty. Many emerging technologies have experienced long winters during which innovation slowed and market impact remained elusive. In quantum, many companies have forecasted that quantum advantage will likely be achieved in the next few years. That seems close enough to be real, but let’s also remember that quantum-classical hybrid projects and simulations also can deliver value in the interim as the industry figures out the steps leading up to quantum advantage and the implications of achieving it.

Meanwhile, anyone investing in quantum needs to realize that it’s a long-term bet. One thing public quantum companies definitely need to get better at in the next year or two is showing some revenue from their early efforts, but they haven’t tried to trick anyone into thinking they are Amazon or Nvidia (not yet anyway.)

These recent posts with dramatic language and somewhat pessimistic views of the quantum sector are part of the process of understanding catching up to awareness. Quantum computing researchers shouldn’t let themselves be bothered too much by what others are saying, but at the same time the progress that is made this year and in the next two to three years will be pretty critical to keep quantum on a growth track.

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