IQT San Diego recap: Stay humble, avoid the quantum hype

By Dan O'Shea posted 20 May 2022

Over the last few Inside Quantum Technology events, there has been a growing sense of realism and practicality about what quantum computers are capable of now, and what they will be able to do in the future and how soon. With recent criticisms and controversies that have targeted a handful of publicly-traded quantum computing firms, the overall tone during last week’s IQT Quantum Enterprise event was, to no one’s surprise, humble, but still hopeful.

From one presentation to the next, sector leaders carefully avoided comments that could be construed as feeding the hype, and chose to focus on what’s practical today, and that is exactly what is needed right now, according to Rebel Brown, vice president of strategy and marketing at Quantum Computing Inc.

“We need to set reasonable expectations,” Brown said. “We’ve got naysayers who gleefully put down quantum… We need to set expectations for what quantum computing is, and not hype what it will do in the future as if that were available today. We as users need to set expectations on what is viable now, what makes the most sense and do that and not look to a production promise because we’re not there yet. The disconnection [between current reality and future hype] causes unrealistic expectations, which then causes people to go, ‘Well, it really isn’t there.”

She added, “We’re kind of ‘ready-fire-aiming’ on quantum, and we’re making all these promises, and yet we really can’t get there yet. And it’s confusing the market. I think we need to give the market better ways to logically evaluate and look at what we’re doing.”

Some of the “naysayers” Brown referred to are coming from the financial markets, and that could mean that financial support for quantum computing companies, whether it is from private funds, public grants or publicly-traded stock, could be in for a tightening.

“The primary motivation behind investing for investors is that–and this may come as a shock–they would like to give you $1 and have you give them back more than $1,” said whurley (William Hurley), founder and CEO of Strangeworks, during his “Evolution of Financing for Quantum Computing” presentation. “And so we have to be really careful with the expectations we’re setting–extremely, extremely careful.”

Both Brown and whurley made clear that they are big believers in the potential impact quantum computing could have over the next decade, but that the timing of the realization of quantum advantage over classical computing and other aspects of quantum computing’s evolution are not so clear.

Acknowledging that Strangeworks has integrated with quantum computers from many different vendors, whurley added, “There’s not a lot of usage yet. That’s not to be pessimistic about the space. Let’s just be pragmatic and realistic about how there’s still a lot of work to do… The truth is, we don’t yet have industry. There aren’t billions, hundreds of millions of dollars in enterprise budgets yet to do quantum computing. And that’s okay. We’re going to get there. There’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t have to over-exaggerate where we are.”

Brown described quantum computing as having “tremendous potential,” but also brought up what she called “the elephant in the room, which is the fact that quantum computers are not scalable to production systems yet… They are still early generation systems that we have developed, where you’re not solving big production problems [like] portfolio risk assessment that no one’s ever been able to solve. Our current state of quantum is not going to do that. That is a false expectation.”

Quantum companies may need to keep their heads down and keep working to improve the technology, although Brown acknowledged the quantum computing sector faces a compressed development timeline, much shorter than the multi-decade evolutions on classical computers and mobile phones. “The real question becomes how can you continue to learn and understand so you don’t lose the opportunity that’s coming? How do you protect your future?”

Continuing to maintain a heavy focus on R&D is one possible answer, and maintaining a bootstrapping mentality about managing organizational resources and costs is another.

But R&D requires more and more money, and whether it has come in the past from private sources, public grants or SPAC transactions, whurley said he believes the quantum sector could be nearing a funding-related apocalypse.

“We’re out over our skis a little bit,” he said referring to the billions of dollars that have been invested in the sector over roughly the last nine years, including $3.2 billion last year and about $1 billion of that amount coming in the final quarter of 2021. The combination of broader market deflation and a pull-back in quantum funding could cause many quantum start-ups to fail in the short-term, he observed.

That will increase the importance of bootstrapping, and whurley said that as an example Strangeworks still has 14 employees, and admitted his starting salary as a CEO was just $23,000 a year. “If you are raising money as a start-up, you need to be aware of the Number 1 rule of being a start-up: Use it Up, wear it out, make do or do without. That’s running a start-up.”

Dan O’Shea has covered telecommunications and related topics including semiconductors, sensors, retail systems, digital payments and quantum computing/technology for over 25 years.

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