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Quantum computers harness the mind-bending probability of subatomic particles existing in multiple states simultaneously, creating ultra-powerful processors able to carry out multiple calculations at once. Or at least, that’s the theory. General purpose quantum computers remain a fantasy.
This week, IBM attempted to lay out a road map for the practical application of quantum computing, claiming that it could provide error-free calculations by the end of the decade. If true, it could supercharge investment in the sector.
Last year, global quantum start-ups received $2.35bn in funding, according to McKinsey data. Although a record, it was only a fraction above the total raised in 2021. There was also a slowdown in new quantum start-ups. The number founded in 2022 was half that of the previous year.
Big Tech companies are still investing in research and development. Along with IBM, Amazon and Google are both working on quantum computing. In China, Baidu is investing in quantum research. But Alibaba has opted to shut its own quantum computing lab as it seeks to cut costs.
The potential use cases for quantum computing extend to any area in which ultrafast processing speeds might help, from drug discovery to energy efficiency. There are concerns that it could unravel digital encryption. Some companies are attempting to integrate research in the real world. IonQ is working with companies like Hyundai.
The sticking point is errors. The building blocks of quantum computing are quantum bits — aka qubits. IBM is developing a new chip that will have 1,121 qubits. For comparison, Baidu’s processor has 10. But many qubits do not ensure accuracy. Maintaining unstable quantum states for long enough to be useful is an expensive endeavour. In Vancouver, Photonic recently raised $100mn from investors including Microsoft to further its efforts to build a “fault tolerant” quantum computer. The magnitude of the challenge may be responsible for the slowdown in start-up growth.
If IBM’s timeline is accurate that could change, giving start-up investors confidence that exits are possible in the near future. IBM may be a leader in the sector but it is slow-moving. Its failure to commercialise its early artificial intelligence research suggests plenty of room for competitors in quantum.
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