Quantum computing is hampered by R&D challenges and a skills shortage that could slow its entry into industry and society for decades.

Quantum computing pioneer IonQ is maneuvering to debut at the New York Stock Exchange amidst the usual fanfare accompanying these feats.

I mean, as a Quantum entrepreneur, could you possibly go to Wall Street and state, opening bell in your hand, that quantum computing is a tremendously promising emerging technology filled with unknowns and hard R&D problems? That you might find a breakthrough way out next month or stumble upon some new big challenge that defers development by decades?

I wish all the best to the new enterprise, especially since it has one of the most promising quantum technologies to offer and a first-class physicist at the top.

The line between optimism and deception

Scott Aaronson, one of the leading independent voices of quantum technology, recently bloggedQC ethics and hype: the call is coming from inside the house”, a post referring not to IonQ specifically but to a more general problem concerning quantum computing. And I seem to have overheard John Preskill, one of the fathers of quantum information science, agreeing.

The call to order is not applicable to hardware only. Many of the stories you hear about ongoing quantum “applications” are media fairy tales constructed around ingenious experiments and simulations that await a real-world test.

If you sneak into the chests of Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria or Goldman Sachs you will not find any quantum algorithm that optimizes the pricing of derivatives or predicts the next financial crash. You will find brilliant studies and hypotheses on how such an algorithm might look like.

Writes Aaronson: “In many cases (especially with quantum simulation) the claims aren’t obviously false—we won’t know for certain until we try it and see! It’s genuinely gotten harder to draw the line between defensible optimism and exaggerations verging on fraud”.

Essentially, we are telling us stories about what we will be able to do when effective quantum computers are around. Which is not now.

And more challenges than R&D await us.

The Quantum skills gap

IonQ’s CEO Peter Chapman told the Wall Street Journal that “The company has given about 20 million software developers access to its current early-stage quantum-computing device through partnerships with cloud-computing service providers Amazon Web Services and Microsoft.”

Combine that statement with a glimpse at the following graphic:

Zlatko Minev, Qiskit
Dr. Zlatko Minev, Qiskit

Based on a Twitter poll, this was the attendees’ most appreciated chart among those used by researcher Zlatko Minev during his lecture on July 27, 2020, at the successful IBM’s Qiskit Global Summer School online (over 5,000 people enrolled!). It provides some background for creation/annihilation operators in quantum programming, an important coding structure.

A rapid back-of-the-envelope calculation tells me that three in every 100 of the twenty million software developers referred to by the WSJ can understand Minev’s chart. (We do not really know how many professional developers there are in the world: twenty million is an average of best guesses).

I estimate there are approximately 2 million employees worldwide who could be trained to become beginner quantum programmers in three months. However, virtually all are already employed – not necessarily in IT – and few are easily replaceable in their jobs.

Therefore, organizations aiming to develop quantum computing skills should primarily resort to new hires.

The world’s education systems produce new suitable candidates yearly, but not many. For example, I reckon that every year the US college system releases 3,000 new graduates and PhDs who could be trained as future quantum programmers.

Of course, only a small fraction will be available for such training because there are other and often more-urgent areas demanding those skills, like AI, data science, finance, material science, manufacturing and logistics, military, intelligence et cetera.

Lack of skills suffocates the industry

Hundreds of government organizations are investing in quantum information science, in the EU’s 27 countries and in the UK, US, China, Russia, India, Switzerland, Israel, Canada, South Korea, Norway, Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and counting. Many large businesses are following suit or soon will.

All organizations, whether businesses or government, that are getting exposed to quantum right now are using most if not all the existing available human capital.

There is a limit to the amount of technological innovation per unit of time that industry and society can stand.

So What?
  1. Quantum computers are currently no better than ordinary ones at no practical task (see 3 below). When they are, mighty opportunities will open up for society and for businesses at least in chemistry, materials, electronics, pharmaceuticals, finance.
  2. To be caught ready when that happens, governments and businesses worldwide will compete in an extremely small skills market through 2035 at least.
  3. Although it is desirable and – despite the R&D challenges – possible that quantum advantage emerges by 2025 or earlier, I will be extremely surprised if by that time we see real-world applications of financial value.
  4. Until at least 2025 and in whatever industry, quantum computing will remain a topic for the R&D department only.

Paolo Magrassi Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I have no vested interest in any of the products, firms, or institutions mentioned in this post. Nor does the Analyst Syndicate.