Quantum computing-as-a-service opens its doors wide

Providers want to make it easier for customers to benefit from counterintuitive, but radically clever quantum bits.
5 August 2022

Quantum computing is never far from the technology headlines, and while there’s much to explore beyond keeping the web safe, NIST’s Quantum-Resistant Cryptographic Algorithm competition offers a useful starting point for our discussion. NIST (he US National Institute of Standards and Technology) has recently winnowed the number of remaining entrants down to four. It’s a notable milestone in the program, which calls on the world’s top cryptographers to devise and vet methods that will keep our future emails, banking details, and other electronic data protected. And, to very quickly recap, the concern here is that tomorrow’s quantum computers could uncloak the internet if their ability to quickly factorize large numbers into primes, plays out sooner rather than later.

In such a world, quantum computers would then be in a position to undermine current security algorithms that provide the reassuring padlock in our browser address bars and much more besides. And, once it’s been shown that quantum computers can decrypt live data, the next fear would be that bad actors, enemy nation-states, and malicious parties would put those machines to work on archived information – so called ‘harvest now, decrypt later’ attacks that are purported to be in progress right now.

These security concerns are among the first predicted effects of what quantum computing may be capable of. For many, the quantum computing concept is opaque, probably because quantum computers work quite differently from the laptops, tablets, and smartphones we have around us now.

Bit backstory

Classical computing bits, the backbone of our digital world, can be either 1 or 0, which – despite just having two states – can still represent some very complex information thanks to base 2 (binary) encoding. Logic gates, of which there are millions in modern CPUs, make it possible to apply operations and process data, as well as store information in this binary format. So far, so familiar. But what about quantum computers?

Quantum computing bits (qubits) are different from classical bits in that they can adopt states that are not just 1 or 0. In fact, they can be any state between 1 and 0. Also, qubits interact very differently from classical bits, and can be entangled – meaning that even if they are separated far from each other (from here to, say, the other side of the galaxy), they will still share the same information. It’s a counterintuitive state of affairs, but one that leads to new computing operations. And this is the really exciting bit.

Building algorithms around such quantum behavior opens the door to some powerful features – for example, being able to dramatically speed up unstructured search problems, which could allow users to query large amounts of information extremely quickly. Algorithms may benefit other areas too such as artificial intelligence, by improving the efficiency of certain classification tasks. And, as alluded to earlier, the number of operations required to factorize large numbers drops dramatically compared with the exponential runtime scaling of classical methods.

But we are not quite there yet. Quantum computers are tricky and expensive to build and resemble a complex physics lab rather than a sleekly packaged smartphone. Programming qubits close up involves manipulating electron spin using magnets, microwaves, and lasers, and is a world apart from the PC hardware we’ve grown used to. However, big names with interests in the technology, such as Google, IBM, Amazon, and others, are opening up access to their quantum hardware to researchers and businesses through quantum computing-as-a-service platforms.

Invitation to innovate

On the providers’ side, the hope is that collaborations will advance new algorithms and tools, as – with any technology in its infancy – there are likely to be plenty of early wins. Oxford Quantum Circuits – a UK technology firm that made its quantum computing architecture available to enterprise users last year via a private cloud – and announced £38 million Series A funding in July 2022 – hopes that opening up access to the latest machines will bring breakthroughs in multiple sectors, from pharmaceuticals through finance, as quantum computing becomes more widely known.

Recently, Mastercard announced that it had teamed up with Canadian quantum computing pioneer D-Wave to explore a range of potential applications, including cross-border settlement, fraud management, and optimized customer loyalty programs. Partnerships will be key to bringing everyone to speed on the opportunities that are up for grabs. And, long-established players are exploring ways for new clients to gain experience on the latest equipment.

Veteran computing firm Honeywell, whose tech credentials include supplying control systems for the space mission that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969, made its trapped ion-based quantum hardware available to users through a subscription model in 2020. And, in 2021, Honeywell Quantum Solutions combined with Cambridge Quantum – a specialist in quantum computing software – to form Quantinuum. Recent announcements from the collaboration include work with NVIDIA to integrate the GPU-maker’s quantum-optimized device architecture (QODA) within the Quantinuum platform. The goal here is to enable the integration and programming of quantum processing units, GPUs and CPUs in one system.

Bringing together the best of classical and quantum computing worlds will be a game-changer and help to smooth out any transitions that need to be made as different sectors work out what the optimal arrangement looks like. Quantum computers have strong prospects to augment classical computing by putting qubits to work where they have the upper hand on classical algorithms, allowing users to reap the rewards of their counterintuitive magic.