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Can we do great things through small things? This is how quantum computing is expected to transform the world.

What is quantum computing?

The hardware you’re using now to read this article is still remarkably flat compared to the early computer models of the 20th century. Although devices are getting smaller and faster, the way they process information is still essentially the same. But quantum computing is poised to upend the status quo, and could have the same revolutionary effects on the global economy as the Internet, television, and the telephone had.

What makes it so revolutionary? First, you need to understand the workings of the device you are using to read this article. Classical computers use binary, a coding language that helps us make sense of the world around us. Every piece of data—be it images or text—into a computer or generated by a computer is translated into a unique code of zeros and ones. For example, “cat” would translate to 01000011 0100001 01010100 in binary.

Cloud computing deconstructs this system and unleashes a new kind of processing using ideas from subatomic physics. The units of information within a quantum computer — known as qubits — can be either zero or one at the same time. It can also be in every possible state between #0 and #1 as well. Imagine a coin spinning in the air. When she’s on the ground, she’ll be either a hoop or a pattern, but as long as she’s spinning in the air, she’s in every possible pose. In quantum computing, this is known as “quantum superposition,” and it opens up vast new processing possibilities, meaning that these machines can perform computing operations in an accelerated way.1

If this sounds complicated, keep in mind that the American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

What can quantum computers do?

If you feel like this sounds like science fiction, you’re not alone. For a long time, experts believed that we wouldn’t be able to get qubits to the perfect state needed to make useful quantum computers. But recent conquests can find ways to correct these problems enough to make them more reliable and accurate. Small quantum computers are in operation today, but the biggest ones contain only 433 qubits. To put it in perspective, it is believed that one million qubits are needed for the technology to reach its full potential.2

Achieving events

One of the most interesting uses of quantum computers is the role they can play in optimizing existing processes in order to reduce carbon emissions. A Japanese software company and real estate developer recently used quantum computing to develop sustainable cities by optimizing waste management and reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The waste collection path was reduced from 2,300 km to 1,000 km and this reduced CO2 emissions by 57%.3

And as quantum computers become more common, they can also be used to power power grids more efficiently. Research is now beginning to explore the design of new catalysts to make industrial processes less energy-intensive, or to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.4

Business acceleration

Quantum computing can have profound effects on businesses, helping them run more efficiently or streamlining processes to improve profitability. It is believed that there is huge potential in the automotive industry, from supply chain management to the development of new high-capacity batteries for electric vehicles.6

The move towards supercomputers will have a significant impact on the financial services sector as well. The ability to process large volumes of data would mean that banks would be able to create more accurate market and scenario calculations. HSBC has already started examining the potential of using quantum technologies to tackle real-world problems across the bank. When combining capabilities with leading technology providers and research centers, areas such as pricing and warranty optimization can be explored.

It is hoped that quantum computers in the future will greatly speed up the discovery of new treatments and vaccines. Quantum computers could also be used to aid early intervention in cancer patients by helping to predict when healthy cells might turn into malignant tumours.

New Internet?

As with artificial intelligence, there are growing concerns about potential downsides to the incredible power that will be unleashed. One of the big concerns is that quantum computers will eventually break all of our current encryption protocols. A full-fledged quantum computer can do work in one day that a normal computer would take millions of years to decode. With the encryption keys that protect some of our most important online communication services—group chats, email messages, and even your cryptocurrency account—a quantum computer has the potential to crack the internet as we know it now.7

But the other side of this path is the ability of quantum communications to protect data in a much more secure way than it is today, which makes the work of hackers next to impossible. Quantum communication could usher in a new era in cybersecurity and transform the financial services industry. This can lead to deeper levels of security for payment transactions and operations. HSBC is currently looking into how quantum physics can be used to create ultra-secure cryptographic systems using a technique called quantum key distribution.

What stage are we at now?

Although quantum computing is now well used, the technology is still in its early days. But the point in time when quantum computers outperform existing supercomputers is known as quantum supremacy. You may have heard the terms Y2Q and Q-day floating around. But we are still a long way from this today, as experts estimate that we need between 20 and 40 years until we reach a machine with the necessary million quantum bits.

What is not in doubt, nonetheless, is the interest and funding that this field is currently receiving. Quantum computing is seeing significant funding pledges from governments and industry alike. Governments around the world have committed nearly $24 billion, and the sector will receive more than $1 billion in venture capital investment in 2021.9 It is estimated that by 2035, the four sectors that will be most affected by the development of quantum computing are automobiles, chemicals, financial services, and science. Life – could make $1.3 trillion in gains.10

This means that the race between governments and private industry toward quantum control is unsurprising. Major international projects help pool research and development to accelerate exploration. NEASQC, in which HSBC is a core partner, brings together a dozen companies and research labs working on potential use cases in areas ranging from drug discovery and breast cancer detection to carbon sequestration and energy infrastructure risk assessments.

The world is fast heading towards a quantum year, and we’re likely to hear a lot more about quantum computing in the coming years. Can we do great things by thinking small things? There is not an iota of doubt about this with quantum computing. But the question is how and with whom? The possibilities are actually endless.

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