Quantum Computing – the Potential for Australian Business

8 June 2018

At the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce’s Quantum Computing briefing on 8 June 2018, a panel of leading experts discussed key issues around quantum computing.

Moderated by Sally Patten, Editor BOSS, the Australian Financial Review, the speakers were Dave Curran, CIO, Westpac, Prof. Elanor Huntington, Dean, ANU College of Engineering & Computer Science, Prof. Andrea Morello, Quantum Engineering, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, UNSW and Program Manager, Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology and Michael Hush PhD, Lead Quantum Control Engineer, Q-CTRL.

This event was sponsored by: Deloitte

Discussion centred around how quantum computing might change or disrupt existing business models and how soon this might happen. Panellists also discussed the kinds of problems that quantum computing is likely to help solve, and what it could enable businesses to do that they currently can’t do.

Why is quantum computing relevant?

Dave Curran said that in the digital age that we live in, change is only going to speed up, and quantum computing is a driver of this change.

Dr. Michael Hush said the world around us obeys quantum mechanics, so if we build a computer that uses the same mechanics as the universe, then we can better simulate the world around us. If quantum becomes available at scale and soon, it will change how we think.

How does quantum fit in with AI?

Quantum is a driver of AI, but the biggest problem with AI is accuracy. Dave Curran said if you can take something from 75% accuracy to 90% accuracy, then it becomes commercially viable.

Prof. Huntington said there is a limited range of problems AI can solve. Quantum widens the pool of problems it can solve and hugely increases the volume of data that can be processed.

Potential applications of quantum

Quantum computing can write code in a way that traditional computers can’t – essentially, it’s a new language. But, like with any language, you need to learn how to speak it.

Near-term applications include quantum key distribution and data analytics. Quantum could tighten up predictive accuracy and tackle ‘hard’ computational problems that are currently beyond the power of conventional silicon.

Prof. Huntington said the ability to crunch large sets of data more quickly is still 5-10 years away.

Panellists agreed that there is still a lot of uncertainty around what problems are going to be solved efficiently, but they said that business needs to be aware that things are changing quickly. Business need to know be what algorithms are going to affect them and be ‘quantum ready.’

What skills will business require?

The panel agreed that we need to give STEM graduates business acumen and that business executives need some STEM capability and a foundation in quantum.

Prof. Morello suggested it was important to have people in-house who’ve done physics and STEM. Business needs to expand its network and talk to companies in the quantum space. UNSW is looking at setting up a quantum engineering team so that, at an undergrad level, students develop a solid understanding of quantum mechanics in addition to electrical engineering, IT and software skills. He predicts it won’t be long before it sits alongside mechanical and civil engineering.

Prof. Huntington said Australia is at a global disadvantage because we have too few people that are both business and STEM literate, and until we change this, we can’t compete on the world stage creating disruptive businesses.

Dave Curran said we need to get better at asking questions. Organisations have more data than they know what to do with, but they don’t know how to ask questions to get value from the data.

Quantum computing and cyber security

Dave Curran said banks see a lot of cyber activity, and at the moment it’s a reasonably even race between the banks and the cyber criminals. But the finance industry is concerned that rapid developments in quantum could alter the status quo and leave them struggling to catch up with the criminals.

The academics on the panel agreed that businesses needed to be quantum ready, but also said that quantum technologies offered opportunities for increased data security, rather than risk. Dr. Michael Hush said there are already conventional technologies that could ward off a quantum-based attack and new protection algorithms under development that would bolster cyber defences.

Prof. Morello said a quantum computer capable of pushing aside RSA encryption is a long way off. He believes a quantum computer with 1000 qubits (the quantum analog of a binary bit) will be available within the next ten years. However, to use a quantum algorithm to crack RSA you need many, many millions of physical qubits and that is a long way down the track, perhaps not even possible.

Final thoughts

Quantum computing is currently where traditional computers were in the 50s and 60s. There are a number of proof of principle experiments suggesting that someone will be able to build a quantum computer, but we don’t know where it will come from. Software, hardware, controls and algorithms all go into building a computer. There are many opportunities, and even if Australia develops just one component, everyone around the world wins. We want Australia to be a part of that.