A fantastical reality: is quantum computing the AI-in-waiting?

Article by:Alex Maxwell


AI certainly took the honours for ‘most hyped’ sector of last year. But as it continues to dominate news and investment, there’s another deep tech sector you should also have your eyes on. Quantum computing has quietly been making headway outside the shadow of mainstream media and headlines. 

The last few years have seen its value rocket – the overwhelming majority of the total investment into quantum computing startups since 2001 has happened in the 2020s. 

And while quantum computing is very much in its infancy, in 10 years’ time it’s predicted the automotive, chemicals, financial services and life sciences industries could have gained up to $1.3 trillion in value from its integration. Investors, therefore, are keen to get a slice of the quantum pie. 

But why is it so sought after? And what can – or will – it do? 

What is quantum computing?

A traditional computer uses ‘bits’ – which can represent either a zero or a one – to perform calculations one at a time to produce one ‘result’ each time. A quantum computer uses ‘qubits’, which can represent any combination of a zero and a one simultaneously. As such, it can perform multiple calculations at once to produce a range of possible results. 

This means a quantum computer can solve highly complex tasks and problems a traditional computer can’t – and in a mere fraction of the speed. 

So, if a chemist is trying to characterise how molecules interact with each other for drug discovery, or a firm is trying to detect complex financial fraud activity, it has the potential to produce breakthrough answers and unforeseen solutions. 

Stuffed full of potential, but when will we see its impact? 

Quantum computing is an industry brimming with promise but, as of yet, concrete use cases for solving business and real-world problems are scarce – it is still very much in an experimental and conceptual phase of its development. For now, certain issues such as being error prone and the need to be kept at ultra-low temperatures limit its progress. 

But quantum computing is playing the long game, and it has the capability to revolutionise so many technological, societal and global problems. That’s why so many investors are banking on it. In fact, it can be quite hard to fathom what these supercomputers will be able to achieve come the 2030s. One tantalising prospect is the idea of pairing quantum computing with AI. 

Quantum-AI: a meeting of two powerhouses 

With AI already redesigning the tech landscape, could a convergence with quantum computing produce unimaginable discoveries for some of the world’s biggest challenges? 

Quantum-powered machine learning could deliver incredible levels of speed, efficiency and accuracy to AI models; quantum computing can overcome traditional transistor-based hardware limitations that exist in AI models and quantum algorithms could calculate in even more advanced ways. 

When it comes to the climate crisis or drug discovery, could this collaboration lead to answers we haven’t even contemplated? The way we make decisions and the way we process information could be radically redefined. 

But the issue lies in discerning the reality and feasibility of such a partnership, truthfully assessing how it can be safely and ethically developed, and understanding where workers fit into all of this. 

The new internet/smartphone combo? 

Last year the UK government announced a new National Quantum Strategy, with a £2.5bn fund to make it the leader in the sector in 10 years. This included new accelerator programmes for quantum startups and training programmes aiming to fill the void of quantum-skilled talent. 

There are UK incubators who have opened their doors to quantum and AI startups. And Quantum Exponential, for example, is the UK’s first venture capital firm specialising in quantum tech. But while the motive is there and funds are flowing, there are a lot of unknowns as to how the industry will develop and when/if we will see its impact.  

I still have to wrap my head around the fact iPhones didn’t exist until 2007. The tech industry knows better than most how one breakthrough can trigger a domino effect of advancements and progression that remodel how we live. AI is being viewed as the next gamechanger on the same scale as the internet. 

Just as the internet combined with smartphones has changed the world as we know it, could AI combined with quantum computing do the same?


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