By Michael Biercuk
Quantum computing is on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days. Investors, big businesses and governments alike are excited for the prospect of realizing new world-changing capabilities from finance to defense to logistics to health.
It’s sometimes hard to understand, but what you really need to know is this: thinking about “quantum computing” should conjure the same broad image as “computers.” It can completely reshape the world and everyone’s life for the better – even in ways we can’t imagine right now any more than we could imagine Netflix and Amazon when we first built the ENIAC to calculate artillery shell trajectories.
Quantum technology is likely to be as transformational in the 21st century as harnessing electricity was in the 19th.
One of the greatest myths around the quantum computing sector is that it will be winner-takes-all. This is no more true for quantum computing than it is for a sector as broad as “computing.” Just think of the range of conventional computing giants: Intel, AMD, Meta, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Dell, Salesforce, Amazon…there are so many enormous successes because the field is so broad.
Where does the winner-takes-all mindset come from? I think it’s likely a byproduct of the influx of venture capital investment into the quantum sector. The economics of VC are simple – invest in a broad portfolio with a small number of outsized wins. A handful of companies need to return 100X or more to offset the many complete losses and modest wins in the portfolio. (For a great visual overview of the model check out this simple explainer from Phil Morle at Main Sequence Ventures).
Of course, this can deliver huge wins and has been a key part of the growth of Silicon Valley and the broader global tech sector. But over reliance on an economic model which mandates a small number of outsized wins can lead to distortion.
In the quantum computing sector, I think we’re seeing a similar distortive effect on the industry narrative right now.
Despite the level of interest from investors, narratives about the emerging quantum industry have been rather one-dimensional, segmenting simplistically between quantum hardware and quantum software, and then suggesting an early mover in each segment is likely to dominate the sector. A more nuanced view of the quantum industry shows another path with much broader potential for impact and value capture.
To understand the value of the sector in aggregate, we can align the various players in the quantum industry against strata already present in the conventional computing and software sector:
- Teams building quantum computing hardware are enabling cloud access to their systems, aligning them with Cloud Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)
- Application and algorithm development and developer-tool focused teams are gravitating towards connecting their innovations to cloud-accessible quantum computers, and making them available via the cloud, in analogy with Application Software as a Service (SaaS)
- Q-CTRL is a category-defining business pioneering the development of the Quantum Infrastructure Software segment, providing a link between “bare metal” IaaS quantum processors and SaaS providers.
- Hyperscalers like AWS, Microsoft, and IBM are building supporting cloud platforms for end users, aligned with Cloud Platform as a Service (PaaS)
It is immediately obvious that greater segmentation offers more opportunity for large-scale successes.
But even within each of these segments there is an underappreciated opportunity for many winners to emerge. Amazon and Microsoft coexist as major cloud-computing providers (PaaS). Dell and Lenovo coexist as server manufacturers (IaaS). Salesforce, Meta, and Netflix all provide application software (SaaS). Juniper Networks, Cisco, and VMWare all provide critical infrastructure software that makes all these other services work. These are all companies worth tens of billions of dollars.
Why should the future of quantum computing be any different?
Add to this general viewpoint the issue of sovereign technology – where governments are pouring money into otherwise disadvantaged companies to secure local quantum capability – and the idea of many winners becomes strengthened.
To focus a bit more on one category, Q-CTRL is the first Quantum Infrastructure Software provider to emerge in the quantum industry. By analogy with VMWare, Q-CTRL’s Quantum Infrastructure Software virtualizes quantum computer hardware, breaking the link between base hardware characteristics and actual quantum computational power. Doing so massively improves performance, and expands the convenience, cost-effectiveness, and cross-compatibility of hardware to augment utility for end users and applications teams.
Just like in conventional infrastructure software, Quantum Infrastructure Software helps other software teams unlock the value of their own IP and increases the value of cloud-accessible hardware infrastructure.
Early on, quantum hardware teams looked to take on these challenges themselves. The paradigm of 100% vertical integration in the quantum industry is falling away for two reasons. First, hardware development requires a specific way of working, and traditionally teams good at building hardware have struggled to also produce great software. Second, building QC hardware is tough enough – it’s just not reasonable to expect all innovations in the design, construction, operation, and application of these cutting-edge machines to come from a single organization.
The emergence of cloud-accessible quantum computers has accelerated this trend, enabling specialist providers to develop and test their technology without the need to also develop the underlying hardware.
Q-CTRL’s major value-add comes through just such expertise and focus. We operate the world’s largest team of experts in a technical field called quantum control engineering and have turned this into a unique – and transformational – infrastructure software offering. In short, we can make quantum computer hardware do things that shock even the teams that build the systems.
Just as with cloud security software, it’s best to leave mission critical tasks to focused teams with special expertise. There is no reason we can’t both win.
The biggest risk we face looking forward is that we allow our ambitions to be stifled by a scarcity mindset. Painting a narrative that delivers just one or two winners will leave nearly all the opportunity on the table.
Michael J. Biercuk is the CEO and Founder of Q-CTRL and a Professor of Quantum Physics and Quantum Technology at the University of Sydney.
May 6, 2023