Is a Quantum Winter Coming?

It may seem strange to talk about an upcoming winter at the end of March (unless you are in Australia), but at the recent Inside Quantum Technology conference in Boston there was some talk in a few sessions as well as in the hallways about a “Quantum Winter” that may eventually come.

For those unfamiliar with the term, it is a time when funding for new research in quantum technology is reduced due to a previous period’s massive hype, overinvestment and perceived under-performance. Artificial intelligence has suffered a few major periods like this and these were called “AI Winters”.

There has certainly been a significant increase in the hype from the popular press within the past couple of years. And some of the articles certainly sensationalize minor research results, which are important, but not the end-all that the article makes them out to be. At the same time, investments in quantum research have increased significantly, both at the governmental level and also at the venture capital level. Some of the governmental fundings are made primarily because of competition with other states and the fear that other countries should not be allowed to dominate the technology.

Although a lot of technical progress has occurred in the past couple of years, what hasn’t been noticed as much is that certain high visibility projects are not being completed as timely as had been initially thought. Developing any computer is a matter of getting the details right and sometimes arduous testing and multiple unplanned design revisions are required in order to finally meet the development goals. Ultimately, the engineering groups will get it right, but the timeframe will be a lot longer than was initially promised.

For investors, our counsel is to keep patient and realize that quantum technology is not a quick return business like the software or social media startups that you may be used to. Quantum technology has dual challenges for achieving commercial returns. Not only is the technology development quite difficult, but even after successful quantum computer is created it will still take a large amount of user training and education to take advantage of it. If a million qubit quantum computer was placed on the cloud tomorrow, nobody would immediately know what to do with it. This is completely different from some other technologies. For example, when solid state disk drives that used the same system software, the same electrical interface, and the same form factor as a rotating magnetic hard disk end were first commercially introduced, users were immediately able to put it to use.

Nonetheless, for investors who do have the patience, we still expect them to be richly rewarded. We will point them to a saying by Roy Amara, a past president of the Institute of the Future who said: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

Graphical Depiction of Amara’s Law