March 13, 2016
Last week Bill Gates opined “There is a chance that within 6-10 years cloud computing will offer super-computation by using quantum”. I think Bill is too conservative and would not be surprised if we start seeing some type of quantum computing offered in the cloud within the next 2-5 years.
There is a precedent to offering cloud-like computing services in the early computer industry. In 1957, IBM set up the Service Bureau Corporation to provide computing services to entities that needed occasional access to a computer but could not afford the millions of dollars that each machine cost and the associated large support staff to run it. IBM continued this effort until 1973 when they agreed to sell the Service Bureau Corporation to Control Data as part of an anti-trust settlement.
There are a lot of parallels between the classical computer industry of 1957 with quantum computing today. The machines cost millions of dollars; they are hard to use; require a significant support staff; only a few people really understand it; and software to run on the machines is still very primitive.
One of the leaders in cloud computing right now is Amazon Web Services (AWS) which offers substantial scientific computing services over the web. And is it a coincidence that one of the investors in D-Wave is Jeff Bezos private investment company, Bezos Expeditions? So one could speculate that Jeff will push to get one of the D-Wave machines hooked up to AWS and start offering access to quantum computing that complements AWS existing capabilities.
Although D-Wave is apparently offering remote access to a machine in there lab, there would be some advantages to partnering with AWS to do this. Many problems will require a combination of high powerful classical computing, large storage requirements, and couple this with quantum computing computing capabilities. AWS would be able to leverage their existing customer relationships and help introduce quantum computing to a wider community. And we shouldn’t neglect the powerful brand name that AWS has already established in cloud computing which makes conservative IT managers more comfortable.
What might be some of the first applications for quantum cloud computing? Just like in 1957, the first users would be those groups that only require occasional access to this capability for specific projects. Examples could include drug discovery, materials and catalyst design, and various optimization problems.
Although it is likely that quantum annealing and perhaps other specialized processors will be available before more general purpose gate level processors are available, one thing is clear. As new machines are released putting them on the cloud will become a high priority. Only a few very large organizations like Google and certain U.S. Government agencies will be able to afford the high price and have the capability to utilize them to their full potential. The rest of the market will dip their toe into the water by trying out quantum computing via the cloud.