Scientists working on quantum computing have defined the term Quantum Supremacy as when a well-controlled quantum system can perform tasks surpassing what can be done in the classical world. While that is a very important milestone, I submit that it is just a stepping stone towards the ultimate goal.
In order for quantum computing to make a true difference on how we live and work, it must become a viable commercial technology that is used every day on a production basis to solve real world problems. So with that realization, I would like to propose two additional milestones that be very significant in quantum computing when they are reached.
Quantum Supremacy is important because no one will even consider using a quantum solution if they can solve a real world problem with classical means. IT managers are conservative and will not consider using anything new unless it provides a very significant benefit. Even if one can provide a quantum solution that is 10% cheaper than a classical solution, an IT manager problem won’t use it because they don’t want to take the risk. The quantum solution must be able to either solve a problem that cannot be solved at all using classical means or else provides a cost advantage that is so overwhelming they can’t ignore it.
So the next step in the development of the quantum computing market will be something that I call Quantum Commercial Viability. At this stage end users start using quantum computing on a production basis and receiving advantages in doing so. The most likely scenario is that they will use it via the cloud, something I am called QAAS or Quantum As A Service (see my article on Quantum and Cloud Computing – A Marriage Made in Heaven). Think of a drug manufacturer running frequent quantum simulations for drug discovery or an airline logistics manager running an optimization algorithm to figure out how to best stage his aircraft fleet for lowest cost.
You might think that once Quantum Commercial Viability is reached we have reached the final stage. But one thing that is missing is profitability. Although the end user is receiving benefits, the suppliers of the technology are losing money and this is not sustainable over the long term. It is quite normal for new technologies to lose money for several years after introduction, but they do need to have a pathway towards eventual profitability. In some cases it may take a long time. For example, Amazon was incorporated in July 1994 and did not report the first profit until February 2002, some 7½ years later. So while a quantum computing company may be building and shipping machines at a positive gross margin (i.e. they sell it for more the cost of manufacture), they may be investing heavily in R&D and marketing so that they are still not profitable. Sometimes companies at this stage may get buy out offers from larger companies and sometimes, although less often nowadays, companies can do an IPO and go public. But both of these events are predicated on the assumption that the quantum computing company will eventually reach the third stage, which is Quantum Profitability.
At the end of the day, investors invest because they believe the technology will eventually reach Quantum Profitability. Some investors are more patient than others, but no venture capitalist or corporate board of directors will want to provide funding for a technology that will never make money. To achieve this, a company not only has to sell a machine or service for more than it costs. them, but they need to also have enough money left over to cover all the R&D, marketing, and other costs so than can achieve profitability.
So with this in mind, I submit that three major milestones are:
Although quantum computing research funding has previously been mostly through various government and grant funding, we are now starting to see increasing levels of interest by both venture capital firms as well as large corporations. By showing them the potential for profits, this funding can increase substantially and result in the acceleration of technical advances, more opportunities for those who work in the field, and achieve a greater impact on how we all live and work.