Quantum computers are on track to solve bigger problems for BMW, LG and others

Marissa Giustina, a researcher at Google’s Quantum Computing Lab, draws a diagram showing “quantum supremacy” as a first step on the path to quantum computing progress.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

This story is part The year to comeGameSpot’s look at how the world will continue to evolve from 2022 and beyond.

After years of development, quantum computers have reached a level of sophistication in 2021 that has encouraged commercial customers to start trying their hand at radical new machines. Next year the business world may be ready to welcome them with more enthusiasm.

BMW is among the manufacturing giants who see the promise of machines, which capitalize on the physics of the ultrasmall to overcome some limitations of conventional computers. Earlier this month, the German auto giant picked four winners in a competition it held with Amazon to highlight ways new technology could help the automaker.

The automaker found that quantum computers had the potential to optimize sensor placement on cars, predict metal deformation patterns and use AI in quality checks.

“At BMW Group, we are convinced that future technologies such as quantum computing have the potential to make our products more desirable and sustainable,” Peter Lehnert, who heads BMW’s research group, said in a statement.

BMW is not alone in wanting to evaluate the practical application of quantum computers. Aerospace giant Airbus, financial services firm PayPal and consumer electronics maker LG Electronics are among the business ventures looking to use the machines to refine materials science, streamline logistics and monitor payments.

For years, researchers have worked on quantum computers as more or less conceptual projects that take advantage of qubits, data processing elements that can hold more than the two states handled by transistors found in conventional computers. Even as they improved, quantum computers were best suited for research projects, some as basic as programming exotic machines. But at the current rate of progress, they will soon become powerful enough to tackle computing tasks beyond the reach of conventional computers.

Like cloud computing before it, quantum computing will be a service that most companies hire out to other companies. Platformers require constant attention and are notoriously tricky. Although more work is needed to fully exploit their potential, quantum computers are becoming more stable, a development that helps companies overcome their initial hesitations.

Georges-Olivier Reymond, chief executive of startup Pasqal, said the progress overturned skeptics who previously viewed quantum computing as a fantasy. A few years ago, employees at big companies would roll their eyes when he brought up the subject, but that’s changed, Reymond says.

“Now every time I talk to them I get a positive response,” Reymond said. “They are ready to commit.”

A new customer is European defense contractor Thales, which is interested in quantum computing applications in sensors and communications. “Pasqal’s quantum processors can efficiently solve large-scale problems that are completely beyond the reach of classical computing systems,” Bernhard Quendt, chief technology officer at Thales, said in a statement.

Of course, quantum computing still represents only a tiny fraction of the traditional computing market, but it is growing rapidly. About $490 million was spent on quantum computers, software and services in 2021, Hyperion Research analyst Bob Sorensen said at the Q2B conference hosted by quantum computing software firm QC Ware in December. It expects spending to grow 22% to $597 million in 2022 and an average of 26% per year through 2024. By comparison, conventional IT spending is expected to grow 4% in 2021 to reach $3.8 trillion, Gartner analysts predict.

The growing business activity is remarkable given that using a quantum computer costs between $3,000 and $5,000 an hour, according to Boston Consulting Group analyst Jean-Francois Bobier. A conventional high-performance computer hosted on a cloud service costs half a penny for the same duration.

Analysts say the real spending on quantum computing will begin when the industry tackles error correction, a solution to the thorny problem of easily perturbed qubits derailing calculations. The fidelity of a single computational step on the most advanced machines is around 99.9%, leaving a degree of flakiness that makes a raw quantum computing computation unreliable. Therefore, quantum computers have to perform the same calculation several times to ensure that the answer is correct.

Once error correction matures, quantum computing revenue will skyrocket, according to the Boston Consulting Group. With today’s machines, that value will likely total between $5 billion and $10 billion by 2025, according to the consultancy firm’s estimates. Once error-corrected machines arrive, the total could jump to $450 billion to $850 billion by 2040.

Software and services that hide the complexity of quantum computers will also drive usage. IonQ CEO Peter Chapman predicts that in 2022 developers will be able to easily train their AI models with quantum computers. “You don’t have to know anything about quantum,” Chapman said. “You just give it the dataset and it spits out a model.”

Among the signs of commercial interest:

  • Automaker Daimler and oil giant ExxonMobil have contracted with IBM, an early proponent of quantum computing, to use some of the tech company’s 22 machines. (Big Blue will soon add Eagle, a new, more powerful device that uses a 127-qubit processor.) Companies are prime candidates for breakthroughs in materials science that quantum computers could one day provide. They could also use the machines to address logistical challenges, such as getting the right equipment to the field when needed or the right components to the factory in time for manufacturing.
  • Airbus, LG Electronics, healthcare company Johnson & Johnson, energy company EDF and chemicals giant BASF are among the industrial companies vying for time on Pasqal’s unique quantum computer. The startup is working on a relatively new “neutral atom” design that uses lasers to neatly arrange rubidium atoms, then use them as qubits to process the data. Many quantum computing startups are in the United States, but Pasqal, headquartered in France, benefits from European customers and government programs.
  • PayPal is testing a quantum annealer, a type of quantum computer suitable for solving optimization problems and made by D-Wave Systems, to guide its fraud detection work, according to Vidyut Naware, director of AI research of the society. He also told the Q2B crowd that PayPal is running the test to get a better idea of ​​how quantum computing can be deployed more efficiently.
  • Amazon Web Services offers customers access to machines from IonQ, Rigetti Computing and D-Wave Systems. He will soon add machines from QuEra and Oxford Quantum Circuits, and is building his own quantum machine. Among those using its services are JPMorgan Chase, which tests it for optimization work, such as managing its clients’ investment portfolios.
  • Microsoft is working on its own quantum computing approach, called topological qubit design. The work is not yet commercially available, but Microsoft’s Azure cloud service provides access to quantum computers and quantum computer simulators that provide an important stepping stone. The company has also entered into an agreement with KPMG to help customers test the waters of quantum computing using Azure.
  • Quantinuum, the company created when the hardware manufacturer Honeywell Quantum Solutions merges with software maker Cambridge Quantum, launched a service in December to generate random numbers. It may sound obscure, but these numbers are the basis of modern encryption. Among those trying out the service are Fujitsu and Axiom Space.
  • Quantum chemistry software startup Qunasys offers software to customers like Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation, CEO Tennin Yan said. Quantum chemistry and materials science could help engineers find better materials for solar panels, electric vehicle batteries and plastics.

Quantum computers today are more of a luxury than a necessity. But with their potential to transform materials science, shipping, financial services and product design, it’s no surprise companies like BMW are investing. The automaker has an interest in gaining a better understanding of how materials will deform in an accident or in training the vision AI of its vehicles more quickly. Although quantum computers may not be profitable this year or next, there is a cost to not taking advantage of the technology once it matures.