Where does quantum technology sit as part of a system?

by Edmund Owen | Sep 11, 2023

Quantum technology has an image problem. Informed business leaders appreciate that it will bring transformative change; reshaping business and helping us to rise to some of our toughest societal and global challenges. And yet, for many, the image of quantum technology remains confusing, inaccessible, mystical even. In this article, I plan to debunk this thinking – which can have an inhibiting effect on adoption – and reveal just how accessible quantum can feel when it is an enabling technology within a wider system.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges and risks involved, including in areas such as technology immaturity and global supply chains. But I’ll explain how obstacles like these can be confronted with careful engineering and high-quality development processes. These are the keys to integrating quantum components into larger systems, existing value chains and familiar business processes.

Let’s begin with the headlines. Quantum technologies – characterised by the promise of quantum computing, quantum sensing and quantum communication – are poised to redefine the art of the possible. Innovation will lead to benefits that can’t be matched by any other technology.

The future vision is extraordinary – but the unique capabilities of quantum technology won’t prevail if they aren’t harnessed correctly. And the crucial point to make here is that quantum technology can’t exist in a vacuum. We need to design and engineer systems around it. The conundrum though, as I set out at the start, is that the quantum element demands significant attention for conflicting reasons. It’s the most compelling and interesting part but it’s also challenging. Asking: ‘how can we integrate quantum technology into this system’ is a relatively unexplored question – but a hugely important one.

I’ve seen how barriers put up by this supposed inaccessibility can start to dissipate in people’s minds. It begins to happen when they consider the broader context in which the quantum element of a system sits. Gradually quantum technology becomes democratised and empowering.

Certainly, many clients I’ve collaborated with have seen an accelerated path opening when they realise that they’ll be drawing on existing technologies and known techniques within their business. Integration is a lot less daunting than starting again from scratch.

Quantum cloud computing

One area in which CC has applied these principles is quantum cloud computing. In this domain, the quantum computer is certainly able to ‘do the impossible’ compared to conventional computing – but what if it is completely impossible to use? One of the many problems that will need to be addressed is whether the system could be down for calibration for so long that it negates any advantages that had been hoped for.

We’re fortunate at CC in that we have quantum experts sitting within multidisciplinary teams of designers, engineers and scientists who excel in complementary fields. We can see and understand the potential complications and have a broad enough perspective to know what it takes to design good systems around the quantum cloud computer.

I’ve written about this aspect of ‘quantum as part of a system’ in more detail here on our website and also for TechRadar. In both articles, I unpack how quantum cloud computing can work in tandem with digital service innovation to transform workflows. I talk about the calibration issue specifically.

A quantum computer is relatively fragile and requires regular calibration, which takes it offline. When deciding whether to do this, a balance needs to be struck to get the most out of the quantum computer and ensure that workflows run smoothly.

Small programs can be run with a relatively high error rate – so it makes sense not to calibrate. But longer running programs would be susceptible to errors and interruptions, so it would be a waste of resources not to calibrate. Look at it this way: if a program takes a second to run, failure can be quickly rectified. But if a program takes a day, then it’s a really good idea to calibrate at the outset to ensure success.

Quantum technology in new markets

Other examples of how quantum sits as part of broader systems arise when we explore use cases for the technology in new markets. When we set its game-changing capabilities against existing challenges, we can soon start to see how quantum technology can make exciting new things happen.

Once again, the need to put a broader range of expertise at the disposal of an organisation becomes apparent. Understanding the regulatory and commercial context, for example, can make the difference between success and failure. In many cases, challenges aren’t technology based at all.

Here is just one example. If a doctor doesn’t know how to interpret a quantum-derived signal from a diagnostic, why would they bother measuring it, even if it is clinically relevant? CC’s understanding across a range of commercial sectors, including the highly regulated medical space, helps us to quickly pinpoint when an emerging technology may or may not be useful.

Our experience came to bear relatively recently on a client project which involved exploring the potential of quantum sensing for the life sciences. We collaborated with the renowned Swiss quantum sensing technology company Qnami, which was intent on identifying further commercial applications, particularly in the biomedical area – where nitrogen vacancy (NV) magnetometry could provide clinical value and open new commercial opportunities. You can dive into more details of the project here.

Integrating quantum components

Now my final take – for the moment – on applying quantum technology as part of a system. Specifically, I’d like to talk about the challenges around integrating quantum components into larger systems, existing value chains and business processes.

Here, an organisation needs to understand much more than what the new capabilities of quantum technology will deliver. It is critical to get to grips with what the rest of the system will look like, which requires a system-level approach. This is not necessarily restrictive – robust design thinking based on the learn-fast paradigm of Desirability, Viability Feasibility (DVF) – can relax the constraints of quantum systems just like it can in other fields.

To create a product or service, we don’t necessarily need a perfect system capable of measuring academically publishable results. Usually, we just want something that works for a particular application – which can often reduce the specification burden. This is why it is vital to understand the commercial and societal context of an integrated project, as well as technical restraints imposed by non-quantum components.

I hope this article has helped to clarify how a systems approach will benefit the design of quantum solutions. The big picture is that the future is about more than just the quantum element of a system – it is about seamless integration with everything around it. Successful innovators will have a holistic mindset that extends to pivotal strands of commercial activity such as supply chains.

It’s true to say there are elements of risk here. Relatively immature quantum technologies will rely on specialised skills, components and processes which might only be available from a small selection of suppliers, perhaps in hostile places. A fundamental change of direction for any product or service, especially involving quantum, will have implications for components that are not provided by existing supply chains.

Enabling technologies will be anything but off the shelf. Careful strategic planning will be necessary to mitigate geopolitical tensions, variable quality assurance and so on. Companies or governments facing a future dependent on a single unreliable supplier will need to explore a raft of approaches such as investing in alternate suppliers or even bringing capabilities in house.

For now, the way forward for organisations is to get up to speed with the implications of integrating quantum technology as part of a system. We can help with associated development challenges, so do reach out to me or the CC team if you’d like to discuss the topic further.

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Senior Consultant - Quantum Technologies | View profile

Edmund works to combine his experience in modelling and quantum systems with the expertise of engineers, programmers and designers to develop quantum products which provide practical solutions to commercially and socially relevant problems. Edmund is also a member of UKQuantum’s Steering Committee.

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