Quantum computing has the potential to dramatically outstrip current computing capabilities in fields such as finance (link to QC in Finance) or pharmaceutical industries (link to QC in Pharma). However, while huge advancements have been made in recent years, practical quantum computers remain elusive.
In this article, we briefly review the technology, discuss how the future of quantum computing might be in the cloud, and flag the need to ensure that patents for quantum computing based inventions cover the use of cloud based quantum computers.
The power of quantum computers lies in the fact that, unlike conventional computers that represent information using a bit (1 or 0), quantum computers encode information using qubits that can be understood as a combination of 1 and 0. These qubits are highly delicate and challenging to implement. Unlike classical bits that are realised by a voltage being high or low, for example, implementing qubits is far more complicated. As a result, quantum computers are less amenable to being operated ‘in-house’ by an end-user, at least for the foreseeable future.
Several qubit implementations are being explored.
One of the better-known implementations is superconducting qubits, which is being developed by e.g. IBM, Intel, DWave, Google, Oxford Quantum Circuits, or Rigetti, amongst others. Superconducting qubits are known to be fast, easy to make at scale using known semiconductor technology, but require complex cooling systems to achieve extremely cold temperatures (just above absolute zero). Another popular implementation is ion trap based quantum computers, where natural ions are ‘trapped’ in space and their electronic states used to implement the qubit. Trapped-ion qubits generally provide high quality qubits that may operate without cryogenics, but they must be combined with optical and vacuum systems, which renders them relatively difficult to scale to large numbers of qubits.
Players active in this field include Honeywell, IonQ, Oxford Ionics, or Universal Quantum, for example. Yet another implementation of qubits, is photonics, where single photons of light are used to encode information. Photonic qubits benefit from not having complex cooling needs and being scalable, but are also relatively unproven. Companies such as Xanadu and PsiQuantum are known to be active in this area. Other qubit implementations that are being explored, but not considered further here, include neutral atoms or silicon based qubits.
What is apparent is that the different qubit implementations each have their own strengths and weaknesses. There is no clear winner yet. In fact, it might well be that future quantum computers rely on a combination of different qubit technologies that operate in parallel. What the different qubit technologies do have in common, however, is that they all require highly skilled operators and a roomful of specialist hardware. Thus, it seems we are far from having user-friendly desktop sized quantum computers.
Cloud technology may provide a commercially viable means of accessing quantum computing.
Cloud technology is well suited as it allows end-users to access specialised quantum computing facilities wherever they are. In fact, established cloud computing suppliers such as Amazon and Microsoft Azure have started offering commercial quantum computing packages (Amazon Braket and Azure Quantum). In what is perhaps a reflection of the dearth of specialist knowledge, both cloud providers are collaborating with players such as IonQ, Honeywell, Rigetti, or Dwave, to provide access to their quantum computing hardware. Interestingly, both Amazon Braket and Azure Quantum seem to be hedging their bets by providing access to multiple qubit implementations (e.g. superconducting and trapped ion).
There is no doubt that cloud technology will facilitate access to the exciting technology of quantum computing and lead to a slew of quantum computing based inventions and patents. However, the cloud-based nature of quantum computing may become a minefield for companies seeking to protect their inventions through patents. A patent is a national right that gives the patent proprietor the exclusive right to use the patented invention, in the jurisdiction where the patent has been granted. When seeking to assert his rights, the patent proprietor may find that the steps carried out on a quantum computer are performed in a jurisdiction different from that of their patent. Therefore, patentees should tread cautiously and ensure their claims are drafted to cover such situations.