Quantum computing for realists: cracking the optimization code

Apr 12, 2022
  • IT
  • Microsoft
  • data

Few technological topics appeal as much to the imagination as quantum computing. And yet, for many of us, it still seems like a distant dream. But make no mistake: certain aspects of quantum computing are already influencing how we approach real-world challenges today. So the sooner you start thinking about its potential impact for your business, the more of a head start you’ll have when the cat’s out of the… box.

Wait, so… what was quantum computing again? “Quantum computing approaches problems in a fundamentally different way than classical computing,” says Mark Thienpont, lead expert data science at delaware. “Instead of bits, its basic unit of information is a quantum bit or qubit. As you know, a bit is always a 1 or a 0. But a qubit can represent both 1 and 0 simultaneously, in what’s called ‘superposition’. There’s also the bizarre phenomenon of ‘entanglement’, where the quantum states of two particles influence each other no matter how far apart they are.”

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Break, simulate… and optimize

If that sounds confusing and complex, don’t worry. You don’t need to hold a major in physics to understand the potential – and the impact – of quantum computing for business, like its capacity to ‘break’ current cryptography, simulate quantum properties of chemical molecules in pharma, or solve complex optimization puzzles

Mark explains: “Quantum optimization is something we’re already seeing today. In the last couple of months, I found multiple examples of businesses in various sectors benefitting from quantum computing.” Here’s a sample:

  • Retail and e-commerce: Speedy delivery remains critical to meet customers’ expectations. And yet, confronted with an ever-growing list of variables and changing conditions, many businesses struggle to find an optimum solution for the notorious ‘last-mile delivery’ logistics challenge – the costly and time-consuming last step where each product is treated individually from the final hub to the customer’s doorstep. By applying quantum techniques, distribution managers get several viable options, making it easier to pick the ‘best path forward’ in a specific situation. 
  • Renewable energy and smart grids: One of the main challenges in the transition to renewable energy sources, is ensuring reliable and stable electricity generation in unpredictable weather conditions. Quantum computing will enable utility companies to optimize the grid and adapt production flexibly. 
  • R&D and material development: At imec, the leading international research center for nanotechnology, researchers use quantum computing techniques to simulate the behavior of new materials (polymers, superconductors, etc.) in a virtual environment, instead of in a lab. In essence, they use quantum mechanics to develop quantum computers. 
  • Manufacturing and automotive: In car factories, optimizing the use of paint booths is a well-known challenge. To maximize efficiency and minimize cost, the number of switches between two colors needs to be kept to a minimum, without impacting assembly. While this might sound like a simple problem at first, it would require near-supercomputer levels of traditional hardware. Quantum computing techniques, however, enable the creation of an optimum paint-booth schedule within an acceptable timeframe. 

To infinity and beyond

But there’s more, much more. “From scheduling maintenance and rolling stock planning, to creating the ultimate investment portfolio: any optimization problem you can think of, no matter how complex, will eventually be solvable using quantum computing,” says Mark. “The reason? The fact that the concept of ‘superposition’ allows you to introduce an infinite number of parameters, without adding computation time. Imagine: with traditional computing, calculating the minimal energy state of a coffee molecule would require a computer the size of the moon to run for billions of years. With quantum computing, it could be done in a matter of days.”

“Quantum computing is still very much an experimental technology. Most forecasts predict that universal quantum computing will be mainstream by the end of 2030. But don’t be fooled: businesses that manage to leverage quantum computing to optimize supply chains, reduce manufacturing costs or improve customer experience will have an unprecedented competitive advantage.”

Explore, experiment, and build expertise

At the forefront of quantum optimization is a Canadian company called D-Wave that specializes in a process called ‘quantum annealing’. Mark: “In essence, that means rendering a problem and all the variables involved as a topographical map. The lowest point on the map is the optimum answer.” 

The cost of ‘real’ quantum computing solutions like D-Wave is often a problem for businesses. But there’s an alternative approach. “Quantum-inspired optimization solutions like those offered by Microsoft Azure are very budget-friendly. Experimenting with these tools is a great way to start building expertise and explore potential use cases for your business,” Mark concludes. 

What optimization problem in your company could be a case for quantum computing? Get in touch with Mark and start experimenting fast. 

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