Earlier this year, I read a news story about the launch of five specialized quantum research centers in the U.S. As a quantum researcher, I took note when the U.S. committed a total investment of $625 million, framed within the National Quantum Initiative Act, thereby joining a group of countries already in the race to be the world’s quantum leader. In the last few years, China has launched an extremely ambitious quantum program and so has Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K., Japan, Australia, Canada and several others.
Why are these countries so eager to be leading this pack? Because quantum could change the world. It could transform medicine, break encryption and revolutionize communications and artificial intelligence (AI).
Quantum computing takes the theory of quantum mechanics and applies it to computation. A quantum computer — as opposed to classical computers that we use now — can run calculations exponentially faster, using quantum bits (qubits). And a quantum computer can process a vast number of calculations simultaneously. When perfected, a quantum computer will solve certain difficult tasks and optimization problems that have long been thought impossible for classical computers.
“Quantum computing could change the world. It could transform medicine, break encryption and revolutionize communications and artificial intelligence.”
But we are a long way from perfection when it comes to quantum hardware. It might take at least a decade before real-world problems — such as drug development, financial modeling, better batteries or cleaner fertilizers — can be solved using an error-free quantum computer.
And for all the countries in this race to realize the potential power of quantum computing, there’s another major challenge to overcome: Quantum skills are rare to find.
The quantum talent gap
Qualified quantum experts are so scarce that no nation could become a quantum leader without attracting the best talent, regardless of what country they come from. Today, the number of quantum physicists and quantum engineers has been estimated at a few thousand worldwide.
The current skills gap in AI illustrates how companies struggle when a game-changing technology makes the transition from research labs to development. But unlike AI, which has been around for more than 60 years, quantum computing is a new area — barely known outside research labs and academia until five or six years ago. And the skills gap in quantum became a step closer when IBM made available the first commercial (error-prone) quantum computer almost two years ago. Large organizations started to realize they did not have qualified talent (e.g. physicists) to set up labs, map use cases and to experiment with quantum-inspired systems.
Lately, I’ve seen a growing number of academic programs, originally set up for research purposes, offering master’s degrees in quantum technology at the world’s largest and most reputable universities. It’s a clear sign the demand for quantum talent is growing.
Quantum skills are quite specific
A quantum scientist requires skills in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) simultaneously.
Quantum physicists and engineers are critical to optimize the performance of hardware, control software and algorithms. Hardware and software are more intimately connected in quantum computers than in classical computers. Experts need to understand the underlying physics that gives qubits their special properties to choose the most appropriate hardware for their problem and tailor the algorithms accordingly.
There are several approaches to building quantum computers. When a company claims it lacks the right talent, it lacks scientists for only a particular type of quantum computer, not for any quantum computer. Today, the most business-relevant types are the adiabatic (aka annealer) quantum computer and the universal gate quantum computer. Even if hundreds of quantum computing scientists were available for hire, training them on every variety of computers would be almost impossible.
“Companies creating their quantum workforce now will gain a first-mover advantage.”
In this transitional period, while companies experiment with quantum-inspired systems, quantum physicists that also understand software development and computer science will play a critical role. These experts will help advance the field and bring it into the world of traditional software programmers.
Reskilling software programmers will be a long journey
But programming quantum computers is much harder than programming classic computers. While software developers don’t need an advanced physics degree to start their journey, this is a big departure from traditional programming. How do you convince a software developer to learn quantum physics if quantum computers can’t deliver tangible benefits yet?
It’s difficult to predict how big the skills gap will be in the decades to come. Still, companies creating their quantum workforce now will gain a first-mover advantage.
For instance, large financial institutions are betting that quantum computing will (potentially) offer them an investment edge. Many first movers such as Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and JPMorgan Chase have already hired a quantum scientist team to start experimenting with the technology.
“The talent gap is still invisible because very few companies have started their quantum journey.”
According to a recent IDC survey,1 in the next 24 months organizations expect to add more quantum computing hardware specialists/engineers and data scientists to their workforce than other new quantum roles/skills.
How to grow quantum computing talent
As it happens with most exponentially advancing technologies, the early development stages have been almost invisible for quantum computing. Despite the giant steps seen in the last few years, quantum remains a developing area.
The talent gap is still invisible because very few companies have started their quantum journey. But this technology shows exponential growth, and thinking linearly will prove costly to businesses and governments alike. Now is the time to start experimenting and getting the right talent because quantum skills take time to develop.
Three best practices from first-movers that have already deployed multi-discipline quantum squads include:
· Form a team of quantum scientists to work on active exploratory research engagements on the most promising industry-specific use cases, ahead of economic advantage
· Hire quantum data scientists who will interface with research and algorithm experts to implement quantum approaches
· Design reskilling programs to help classic software programmers become quantum ready developers. Today, quantum information software kits and employee-initiated training continue to be the primary training resources.
1 Quantum Computing End-User Perception and Adoption Trends Survey, IDC, January 2020