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The next quantum race: Who can harness it first?

  • August 22, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 5:38 a.m.
  • English Press

AKIRA OIKAWA and EIKI HAYASHI, Nikkei staff writers


TOKYO — With Japan’s first commercial quantum computer going into operation last month, more global competitors are entering the race to gain an advantage by mastering the next-generation technology, with Germany emerging as a strong contender.


In Kawasaki, a city in the Tokyo metropolitan area, sits a commercial quantum computer made by IBM at the Kawasaki Business Incubation Center. Toyota Motor, Hitachi and Toshiba are among the  companies that are using the device.


Quantum computers are expected to break the limitations of conventional computing. In 2019, Google startled the world by using the technology to solve a problem in 3 minutes and 20 seconds that would have required 10,000 years by a conventional computer. But it was narrow problem involving the generation of random numbers and did not have much practical use.


Now, however, companies around the world are exploring the use of the technology. While much of the focus on quantum computing has been on the race to develop hardware by Google and IBM, another competition is now in full swing to see who can harness it faster than anyone else.


“As far as research into quantum technologies is concerned, Germany is among the best of the world, and we intend to remain among the best of the world,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel during an event in June to mark the installation of an IBM commercial quantum computer near Stuttgart, adding that the fruits of the research should be applied to as many industries as possible.


The country’s high-profile Fraunhofer research institute is playing a central role in the project and has an extensive track record in applied research, including industry-university collaboration.


A consortium of 10 German industrial companies are members, including Volkswagen and Bosch in the automotive sector, Merck and BASF in the pharmaceutical and chemical sectors, as well as Siemens and SAP. It aims to use quantum computers to enhance competitiveness, such as improving battery performance for electric vehicles and in medicine discovery.


A typical example of a field in which quantum computers may prove useful is in simulations that substitute for chemical experiments. This could lead to innovations in materials and drugs as well as to a dramatic reduction in development time. Quantum technology is good at calculating the optimal solution when presented with a massive amount of options in combinations.


In finance, it could be used to arrive at the best asset mix in a portfolio.


The use of quantum technology in artificial intelligence is also receiving greater attention. AI technology, which employs machine learning, has been plagued by a phenomena known as “overfitting,” in which it learns too much from particular type of data and is unable to generalize and deal with unknown data.


In July, Japanese startup Grid caused a stir when it published a paper showing, based on numerical experiments and theory, that this overfitting is less likely to occur when using a quantum computer.


The practical use of quantum computers in some applications will begin within a few years. In Japan, a hub for IBM’s Q Network cloud quantum computing system was launched at Keio University in 2018, with Mitsubishi Chemical, JSR, Mizuho Financial Group, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group and others leading the way. These companies, along with Keio University, will also participate in a council led by the University of Tokyo, which aims to accelerate research by using the commercial IBM device in Kawasaki.


Startups researching algorithms are also likely to play an important role in the use of quantum computers. In Japan, QunaSys is well known in this arena. The company announced in June the start of joint research with Toyota Central R&D Labs on future applications.


Expectations about the use of quantum computers may be getting ahead of the current reality, but the potential is still great. According to a forecast published in July by the Boston Consulting Group, the technology could generate up to the equivalent of $10 billion in annual value by 2030, expanding to $850 billion by around 2040. The battle for the huge future market is likely heat up. 

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