When Will Quantum Computing Be Ready to Move Beyond the Lunatic Fringe?

The lunatic fringe

The ENIAC and FORTRAN moments as key milestones

The danger of the Adatran trap

Stages of the journey to escape the dependence on the lunatic fringe

  1. Long before the ENIAC moment. Only the truly hard-core lunatic fringe are able to master the technology, especially with very limited hardware. Others, mere mortals, can experiment (i.e., play) with the technology, but not in a meaningfully productive manner.
  2. Shortly before the ENIAC moment. Hardware is getting more capable, but algorithms are still really hard. Still primarily the realm of the hard-core lunatic fringe, but now they can assist the non-fringe to at least explore the technology in an almost-meaningful manner. Any substantial application is still no more than a pipedream promise with some increasingly tantalizing hints and fragments of actual implementation, other than much more modest, “toy” applications. Fulfilling the promise must wait for the ENIAC moment itself.
  3. The ENIAC moment itself. Finally, a successful implementation of a real, substantial application that the non-fringe can see and relate to. The hardware is finally starting to look halfway decent, but algorithms are still very hard, especially when using a lot more qubits. The lunatic fringe will be required to master both the technology and the application to achieve this moment. Quantum advantage is finally achieved, which is a real victory, but still a pyrrhic victory since the intensity of level of dependence on the lunatic fringe is too great to be either sustainable or achievable for most mainstream organizations.
  4. Shortly after the ENIAC moment. Still the realm of the lunatic fringe, but now they are beginning to work with more mainstream developers and organizations to develop applications that real people can relate to. Tools are getting a bit more capable, but complex algorithms are still really hard and still mostly the realm of the lunatic fringe.
  5. Moderately after the ENIAC moment. Real applications are becoming more common, but still at an unacceptably high cost. Organizational management begins to realize that quantum is here for real, but not so sure how to deal with it due to this dependence on the lunatic fringe — applications are promised and are in fact delivered, but on a frustratingly long timeline.
  6. Long after the ENIAC moment. Still the realm of the lunatic fringe. More developers and managers are beginning to use the technology, but the initial honeymoon period is over — developer and managers are really beginning to complain about how long it takes and how much it costs to develop nontrivial applications. Early tools and even languages and rudimentary programming models are accumulating, but with no clear winner and rather mediocre productivity. Algorithms are still really hard, but there are enough off-the-shelf existing algorithms that a lot of projects are simply reusing the work of past projects. In short, a very mixed bag, with rising disenchantment despite the great progress — reality is sinking in as the hype dissipates.
  7. Shortly before the FORTRAN moment. The word is out, people know it’s coming, and they are simultaneously thrilled, anxious, and frustrated that the long-rumored FORTRAN moment is not yet here. The lunatic fringe are still in charge, running the game — and people are getting tired of it. The existing rudimentary tools, languages, and programming models are just not cutting it, but people have no choice. Staff and management have increasingly long lists of real applications for quantum computers, but the lunatic fringe is just stretched too thin to satisfy the demand — and this is a misuse of the lunatic fringe anyway since their purpose is to explore uncharted territory, not to hold the hands of the masses. Most applications will commonly be simply reuse and minor adaptation of existing algorithms and applications — so-called copy and paste programming — the lunatic fringe will still be required to go much further afield.
  8. Finally the FORTRAN moment itself. The long-promised high-level programming language and programming model is here, but… there’s a learning curve and the systems still have plenty of kinks to be worked out., so the lunatic fringe is still required and, unfortunately, in charge. There’s a real risk that many initial efforts may fall into the Adatran trap — using the new programming model and language in a superficial sense, but still designing algorithms in the classical mindset rather than the true quantum mindset, thus missing out on the full potential of quantum computing. OTOH, with the lunatic fringe still heavily involved, they may be successful at guiding developers to the new quantum mindset. Hybrid applications — part classical and part quantum — will be common, but developers will struggle with how to balance the two realms — only the lunatic fringe will manage to get it right.
  9. Shortly after the FORTRAN moment. Non-fringe staff is incrementally crawling up the learning curve and actually starting to get real work done without the constant assistance and supervision of the lunatic fringe. A small minority of mere mortals will begin embarking on exotic new projects without waiting for the lunatic fringe to blaze each and every single new trail, but the technology will still be too new, untested, unproven, and frequently not quite working as promised for more than a small minority to be doing well. There may be some backlash as people wonder why the long-promised technology is not fully delivering on its many promises. The risk of the Adatran trap is still very present, but kept in check by the intense scrutiny of the lunatic fringe, and the fact that in these early stages only the more sophisticated developers will be working on quantum, even with a great new programming model and language. Developers will continue to struggle with balancing classical and quantum approaches in hybrid applications, and generally only the lunatic will get the balance right. Still way too soon to declare mission accomplished.
  10. Moderately after the FORTRAN moment. The initial kinks have been worked out, the word is getting out and spreading wide, and usage is beginning to spread like wildfire as leading edge adopters report success after success after success. Management is finally able to kick off application projects without the need for a single lunatic fringe person. The lunatic fringe may still get called in on occasion for some episodic consulting on thorny problems, but that is increasingly the exception rather than the norm. Finally, more advanced developers and customers — but still far short of the level of the lunatic fringe — will be routinely blazing new trails without the need for the lunatic fringe. People are starting to talk about how quantum computing is on the verge of becoming a mature technology. The risk of the Adatran trap rises dramatically as less experienced developers try their hand at this new quantum thing — without sufficient training, direction, or supervision, but with so many projects going on, the lunatic fringe will be unable to scrutinize and police even a small fraction of them. A lot of projects will fail due to unimpressive gains due to the Adtran trap, but enough, a critical mass, will succeed to keep the momentum growing. Developers will struggle less with balancing classical and quantum approaches in hybrid applications, but it will remain an ongoing challenge — the need for the guidance of the lunatic fringe will incrementally decline as successful projects accumulate.
  11. Long after the FORTRAN moment. Adoption is now truly widespread. The technology has proven itself. The lunatic fringe is now a distant and fading memory — they’ve moved on to the next big thing. Quantum computing applications are now fully mainstream and fully ready for primetime deployment. People now accept that quantum computing is now a mature technology. The risk of the Adatran trap will have peaked and then declined as the majority of organizations and developers finally get the message about leaving classical algorithms behind and focusing on new quantum approaches to algorithms. The risk of new applications falling into the Adatran trap will be minimal, but there may be plenty of existing quantum applications still caught in the trap — not fully exploiting all of the best features of quantum computing, but embedded in applications which are too complicated for any mere mortal to untangle and redesign, and no longer a lunatic fringe available or economical to do the necessary untangling. Hybrid applications — part classical, part quantum — will abound, and developers will finally be doing a much better job of balancing designs to capture the best of both worlds. So, finally, it is now safe to declare mission accomplished.

Key technical hurdles

  1. Basic hardware. Qubits that fully function and have the required coherence and connectivity. Including a rich and complete universal gate set.
  2. Scalable hardware. Enough qubits, enough connectivity, large enough quantum programs.
  3. Sufficiently rich programming model.
  4. Sufficiently rich library of algorithmic building blocks.
  5. Sufficiently rich library of application building blocks and subsystems.
  6. Reasonably high-level programming languages that simultaneously allow the programmer to speak in terms that make sense for conceptualizing applications and can be readily and automatically transformed into optimal use of the raw quantum hardware.
  7. The combination of hardware and algorithms finally results in an actual quantum advantage over classical computing and eventually actual quantum supremacy for a fairly wide range of applications.
  8. Sufficient and readily accessible specifications, documentation, and training for use of the hardware, systems, tools, and application modeling — by mainstream staff, not just the lunatic fringe.
  9. Avoiding the Adatran trap — the risk that even with an advanced programming model and language — the FORTRAN moment, developers may continue to think more in classical terms than in quantum terms as they design algorithms. A dramatic change in mindset is needed, but that’s a very hard thing to do and can take a lot of time, energy, resources, and commitment by both technical staff and management.

Breakthroughs, winters, and setbacks

  1. Breakthroughs. Unexpected sudden discoveries, achievements, or changes which rapidly accelerate progress.
  2. Winters. Extended periods of time (many months or even years) when the pace of progress slows to a craw or even stops. Sometimes only a breakthrough can restore the pace of progress.
  3. Setbacks. Insurmountable obstacles or technical dead ends are reached. The current approach must be abandoned and either effort expended to find a new approach or revise the current approach, or effort redirected to known alternative approaches.

D-Wave Systems — a specialized quantum computer

Resource requirements

  1. Early stages. Minimal requirements. Maybe only a single person part-time. The hardware vendors are bearing the full expense of the hardware for the early quantum computers, with free or low cost remote access.
  2. Early expansion. One or more full-time staff. Some training and conference expenses. Some equipment, maybe, or just personal computers and Internet access to quantum computing as a service in the cloud.
  3. Real expansion. More full-time staff. Management. Some real equipment. Possibly even an actual quantum computer, but maybe simply a higher volume of remote access to a shared quantum computer.
  4. Further expansion. More projects. More applications. More full-time staff. More managers. More support staff. Quality assurance. Performance testing. Documentation. Training development. Seminars to spread the word. Higher cost for access to actual quantum computers for extended amounts of time. Possibly writing, publishing, and presenting technical papers and presentations at industry conferences and publications.
  5. More permanent service organization. A real, substantial budget. A real, substantial headcount. Although, application costs may shift out to business units who are sponsoring the applications, including their respective quantum computing costs. Some early development costs can ramp down as significant knowledge becomes off-the-shelf rather than work in progress, but there will always be new developments and new technologies coming along at an unpredictable pace.

How long will it take?

  1. Within one year? No, get real.
  2. Within two years? Remote possibility, but rather unlikely.
  3. Two to three years? It could realistically happen, but still rather unlikely.
  4. Three to four years? A decent likelihood, reasonably likely, but certainly not a slam dunk.
  5. Four to five years? Higher probability, and I’d almost bet on it, but nothing is certain in this business.
  6. Five to seven years? I’d hope it would happened by then and I’d be rather disappointed if it doesn’t, but things can happen or not happen that scramble even the best laid plans.
  7. Seven to ten years? I’d be rather surprised and disappointed if it doesn’t happen by then.
  8. Ten to fifteen years. No good excuse for it to take this long, but who knows.

Conclusion

  1. Quantum hardware.
  2. Algorithmic building blocks, metaphors, design patterns, and libraries.
  3. High-level programming model.
  4. High-level language.
  5. More than a few substantial handcrafted applications that blaze the trails and guide the projects to follow.

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Freelance Consultant

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Jack Krupansky

Jack Krupansky

Freelance Consultant

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