What Quantum Computing Can Do for You

D-Wave Systems' so-called quantum computer without its protective thermal canisters, at the company's lab in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, Mar. 11, 2013 Photograph by Kim Stallknecht/The New York Times via Redux

So-called quantum computers are designed to quickly crunch numbers that would take a person a lifetime or longer—for instance, mapping trillions of amino acids for futuristic drug cures or making sense of the avalanche of public data we create daily. So what can you get by putting one to use for your company, as Lockheed Martin has since it bought the world’s first corporate model from D-Wave Systems in 2011? (A few weeks ago, Google (GOOG) bought the second.) The aerospace and security giant has been operating its device at the University of Southern California’s Quantum Computation Center for the past 18 months.

Bloomberg Businessweek spoke with Brad Pietras, Lockheed’s vice president in charge of technology, about quantum computing’s value to his business and its future.

For those unfamiliar with quantum computing, can you explain how this machine differs from a conventional computer?

Quantum computing uses the quantum nature of matter, the atoms themselves, as computing devices. Normal computer architecture is based on the bit—represented either as a one or a zero. The quantum computer is programmed so that the input is initially both zero and one.

Why is that a big deal?

Because on the quantum level you’re able to program the atoms to represent all possible input combinations, and to do so simultaneously. That means when you run an algorithm, all possible input combinations are tested at once. With a regular computer you’d have to serially cycle through every possible input combination to arrive at your solution, meaning it would take longer than the age of the universe to complete the most complicated calculations.

What is Lockheed Martin’s interest with quantum computing?

To solve hugely enormous, complex problems in a reasonable amount of time. That has been intriguing to our scientists at Lockheed Martin since the first inception of quantum computing.

What tasks has your quantum computer already solved?

We’ve started with smaller tasks at first to better understand the capabilities of the machine. But one area of interest is in complex systems such as software verification and validation. The development of any large computer system integration initiative involves a lot of software. Validating the performance of that software is vital, but it’s a very time-consuming and often very expensive undertaking. We’ve taken the software and cast it as a problem for the quantum computer to address. It scans through the switches and combinations in the software code and makes sure that it’s performing in a way that we expected it to.

You haven’t used it to calculate pi or mint Bitcoins, then?

No, but I do see the quantum computer as a machine that frees up time and money. If you can validate and verify software in a single series of tests, then the money and time saved can be used elsewhere. It becomes an innovation enabler.

There are skeptics who say that true quantum computing is still a generation away. Are you sure you spent millions on the real deal?

I think we are already in the era of quantum computing. For me the academic question of how quantum it is, and how entangled the “qubits” (quantum bits) are, really doesn’t concern me. What I am concerned with is how it can help me reduce costs, make better systems, and accelerate innovation.

Would you say the quantum computer has practical business implications beyond testing software?

Yes. Quantum computing is a practical tool for extremely complex predictive analysis, and machine learning where you need to assess many variables and many patterns and test models against it. This is relevant in the area of drug discovery, cybersecurity, business, finance, investment, health care, logistics, and planning. There are a number of business applications—those that involve solving complex optimization problems—that today would be too difficult to address with silicon computing.

Should we ditch our PCs and smartphones, then?

Conventional computing is not going to go away. You wouldn’t want to use a quantum computer to balance your checkbook. Quantum computing best addresses those exceedingly complex computational problems—in drug discovery, for example, when you have trillions of combinations of amino acids to cycle through to find that single protein. That’s a job for quantum computing. That’s the power of it, in a nutshell.