Despite growing excitement around the transformative potential of quantum computing, leaders in many industries are still unfamiliar with the technology that’s likely to prove more disruptive than Artificial Intelligence and blockchain. This ignorance seems particularly acute in industries that deal with physical systems and commodities. In an informal survey of two dozen executives in transportation, logistics, construction, and energy, only eight had heard of quantum computing and only two could explain how it works.
In many ways this lack of awareness is understandable. Quantum computing’s value to our digital infrastructure is obvious, but its value to our physical infrastructure is perhaps less evident. Yet, the explosion of power and speed that quantum computers will unleash could indeed have a profound impact on physical systems like our transportation and utility networks. For companies, municipalities, and nation-states to stay competitive and capture the full benefit of the quantum revolution, leaders must start thinking about how quantum computing can improve our infrastructure.
Unlike classical computers, in which a bit of information can be either a zero or a one, quantum computers are able to take advantage of a third state through a phenomenon known as superposition. Superposition, which is a property of physics at the quantum scale, allows a quantum bit or qubit to be a zero, a one or a zero, and a one simultaneously. The result is an astronomical increase in computational capacity over existing transistor-based hardware. Google, for example, has found that its quantum machines can run some algorithms 100 million times faster than conventional processors.
Some private-sector heavyweights are already developing infrastructure applications for quantum computing. Volkswagen AG, for instance, is working on a quantum computing powered traffic management system. Although AI applications built on conventional hardware are making cars and streets smarter, they’re not capable of matching the processing speed and power of quantum computers. Volkswagen hopes that its solution can be used to predict traffic patterns hours in advance, reduce congestion, forecast demand for mass transit and ride-sharing services. The company has already used a combination of conventional and quantum computing to optimize taxi routes in Beijing by analyzing billions of unique data points from 10,000 taxis and direct taxi drivers to areas where demand would spike hours in advance by analyzing the behavioral patterns of cell phone users in real-time. It would take conventional computers exponentially longer to perform similar tasks, making real-time insight impossible. In addition to Volkswagen, Ford is also looking to use quantum computing to transform transportation.
Beyond the automotive arena, the applications for quantum computing in infrastructure are innumerable. Quantum computers could be used to hyper-optimize logistics operations across modes of transportation, creating a more seamless flow of goods between maritime, rail, air, and ground shipping. They could enable real-time, adaptive mass transit that responds to demand rather than following predetermined routes. They could be used to optimize air traffic routes on a national scale and eliminate air traffic control based delays. One day, a single quantum computer might even be capable of managing every aspect of a city’s transportation infrastructure, from autonomous vehicles to traffic lights to mass transit to flying taxis. This level of integration would create invaluable efficiencies and usher in an era of highly responsive transportation.
Other infrastructure sectors could also benefit from quantum evolution. Quantum computers could allow smart electrical grids to operate on a vastly larger scale and in a vastly more efficient manner. Smart grids use sensors, data analytics, and connected hardware to allocate electricity based on demand. Because of their enhanced capacity, quantum computers would allow already-smart grids to maintain real-time responsiveness across a broader geographical area and on a more granular level. Instead of just predicting demand at the meter level, quantum computers could predict and manage demand at the device level. The same benefits could apply to other utilities such as water and gas as well. The economic and ecological value this could unlock is hard to ignore.
Like any disruptive technology, it’s difficult to predict all of the possible use cases for quantum computing. The potential of quantum machines has already been well-documented in the fields of cryptography, machine learning, and financial services, but its power to transform physical systems is still coming into focus. It’s important that infrastructure leaders in the private and public sectors start taking an interest in quantum computing and its ability to multiply the value of other emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things, which are already reshaping transportation, logistics, utilities, and telecommunications.
Although physics and computer science aren’t historically the concern of the civil, structural, and mechanical engineers that dominate the infrastructure world, they better become their concern-and soon. Building infrastructure that can keep America vibrant and competitive in the 21st century depends on it.
originally posted on Forbes.com by Ellis Talton and Remington Tonar