Apr 6, 2019

A surprising quantum front-runner

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The enormous promise of quantum computing has lured big early investments from finance, aerospace, defense, and other tech-soaked industries. But an unexpected player is neck-and-neck with these front-runners: carmakers.

Big auto companies are tinkering with quantum computers in hopes they can solve problems too hefty for today's machines, from cooking up bigger batteries to designing lighter vehicles. And as they experiment, a host of other companies are lingering on the sidelines, watching for the right moment to jump in.

The big picture: This new generation of computers, built on measuring the inscrutable activity of tiny, tiny particles, is at a drawn-out inflection point.

Quantum computers are inching from theory toward practice, driven by a first wave of companies playing the long game, betting that the hires and investments they make today — plus the patents they file — will pay off years down the line.

  • For car companies especially, there's a cosmic alignment between their big problems and the tasks quantum computers are likely to excel at, says Michael Brett, CEO of QxBranch, a D.C.-based quantum computing company.
  • It's thought that the new technology will be able to optimize complex systems, like an assembly line. It could simulate chemical reactions essential for battery design with previously impossible accuracy. Or it might supercharge artificial intelligence, a key challenge for autonomous driving.

But all of these are maybes. The research suggests that quantum computers will be able to do all these things — but they haven't yet.

  • "The field is so nascent that we haven't settled on the equivalent of transistors," says Yianni Gamvros, head of business development at QC Ware, a Silicon Valley quantum computing company.
  • So companies are in a familiar bind: Jump in now and risk losing big, or wait it out and watch the competition possibly pull away.

Despite the uncertainty, automakers have been hiring quantum experts and launching early experiments.

What's worrying them: Companies searching history for clues of how to proceed see a cautionary tale in the sudden explosion of artificial intelligence, says Matt Johnson, QC Ware's CEO.

  • Businesses that were caught flat-footed by AI later rushed to catch up — only to find that most of the best and brightest minds had been lured by sexy startups and Big Tech.
  • Already, quantum experts are scarce. "There's a complete absence right now of actually talented people who can do quantum computing," says Lawrence Gasman, president of Inside Quantum Technology, a consulting firm.

"We want to make sure we have a group of people within Volkswagen who can work with these systems when we're ready to tackle this industrially relevant problems," says Florian Neukart, the scientist who heads VW's 15-person quantum effort. Plus, he says: "We want to generate IP. We think now is the time."

If the first wave of adopters — which also includes Big Pharma and the oil and gas industry — strike gold, that could embolden many other sectors who are still waiting in the wings.

  • "If you're a fertilizer maker, you're probably not thinking about quantum computing at the moment," says William Altman, an analyst at CB Insights. That's despite the fact that quantum computers could help find new, profitable ways of making ammonia, an essential fertilizer ingredient.
  • "But if you see a company like Mercedes getting into quantum computing, it might open your eyes to the fact that quantum isn't just about tech companies."

Go deeper

In photos: Authorities issue warning as Americans venture out for Memorial Day weekend

Venice Beach in Los Angeles on May 24. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

Authorities urged Americans to maintain social distancing and wear masks against the coronavirus amid reports of packed beaches and bars during the Memorial Day weekend.

Driving the news: Law enforcement stepped up beach patrols, authorities on Florida's Gulf Coast closed parking lots because they were full and there were crowded scenes at Lake of the Ozarks bars in Missouri, per AP, which reports a shooting injured several people at a packed Daytona Beach in Florida.

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 9:30 p.m. ET: 5,405,029 — Total deaths: 344,997 — Total recoveries — 2,168,408Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 9:30 p.m. ET: 1,642,021 — Total deaths: 97,698 — Total recoveries: 366,736 — Total tested: 14,163,195Map.
  3. World: White House announces travel restrictions on Brazil, coronavirus hotspot in Southern Hemisphere Over 100 coronavirus cases in Germany tied to single day of church services — Boris Johnson backs top aide amid reports that he broke U.K. lockdown while exhibiting symptoms.
  4. Public health: Officials are urging Americans to wear masks headed into Memorial Day weekend Report finds "little evidence" coronavirus under control in most statesHurricanes, wildfires, the flu could strain COVID-19 response
  5. Economy: White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett says it's possible the unemployment rate could still be in double digits by November's election — Public employees brace for layoffs.
  6. Federal government: Trump attacks a Columbia University study that suggests earlier lockdown could have saved 36,000 American lives.
  7. What should I do? Hydroxychloroquine questions answeredTraveling, asthma, dishes, disinfectants and being contagiousMasks, lending books and self-isolatingExercise, laundry, what counts as soap — Pets, moving and personal healthAnswers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingHow to minimize your risk.
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it, the right mask to wear.

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Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Republicans sue California over mail-out ballot plan

California Gov. Gavin Newsom during a February news conference in Sacramento, California. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

President Trump accused Democrats of trying "Rig" November's general election as Republican groups filed a lawsuit against California Sunday in an attempt to stop Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) from mailing ballots to all registered voters.

Driving the news: Newsom signed an executive order this month in response to the coronavirus pandemic ensuring that all registered voters in the state receive a mail-in ballot.