Little by little, quantum computing is gaining ground in the world we know. Once considered the future of computing, every day, quantum computers are closer to becoming a reality. These supercomputers use the rules of quantum mechanics — the branch of physics that studies the behaviour of light and matter on the atomic and subatomic scale — to overcome the limitations of classical computing.
But what applications would quantum computing have in logistics? Could quantum computing, for example, make the last mile truly efficient? Could the 2021 supply chain crisis have been prevented or at least minimised with this technology?
Quantum mechanics (or quantum physics) emerged as such in 1900, when German physicist Max Planck theorised that light is transmitted in the form of small packets of energy that he called quanta. This concept evolved, with its mathematical interpretation developed through contributions from other scientists such as Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger. In 1929, Schrödinger defined the behaviour of atomic particles as a probability wave, which resulted in the popular Schrödinger’s cat paradox. From there, the study of quantum physics took off, and today, applications of this theory are all around us: microprocessors, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and LED lighting, to name a few.
According to quantum mechanics, the position state of a particle is complementary to a momentum state, so a particle can be in multiple states simultaneously. Harvard University Physics Professor David Morin, describes it like this: “In quantum mechanics, particles have wavelike properties, and a particular wave equation, the Schrodinger equation, governs how these waves behave.”
What’s quantum computing?
Quantum computing consists of the application of the laws of quantum mechanics to the field of IT. In his book Advances in Genetic Programming, Computer Science Professor Lee Spector writes: “Quantum computers are computational devices that use the dynamics of atomic-scale objects to store and manipulate information.”
In other words, this technology builds on the principles of superposition of matter and quantum entanglement to develop computer capabilities. Quantum computing provides computers with much more numerically efficient algorithms, giving the system greater computing power compared to a conventional computer.
The idea of quantum computing arose in the 1980s, when American physicist Paul Benioff presented his first theoretical model of a quantum computer. Parallel to Benioff, in his study Simulating Physics with Computers, American physicist Richard Feynman pointed out the need to design quantum computers to digitally perform quantum mechanics experiments.
From classic bits to qubits
Short for quantum bits, qubits are the unit of information used in quantum computing. Unlike the classical binary bit, which can only represent a value of 0 or 1, a qubit has an undefined state of 0, 1, or a superposition of states 0 and 1.
By being able to simultaneously develop functions of 0 and 1 using quantum bits, quantum computing ramps up execution speed: “A qubit is the minimum amount of processable information in quantum computing: a two-dimensional quantum-mechanical system, which encodes the classical bits of information 0 and 1 in its basis states (0 and 1),” writes Román Orús, Professor at Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg University, in the academic journal Reviews in Physics.
Depending on the exact number of quantum bits, these computers can develop calculations in less space and at a speed beyond the reach of conventional computers. Microsoft, a leader in the development of quantum software, explains that, for example, the information contained in 500 qubits is equal to over 2500 classical bits.
Currently, quantum computers are already on the market: in 2019, IBM launched its first commercial quantum computer, which combined quantum and traditional computing. Presented as the first quantum computer to operate outside the laboratory, it has a sealed structure measuring over 10' long and a 20-qubit system.
Pros (and cons) of quantum computing
The main advantage of quantum computing is its increased computational power. Compared to classic bits, qubits expand computational capability exponentially, guaranteeing more agile processes: “Quantum computers can create vast multidimensional spaces in which to represent these very large problems. Classical supercomputers cannot do this,” says IBM.
However, this technology does have its disadvantages. Quantum supercomputers still aren’t as reliable as they need to be: the increased number of qubits in these computers leaves the system more open to error. And why is this? Microsoft says: “Entanglement of the qubit system with its environment, including the measurement setup, could easily perturb the system and cause decoherence."
That’s not the only drawback of quantum computing: quantum computers require excessively cold working environments (-460 °F). Nowadays, these computers require their superconductor materials to be kept at that temperature so that they run well. Nevertheless, projects to try to overcome that disadvantage are now underway.
Quantum computer applications
Quantum computing could increase the response speed of technologies evermore present in our day-to-day: Industrial IoT (Internet of Things), big data and blockchain. In his book What Quantum Computing Means to Data Mining, Peter Wittek writes, “By manipulating particles at a subatomic level, we are able to perform [machine learning] exponentially faster, or search in a database quadratically faster than the classical limit.”
Similar findings were made in the study Quantum supremacy using a programmable superconducting processor published in scientific journal Nature: “The promise of quantum computers is that certain computational tasks might be executed exponentially faster on a quantum processor than on a classical processor.”
This increased computer speed could benefit a whole host of fields, from research and diagnosis of clinical diseases to meteorology, whose predictability studies would be more reliable through quantum computing’s ability to simultaneously analyse multiple patterns: “Quantum mechanics has already led to dramatic advances in a few specific areas in medicine (e.g., MRI, laser surgery) with potential to revolutionise medical research and clinical care”, writes Saint Louis University Physics Professor Dmitry Solenov in research published in scientific journal Missouri Medicine. “Because modern computers have largely saturated computational power and no longer grow exponentially as occurred in the last century, quantum computing, if realised, is the most promising technology for major advancements in processes currently beyond the reach of existing computing power,” says Solenov.
Quantum computing in logistics
Quantum computing could bring multiple advantages to the field of logistics. Quantum computers would complement current processors, boosting the speed of devices operating by means of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).
As stated in a report by international consulting company Accenture, “Quantum computers can provide reliable data for machine learning algorithms. Each iteration of new data can help artificial intelligence learn.”
In logistics, route planning would benefit enormously from the implementation of quantum supercomputers. Quantum computing would enhance the application of warehouse simulation by analysing all possible routing options and choosing the most efficient one taking into account all variables.
But route simulation isn’t the only area in which quantum computing could benefit a company's logistics performance. By speeding up scenario simulation, quantum computers could be capable of enhancing supply chain resilience.
Quantum computing: technology with great potential for disruption
Quantum computers aim to establish faster computing processes, capable of solving in minutes what could not be solved by computers with binary bits. This technology could change the way many areas of our life work and this includes logistics.
Quantum computing isn’t just one more technology to be considered in the coming years. As consulting firm McKinsey concludes in its latest study, A game plan for quantum computing, “[quantum computing] has the potential to be both transformative and disruptive. Technologies this potent can emerge at unpredictable speed and cause unpredictable impact. Business leaders who don’t want to be caught unaware should start getting ready for quantum computing now.”