How business could leap the quantum computing skills gap

With immense and rapid computing power, quantum computing is the future. But with quantum skills spread thin, businesses must think ahead to secure the talent.

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Chiswick Health Centre is a large brutalist building in London, UK. Along its snaking concrete entrance ramp, masked people form a socially distanced line. Inside, the open-plan waiting room has neat rows of prefabricated cubicles, and a COVID-19 vaccination nurse is doing his rounds.

New drugs and latest findings in the life sciences have never been more important. Innovative techniques to help develop and distribute vaccines have been delivered in double-quick time. And if there are the people to do it, quantum computing could make the process even faster.

Where are the quantum computing skills gaps?

Quantum computing promises ultrafast computational power far above what’s possible with today’s computers. It could radically speed up the hardest tasks.

Although the latest quantum hardware, pioneered by the likes of IBM and Google, has a way to go, in a decade or two, we could even see the ‘holy grail:’ a universal quantum computer.

Ilyas Khan, Founder of enterprise quantum solutions developers Cambridge Quantum Computing, says, “There are two clear sectors in quantum computing. First, the hardware and second, the software and algorithm discovery. There are severe skill shortages in software and algorithm discovery. On the hardware side, the issue is less pressing, but the engineering problem that must be solved is, of course, very hard.”

Fast growth in the quantum computing market

Tech industry insights firm ReportLinker forecasts the quantum market will grow from 472 million to 1.7 billion US dollars between 2021 and 2026. And governments are backing it by investing in education and training.

In 2018 US Congress passed the National Quantum Initiative Act (NQIA,) investing more than 1.2 billion US dollars in quantum research and development. The European Union launched its quantum computing flagship around the same time, with an expected budget of 1 billion Euro. China, Australia, Singapore and others are starting their own quantum initiatives. But what’s all this got to do with developing and distributing medicines?

Drug discovery leading the quantum market

The field of medicine and biosciences searching for promising new medicines is called drug discovery. Here, the value of quantum algorithms is already evident. A 2020 poll of life sciences organizations showed almost a third (31 percent) were starting to look at how they could use quantum computing. A further 39 percent said they have quantum computing “on their radar” for 2021.

Khan of Cambridge Quantum Computing says things like drug discovery can take many years using the most powerful classical computers. Although quantum computing is still early stage, “it’s close to starting to match classical timescales,” making it worthy of investment.

Pharmaceutical companies are keen to get ahead in quantum. This January, drug discovery firm Boehringer Ingelheim achieved a first in its industry, announcing it was joining forces with Google in quantum computing. In a statement, the company said it would “invest significantly” in the coming years to realize the full potential of the technology.

Boehringer Ingelheim has already set up a dedicated quantum lab, hiring “outstanding experts in the field of quantum computing from academia, industry and quantum providers.” Talent is key: The poll of life science organizations previously mentioned found 28 percent thought missing skills were a potential barrier to progress.

Specialist skills needed for a challenging technology

Vincent Yam, Co-founder of AI and quantum computing recruitment agency Tekna Search, explains how niche quantum computing skills are compared with regular software development. “Most people have a Ph.D. in something quantum-related and a physics background, either at undergraduate or Master’s level. Even then, two say, superconductivity specialists may have very different skills.”

Khan says, “Quantum information theorists tend to have physics, maths and computer science backgrounds. A small but growing number have also done graduate or postgraduate quantum information theory.”

Anticipating quantum skills shortages, investment bank JP Morgan started an internship program for quantum talent in 2020 for Master’s or Ph.D. students. Universities are stepping up their programs too. Renowned institutions like the UK’s University College London (UCL) and Duke University in the US have launched a Master’s degree in quantum technology.

Khan thinks there’s still not enough investment in education. “The range of quantum computing graduate and postgraduate degree courses must increase substantially.”

Practical internships can nurture the talent pipeline

While true quantum computing is some way off, quantum developments are coming thick and fast. These will impact many businesses in the not-too-distant future. The skills are so specialized and sophisticated that governments are putting their weight behind developing the best talent, and even then, education is falling short.

Yam of Tekna Search says he keeps seeing the same top 10 global institutions in his recruitment efforts. This shows how small the pool is and suggests businesses should focus on getting talent early from best-in-class quantum research universities.

Khan recommends larger companies offer practical internships for undergraduate students, not just those at Ph.D. level. Taking on students during the vacation around their first degree will help nurture talent from the outset.

Tech giant IBM is working to secure the best people early with an initiative aimed at high school students.

Quantum computing could help tackle society’s biggest problems. Its computational power could hasten our way out of the next pandemic, but it will need the best minds. Companies must think today about who those minds should be, and how to hire and develop them.

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About authors

Kathryn Cave is a technology journalist and editor who covers the human side of the industry. Outside work, she likes books, bunnies and theatre.