Quantum physics, quantum mechanics, and quantum computers: You’ve likely heard these buzzwords, if nowhere else but on the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory by the show’s main character and theoretical physicist, Sheldon Cooper. Simply put, a quantum disruption is in plain sight, and leading businesses—like IBM, Microsoft, and Google—are all preparing for big changes while heavily investing in developing quantum technologies.

But what exactly do these terms mean? And, more importantly, what could they mean for you and your business?

What Is Quantum Physics?

Oscar Viyuela, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Physics at Harvard University, describes quantum physics—otherwise known as quantum mechanics—as the study of the smallest particles in our universe, like atoms or electrons.

“These very tiny particles behave in a counterintuitive way with respect to the classical physics we can observe with our naked eye,” Viyuela says. “Quantum physics introduces an expanded vocabulary to describe these more complex phenomena that govern our universe.”

Before diving into how quantum technologies—namely quantum computers—differentiate from their classical counterparts, it’s important to understand two fundamental differences between quantum and traditional physics: superposition and entanglement. Superposition is a property that defines how a particle can be in multiple states at once, while entanglement dictates that the quantum states of distant particles are correlated.

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Superposition is unique to quantum physics. It explains why sometimes the properties of particles are not well defined or confined to one state.

“The classic analog I often give is: Say you have a red T-shirt,” Viyuela says. “Even if I’m not looking at it, the property of the T-shirt being red is well defined. Now, this property translates to characteristics of quantum particles a bit differently.”

Viyuela explains that, in quantum physics, a particle’s property is contingent on measurement, without which, the particle could be considered in infinitely many states—or a superposition—between state A and state B. Referring back to the T-shirt example, Viyuela adds:

"It’s not saying a particle is either red or grey. It’s saying that the particle is in a superposition of both red and grey at the same time. This is a concept that doesn’t jive well with classical physicists: A particle must be one or the other. What this reveals is how superposition gives quantum physicists the agency to define a particle’s state beyond our classical intuition."

The second quantum principle you must understand is entanglement, which is a radically new way that quantum physicists consider particles to be interconnected with each other. What this means is that the state of one particle effects the state of another. Regardless of how far you take the entangled particles away from each other, their states remain correlated.

How Do Quantum Computers Differ?

Now that you’re familiar with the foundation of quantum physics, it will be easier to understand the difference between quantum and classical computers.

According to Viyuela:

"Instead of using binary logic of just 0s and 1s, a quantum computer can also account for superpositions between 0s and 1s. These states are called quantum bits, or qbits. Since qbits allow us to have infinitely more states available, this uncaps the potential to explore many different pathways of a computer algorithm all at once—making more difficult problems easier to solve at an entirely new speed and scale.

Second, the intricate correlation, or entanglement, between many of the qbits takes this power one step further. While in classical physics, one would have to run each and every step separately, because of the great strength of entanglement amongst particles, with one collective action, all particles can be affected at once. In short, this principle allows us to explore resources of the same system, at the same time, significantly increasing the efficiency from a classical computer for many potentially useful tasks."

Why Should Businesses Care, and How Do You Analyze a Market Disruption?

Quantum scientists believe that the development of quantum technologies, such as the introduction of mid-scale quantum computers, will lead to major business changes—or, market disruptions.

In simple terms, a market disruption is a change that affects how companies conduct “business as usual.” Disruption has the potential to affect a company’s success and, in some cases, the trajectory of the industry overall. Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, who teaches the online course Disruptive Strategy, describes this process as the “theory of innovation.” Successful companies are seen as leaders in sustaining innovation, while companies that fail are often the subject of a disruption in their market or industry.

Being on either side of market disruption can pave different paths for your company. Here’s how those paths could play out:

  • Successfully causing the disruption can:
    • Drive efficiencies through your business, making production cheaper
    • Give your company a competitive edge within your industry, allowing you to sustain or grow market share
    • Engineer a brand new market with a solution to a new problem
  • Falling victim to another company’s disruption can open up a whole slew of problems, such as:
    • A change in market demand for your product as it becomes either “too advanced” or “not good enough,” making your product obsolete
    • The loss of your company’s competitive edge, disallowing you to charge a premium
    • Business as usual becoming too expensive
Why Should You Care? Quantum Computers’ Potential for Market Disruption

Classical computers are effective in solving many of our everyday problems. But some issues need a radically more advanced approach. Quantum computers present an opportunity to solve these problems faster, cheaper, and more sustainably, too.

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According to Viyuela:

"The paradigmatic example is in factorizing numbers. If you want to find the prime factors of 15, you find they are three and five. But if I give you a number with 200 digits, your computer will say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t.’ Well, it turns out a quantum algorithm can solve this problem effectively, and extremely fast.

Now, why is this significant? Well, it turns out that activities, such as bank transactions, sending emails or surfing the web protect their information with a key based on the factorizing of a very long number. And cracking this key is an insurmountable task for a classical computer. This is one of the reasons why many companies, or say, the Department of Defense, have high stakes in their development."

Scientists promise that there will be revolutionary applications for quantum technologies, for instance in:

  • Cracking the current bank security system and proposing a new, ultra-secure form of cryptography
  • Using quantum machine learning algorithms to enhance big data analysis
  • Improving algorithms with application in supply chain management and portfolio optimization
  • Developing more secure blockchain technologies
  • Simulating complicated chemical reactions to aid in drug manufacturing
What’s Next?

So far, small prototypes of quantum computers have been developed both in academia—including a recent, successful experiment in Professor Mikhail Lukin's research group at Harvard—and in industry, which have affirmed a proof of concept for investing in further development. It’s clear that the successful development of this advanced technology has the potential to disrupt many industries, changing business as you know it. But what’s keeping it from moving forward?

“We know for sure that quantum computers are better than classical computers,” Viyuela says. “What has yet to be done is to solve a problem that’s interesting and proves there’s a real-life application—proving concretely that a certain problem that’s useful for an industry, can be solved by a quantum computer not only faster, but better, and even using less resources.”

What universities like Harvard, large companies like Google, IBM, and Microsoft, and startups like Rigetti or Harvard spinoff Zapata Computing are doing in the lab is trying to show that even a "small-scale and noisy" quantum computer, like the ones available today, can also outperform a classical computer.

Viyuela is optimistic: “We are very close to that! That's the 2019 challenge.”

Intrigued by this analysis of a disruptive technology? To learn more about the theory and implications that innovation can have for business, explore our online course Disruptive Strategy.

Alexandra Spiliakos

About the Author

Alexandra is a member of the Harvard Business School Online Course Delivery Team, currently working on the Sustainable Business Strategy, Economics for Managers, Disruptive Strategy, and Negotiation Mastery courses. Alexandra holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Wellesley College where she studied Economics and Anthropology. In her spare time, Alexandra enjoys exploring her passions for language, dance, and expanding her understanding of intercultural connectivity.