Is quantum computing the next big thing?

With companies like Lockheed, HP, IBM and Microsoft pumping money into quantum computing, and the CIA contributing millions to its development, can we be that far from a major breakthrough?

The New York Times reported last week that Lockheed Martin was investing in quantum computing, and would be the first company to use quantum computers commercially.

The company acquired a quantum computer from D-Wave Systems, a Canadian company, in 2011. The New York Times quoted Ray Johnson, Lockheed's chief technology officer, as saying that Lockheed would use quantum computing to create and test complex radar, space and aircraft systems.

“This is a revolution not unlike the early days of computing,” he told the Times. “It is a transformation in the way computers are thought about.”

There is still a lot of skepticism around quantum computing, but its potential power is alluring. Because quantum computers use quantum properties to represent data, instead of the ones and zeros of digital computers, they are capable of extraordinary speed and power.

I don’t doubt Lockheed’s serious about quantum computing. When I asked Linda Gooden, who is retiring this spring as executive vice president of Lockheed’s Information Systems and Global Solutions group, what are the great technology opportunities going forward, she named quantum.

“We are looking at that because cyber and big data analytics are going to be driven to a level that quantum computing will be necessary,” she said. “We want to be ready to start adapting to those technologies.”

She also mentioned something that the New York Times article didn’t have in its story: Lockheed and the University of Southern California created a quantum computer center at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering in 2011. That center is using the D-Wave computer.

The center is focused on something called adiabatic quantum computing, “in which problems are encoded into the lowest energy (“coldest”) state of a physical quantum system,” according to the center’s website.

Frankly, I have no idea what that means, but some of the research is looking at problems such as machine learning, image classification, software verification, anomaly detection and neural networks. Some areas that could see breakthroughs because of quantum computing include aerospace, medical imagining, robotics, finance, web search and bioinformatics.

In an undated Q&A, Daniel Lidar, the director of the center, offers some interesting insights about the power of the D-Wave computer, including the advantage of having a commerical entity pushing its development.

Lockheed isn’t the only company trying to commercialize quantum computing. IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft all are very active. Microsoft, in fact, has been investing since at least 2005 in university research.

The CIA also is interested in quantum computing, and its In-Q-Tel private equity firm is part of a group that made a $30 million investment in D-Wave last year.

In-Q-Tel’s investment in D-Wave is just a first step, the company quoted Robert Ames, In-Q-Tel’s vice president in charge of information and communication technologies as saying.

“Our intelligence community customers have many complex problems that tax classical computing architecture,” Ames said. “We believe our customers can benefit from the promise of quantum computing.”

So, it’s the next big thing, but still maybe years away. Either way, it looks like I might need to brush up on what is a qubit or a quantum superposition. At the very least, I think I’ll follow the money.