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Let’s say you’ve got $15 million and want to buy a quantum computer, or invest in a company that makes them because you’ve heard quantum computing is the next big thing. (It is.) Either way, you’re in for a lot of legwork.

First, let me tell you the good news. Despite the common perception that quantum computers are still a decade from reality, there are some commercial models available today that are being used by Lockheed Martin, Google, NASA, and Volkswagen (just to name a few).

In these initial applications, quantum computers are living up to the hype by analyzing the enormous amounts of data we’re generating. Volkswagen's project involves 10,000 taxis in Beijing constantly feeding their location information into a database that quantum computers analyze to understand the city’s traffic flow. Traditional computers lack the processing power necessary to accurately analyze complex phenomena with the same number of variables as urban traffic.

Applications like these are a major reason why analysts like Morgan Stanley predict the quantum computing market will be worth $10 billion annually in the next decade. What investor wouldn’t want a piece of that opportunity?

What’s a Qubit?

Now the bad news: quantum computing doesn’t yet have a standard set of definitions for fundamental terms and concepts. Take “qubit,” or quantum bit. Qubits are the basic unit of information in quantum computing (like bits in classical computing). If you want to buy a quantum processor today or invest in a company making them, you will quickly discover big variations in specifications. One vendor may offer a 2,048-qubit model, while another offers a 50-qubit model. Which one is better? How do you tell?

It’s not a trivial question, considering a quantum computer will easily cost you $15 million. If you assume that 2,048 trumps 50, you’d be wrong. Different vendors have different definitions for the term “qubit,” and there are different ways to build a “quantum computer.”

The confusion is reminiscent of the RISC vs. CISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing vs. Complex Instruction Set Computing) questions in the ’80s and ‘90s, which left consumers and businesses struggling to figure out whether a Mac or Windows PC was faster. The difference is we had industry-standard definitions of CISC and RISC to help us answer the question. Quantum computing doesn’t.

"We are still very early in the application of quantum computing in the real world,” says Bo Ewald, president of quantum computing vendor D-Wave Systems U.S. “We need more smart people thinking about potential applications and another set thinking about software tools to make the systems easier to program. As happened in traditional computing, standards will more easily enable quantum applications to be written using higher level languages, libraries, etc. That should speed the adoption of quantum computers."

Confusion Stymies Innovation

When it’s impossible for consumers, businesses, and investors to make an apples-to-apples comparison, they often base their decision on brand recognition. That habit gives incumbents and big companies a competitive edge over startups (even highly innovative ones). Remember the adage, no one ever got fired for buying IBM.

In addition to making it difficult for smaller vendors to attract customers and investors, the lack of industry-standard definitions makes it difficult to train the next generation of people designing and using quantum computers. It’s challenging for colleges and universities to teach terms and concepts for which there are multiple definitions.

Until the industry agrees on a nomenclature, it will also be impossible to establish performance benchmarks or standards, both of which would help investors and customers make decisions. With any technology, a nomenclature is foundational for the development of other standards because it enables the collaboration producing the surrounding ecosystem. Anyone who’s attended a quantum computing industry conference can attest people struggling to discuss even the most basic concepts, let alone have the kind of interaction that moves an industry forward.

Getting Everyone on the Same Page

Let’s get back to the good news. The new IEEE P7130™—Standard for Quantum Computing Definitions project will eliminate the language barrier that prevents the industry from living up to its potential to change the world.

“As a pioneer in empowering the creation of our modern classical computing ecosystem, at Microsoft, we have witnessed firsthand the power of standardization around a common nomenclature to not just advance the field, but to create tremendous benefit for society,” says Todd Holmdahl, Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Quantum. “We hope that this development will accelerate the immense potential of quantum computing to create transformative change to our economic, industrial, academic, and societal landscapes.”

If you’d like to learn more about how IEEE P7130 is laying the foundation for the quantum computing future, visit https://standards.ieee.org/develop/project/7130.html.

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