James Walton explores this cutting-edge technology, running through the concept and the current reality. In particular he looks at a variety of ways it could improve supply chains in coming years.
We want Moore
In 1965, computing pioneer Gordon Moore suggested that the density of transistors (switches) in an integrated circuit (microchip) would double every two years, ten years – this is Moore’s Law.
He was wrong.
He was too conservative by far – in fact, this progression has continued for five decades, not just one. At the same time, performance of individual transistors has also improved.
The result has been a continuous growth in computer power and better microchips have been combined with other improvements (eg: better peripherals, wireless connectivity), making the machines more useful.
Smaller, faster, more powerful computers have delivered many of the commercial, cultural and social developments we have enjoyed in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.
After fifty years, however, it seems that Moore’s Law is now becoming less reliable – gains in computer power are slowing and, eventually, designers will run into the physical limits of what can be put onto a microchip.
The next step – quantum computing
Fortunately, a new generation of computers is under development, ready to take over from older types. These are the quantum computers.
A computer is, essentially, an array of tiny switches. In a conventional computer, these switches have two positions – off or on (with the values zero or one).
Information in a conventional computer is therefore recorded and processed in binary format, as binary bits (represented by zeroes and ones).
A quantum computer can record and process data in quantum form as quantum bits (qubits). Qubits can exist in a “superposition” of states - zero, one, or any combination of both … at the same time.
Putting it another way, a qubit is a like an electrical switch that is on and off and in all intermediate positions, simultaneously.
The practical upshot is that quantum computers could be, theoretically, more powerful than conventional computers … far, far more powerful and able to solve more complex problems, more quickly.
Functional quantum computers have been demonstrated. They are not yet as capable as the most powerful conventional types, but they are the subject of interest (and investment) on the part of IT companies.
Current leaders in the field include Google and IBM, along with several specialist start-ups such as Rigetti and D-Wave.
Google is already talking about an event which it calls “quantum supremacy”, the point at which quantum computers will overtake conventional types, at least for certain purposes.
Quantum computing in the food and drink supply chain
This is the point at which the new technology is likely to be of interest to food and drink businesses. There are several commercial applications, including some in supply chain.
Note that grocery businesses would not necessarily need to own the technology. Models such as computing-as-a-service mean that businesses can hire hardware and expertise as needed.
- Autonomous vehicles – Many businesses are developing autonomous vehicles, for private or commercial use. The power of quantum computers could make future autonomous vehicles safer and more reliable.
- Forecasting complex systems – Increased computer power allows for better understanding and prediction of the behaviour in complex systems, including weather systems.
- Weather prediction is clearly helpful for businesses at all levels of the grocery supply chain, but particularly for farmers. It may also help with understanding long-term impacts of climate change.
- More sustainable fertilizers – Chemistry could be a “killer app” for quantum computers. Rigetti, in particular, points to its value in making fertilizers.
Most current artificial fertilizers are based on ammonia, made via the Haber Process. This uses high temperatures and pressures and is energy-intensive.
The power of quantum computing could help scientists understand the Haber Process at molecular level, opening the way to more efficient production.
One possibility is to find ways to understand and synthesise the action of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which can transform nitrogen into ammonia (apparently effortlessly), using enzymes.
- Number crunching – Food and drink businesses are in possession of large data sets (eg: loyalty card data) but deriving value from these is very difficult.
As a result, much of the accumulated data is “dark” – potentially useful, but currently unanalysed. Artificial intelligence is addressing this, but addition of quantum computers may accelerate efforts.
- Route optimisation – This is an essential skill for supply chain professionals and is not easy to solve, even with the best conventional computers.
The complexity of route planning increases quickly as the number of destinations and routes increases (the Travelling Salesman Problem). Further complexity comes from weather, traffic etc.
Quantum computers may deliver better (or, at least, faster) solutions than conventional machines – the relative advantage provided by quantum computers would increase with the number of variables.
Quantum route planning may be useful for individual vehicles, but benefits may be still greater when applied to a whole traffic system (eg: a “smart city”) when all traffic is managed for efficiency.
This task, with its many participants and countless possibilities, can quickly overwhelm conventional computers, making quantum computers the obvious choice.
Volkswagen is already working with quantum computers to help optimise routes for Beijing’s 10,000 strong taxi fleet.
- Stronger encryption – Connected devices make use of encryption for security and transactions (eg: online purchases) are also safeguarded in this way.
Quantum computers will offer stronger encryption, protecting businesses and consumers, but they will also make conventional encryption more vulnerable to attack.
Quantum supremacy may still be some way off, but the transformative potential of this technology is clear, for both food and drink businesses and for society generally.
Maintaining a watching brief on this technology would be prudent, for supply chain professionals, as well as IT specialists.