Communicating Quantum: An Analyst’s View
Are we seeing now, or will we face a quantum winter? HKA asks research analyst James Sanders about quantum computing’s prospects into 2024. Well-read and informed, James has a deep understanding of the computing infrastructures that power enterprise workloads. He researches quantum computing and networks as well as public, hybrid and private cloud platforms to help clients make the right choices for their businesses – and to share what he learns with The Quantum Spin audience.
James is a cloud and quantum computing analyst for CCS Insight. Prior to joining the firm, James was a research analyst with 451 Research of S&P Global Market Intelligence. He previously worked as an enterprise tech journalist at TechRepublic, where he first dove into quantum computing, developed his knowledge base and kick-started colleague Veronica Combs’ quantum journey, which led her to HKA.
Host Veronica Combs is a quantum tech editor, writer and PR professional. She manages public relations for quantum computing clients as an account manager with HKA Marketing Communications, the #1 agency in quantum tech PR. Veronica joined HKA from TechRepublic and has covered technology, healthcare and business strategy for more than 10 years.
Host Veronica Combs: Hello, I’m Veronica Combs and this is The Quantum Spin by HKA Marketing Communications. Today we are talking with James Sanders, who is a cloud and quantum computing analyst for CCS Insight. He explains quantum computing to people who maybe aren’t fully up to speed on this powerful technology. Thanks for joining us today, James. I appreciate your time.
Guest James Sanders: Thank you very much for having me, Veronica.
Veronica Combs: We have a little history together. We were both at TechRepublic.
James Sanders: We’ve had a lot of overlap, haven’t we?
Veronica Combs: You were there, and I joined, and then you were covering quantum computing and I thought, “That sounds really complicated. I’m glad James is covering that.” And then you left, and I thought, “Well, someone needs to pick up this beat,” so I picked it up, and here I am at HKA, and here you are at CCS, still talking about quantum computing. I think that’s a good thing. How do you explain your job to friends and relations? How do you tell them what you do every day?
James Sanders: I guess the easiest way to explain what a cloud and quantum analyst is is just to tell people that I help tech companies explain what it is they do for people. It’s really easy for people to get kind of lost in the weeds of the technical details of, “I’m building X, Y or Z.” It’s about the bigger picture of “What can you do with this stuff?” that I help tech companies explain to their potential customers.
Veronica Combs: I think there’s a lot of overlap between journalism and the analyst world – at least from the outside looking in, it would seem to be. Is that the case?
James Sanders: There’s definitely a lot of storytelling that happens in both of them. It is quite similar, I think, to marketing in certain ways because it is market communications, right? The difference is that I work with a lot of companies, but I have to remain neutral for all of them. The value of an analyst is really in candor: you want to pay an analyst for their unfiltered opinion and their honest opinion, because if you’re getting a biased output, the value is not quite there. You really do have to check all of your biases to the extent that you can, and there’s always going to be a little bit that creeps in, just because that’s how humans are.
Veronica Combs: I knew you to be a rather direct person when we worked together. I imagine that diplomacy and political tact is something you’ve worked on over the last few years, as an analyst.
Veronica Combs: It’s definitely been a crash course for me in certain ways. In this sort of role, it’s incredibly cross-functional, because some days you are talking to the CEO of a company, and the cloud space is very different from the quantum space. In cloud, it’s really a lot of SaaS stuff. Sure, there’s hardware with the hyper-scalers, but it’s really people with business degrees that are getting into a business, whereas quantum is scientists getting into business. Those constituencies are very different.
Veronica Combs: Very different.
James Sanders: When those technical founders start bringing in businesspeople to deal with the business parts of running a business, there can be a little bit of culture clash between those two groups. There is, I think, a little bit of analyst work that is kind of mediating those two points within a company. It’s really a job that changes day to day, depending on the needs of who it is you’re talking to.
Veronica Combs: That keeps it interesting, right?
James Sanders: I’m always on my toes, which is why I have a standing desk.
Veronica Combs: Do you roll that joke out for every podcast that you’re interviewed on, James?
James Sanders: I literally just thought of that on the spot.
Veronica Combs: Oh, good, I’m glad it’s fresh.
I know that you’ve always been interested in technology, and you lived in Japan for a while, then you came back to the states and certainly wrote about technology for TechRepublic. What made you decide to start writing about quantum computing?
James Sanders: It’s funny you mention that because my first entry into quantum computing was an editor assignment. I, being very honest with you, knew nothing about quantum computing at the time. I thought, “Okay, so in order to write this, I’m going to have to do a crash course in quantum computing.” That turned out to be a lot of reading for me. You just kind of start out with “Mike and Ike” and things get a little bit easier from there – and also substantially harder from there.
Veronica Combs: Substantially harder. That’s right.
James Sanders: I went through that, and a lot of other reading, and I thought, “Okay, I am adequately informed to write about a 1500-word article on quantum computing after having read a book and several more things. After that was published, in 2016, I think the rate of change in quantum computing in that first six months was amazing, and it’s only really ramped up from there, as an industry. Because of that first article, I just kept writing about it, and I had gone to a different group called 451 Research and they were starting a quantum program as well, and so it was kind of a two-for-one for them – a cloud analyst and a quantum analyst, someone who’s been writing about both for several years – and they were really quite pleased with that. It’s something that I’ve brought with me over to CCS Insight as well.
Veronica Combs: It is funny that you would say that, because when you left TechRepublic, I got the assignment of updating that very article. I think it got much longer in my update, but I did certainly have a very strong structure to work on.
Since you have been reading and writing about quantum computing more than lots of people, is there any enduring misconception that you keep having to explain, or keep having to set people straight on?
James Sanders: The thing about quantum computing is that there are always misconceptions. With security, everyone is very concerned about the prospect of a quantum computer factoring a prime number that could be used to break public key encryption, and there is a risk there, but the expense that that would incur, even when a quantum computer is capable of doing, is astronomically high still. It’s possible, it’s making the impossible possible, but it’s still going to be a really expensive operation. The idea that you can capture a lot of data today – “just take the fire hose of data, store it and we’ll deal with it years down the road when we have a quantum computer that can deal with this” – and then use a quantum computer to decrypt all of that information is a little bit unrealistic, in terms of intelligence gathering. It’s not finding the needle in a haystack; it’s finding the hay in a needle stack.
Veronica Combs: Which, in theory, would be easier. But yes.
James Sanders: There’s quite a lot of pain that you’re going to put yourself through, using that strategy.
Veronica Combs: That is one of the big challenges about communicating about quantum computing, because it will have all this power, and it could break public encryption, but it’s not going to happen tomorrow or next week or maybe even next year. You have this sort of dual, “It’s really big, but not yet.” How do you advise your clients on how to put both the potential and the peril in a 2023-24 perspective?
James Sanders: Kind of stepping back from security, there’s a lot of nearer-term applications for quantum computers before they get to the scale required to factor primes. Looking into optimization tasks, those are a little bit nearer-term, and they could be a bit more interesting before the probably-decades-out idea of breaking public key encryption. A lot of business problems are optimization problems, fundamentally: you have a process, and it needs to be a little more efficient.
Veronica Combs: In the financial world, a little bit of optimization can really increase your return. I think optimization is… people get that, right? It’s not like you’re talking about ions or quantum chemistry or things like that.
James Sanders: It is a little bit challenging sometimes to try to get people to focus on the outcome and not the technology. I enjoy talking about the technology behind quantum computing, don’t get me wrong, but the outcome is what is going to matter for business.
I really do think quantum is going to be a thing. It’s going to be something that does impact a lot of businesses in the future. You can do the preparation for it now, but I’m not here doing the “all quantum, all the time” thing, because there are problems that need to be solved now and there are probably more efficient ways than quantum computing today to solve those problems. But quantum’s definitely going to be a thing. My paycheck does not depend on quantum being a thing, and that I think gives me huge amounts of latitude in being forthright about how small-scale quantum computers are today.
Veronica Combs: I think it can be hard to know what is a real accomplishment and what is just a fluffy blog post that may be without a lot of weight behind it. I’ve been asking all of our guests to help us understand how to do a “hype check.” How do you determine when something is a real advance and when something is just nice to read about but not worth commenting on further?
James Sanders: I would typically go about figuring out, “Is this anything?” There’s a really easy way to make things look better by using estimations rather than measurements, and those are not of equal weight. I think the most consistent problem in quantum computing, and communicating what the value of quantum computing will be, is an over-reliance on estimation of expectation of a future result, and those results have not consistently come to bear, and that risks disillusioning the market. The idea of quantum winter has come up several times because there’s a certain parallel to draw to artificial intelligence. The idea that you can go to market with an estimation of what you’ll be able to do in the future, even if you have something that is modestly cool now, I think, is not a particularly wise decision. I would have a higher opinion of things that are measured rather than estimated, for that reason.
Veronica Combs: As long as the scale is clear, right? The industry has gone back and forth about, “It’s the number of qubits. No, it’s quantum volume. No, it’s algorithmic qubits. It’s logical qubits.” There are a lot of measurements out there, and settling on one has been a challenge, I think. Are you looking for some kind of measurement to show performance? Or just ability?
James Sanders: The ability to demonstrate performance. You have to have something that is ultimately reproducible, and there’s a certain budget that you need in order to reproduce these results. A prospective buyer will probably want to try to reproduce what you’ve already done before experimenting with their own thing. Not every buyer does that, by all means. You have to have very technically informed people to really get a check signed for a quantum computer. That is one of the benefits of these cloud platforms: relatively low risk. You’re paying for time and for access. You’re not paying to have something carted out to a data center, which is usually a multimillion-dollar affair.
Veronica Combs: What’s your take on quantum winter versus quantum spring in the coming year, 2024?
James Sanders: It’s not a quantum winter that we’re seeing. It’s that the market is really distracted. Frankly, I think it’s good that the market is really distracted because it’s going to give engineers time to build rather than time to try to fight down all of the misconceptions, all of the distractions that keep people from being able to do the interesting part of the work, which is building, right? Analysts and marketing professionals are or can be equipped to take some of that load off of the engineers. Having engineers spending all of their time fighting misconceptions is a bad use of everyone’s time. We explain things to the market. Fundamentally, that is the core of our jobs, and we should be very well-equipped to do that.
I think there may be a little bit more buzz than there is a market for AI. A lot of the former blockchain and a lot of the former cryptocurrency people move to generative AI as their target because it’s fundamentally the same to them: “We’re going to try to create value out of nothing.” Having that distraction is actually amazing for quantum computing because, as long as the people who are not getting into this market with particularly good intentions are distracted by shiny other stuff, a decreased focus on quantum for the next year is actually pretty good for scientists. It’s good for the science behind it and it’s good for development. I am not concerned about quantum winter in that regard.
Things are getting funded. The startup capital market is a little challenging. It’s a little harder to raise another round right now than it would have been a couple of years ago. I don’t know if next year is going to be the year that that changes. The interest rate has not helped things. But if you have a sufficiently technically informed investor who is comfortable with the idea of this not being a SaaS startup, and it’s going to take a little while to get a return on investment, then you can do it.
I’m not particularly concerned about the prospects for quantum computing. The road is long, but we’ve always known the road is long. I would caution everyone in this industry that you really have to be a good steward of the science. Overhyping something now could be detrimental to the industry as a whole. Don’t cut down a tree when all you need is an apple.
Veronica Combs: Yes, the long-term effects can be bad for everyone.
What are you looking forward to for next year? Are there any companies or maybe a modality or any developments or research that you’re keeping your eye on?
James Sanders: I am relatively convinced that there will be a modality that is not superconducting and not ion trap that is going to wind up being the technology that really gets quantum computing to quantum advantage, probably by the end of the decade. To some people, that seems like it might be a little bit farfetched, but I am convinced.
You have all of the engineers looking into superconducting qubits, and with the exception of Alice & Bob, these are quite often Americans, and as Americans, Veronica, I can say we’re often quite loud, so that gets a lot more media attention. Superconducting requires a huge upfront investment in building to really achieve, so the companies behind these have quite large PR budgets. For years, when people heard about quantum computing, they were hearing about superconducting systems, and then the second wave of that was ion traps, which are really pursued mostly, at the moment, by American companies. It kind of falls into the same category.
On the other hand, there are a lot of modalities that are from people who are less noisy and with qubits that are less noisy. With helium-on-electron, there are about a dozen to maybe 16 or 18 experts on that globally, and they’re mostly Scandinavian, and they’re not as loud about the research that they’re doing, and because they also require a smaller upfront investment to achieve, I think that the ramp up for those in the next couple of years is going to be quite fast, really.
Veronica Combs: Alright. Well, I appreciate that perspective about loud voices and other modalities, and it is a struggle to get people to focus on neither superconducting nor ion trap.
James Sanders: And I say that with a superconducting poster behind me, too.
Veronica Combs: Thank you, James, for joining us. I really appreciate all your time. Check out next year’s predictions from CCS Insight. Any place we can find you online? You told me Mastodon and Blue Sky.
James Sanders: Yes, and of course you can find me at the CCS Insight blog: ccsinsight.com/blog. To reach out to me directly, send me an email, I’m pretty easy to get ahold of. The value of an analyst is access. It’s [email protected].
Veronica Combs: Thanks again for all your time, and best wishes for a good rest of the year.
James Sanders: Thank you for having me on. Best wishes to you for the rest of the year as well.