If you’re interested in tech, you’ve likely heard about the race to develop quantum computers. These systems compute via “qubits,” which exist not only as ones and zeros (as you find in traditional processors) but also in an in-between state known as “superposition.”
For tasks such as cryptography, qubits and superposition would allow a quantum computer to analyze every potential solution simultaneously, making such systems much faster than conventional computers. Microsoft, Google, IBM, and other firms are all throwing tons of resources into quantum-computing research, hoping for a breakthrough that will make them a leader in this nascent industry.
Questions abound about quantum computing, including whether these systems will actually produce the answers that companies really need. For those in the tech industry, there’s a related interest in whether quantum computing will actually produce jobs at scale.
“The large tech companies and research laboratories who are leading the charge on R&D in the pure quantum computing hardware space are looking for people with advanced degrees in key STEM fields like physics, math and engineering,” said John Prisco, President & CEO of Quantum Xchange, which markets a “quantum-safe key distribution” that supposedly will bridge the gap between traditional encryption solutions and quantum computing-driven security. “This is in large part because there are few programs today that actually offer degrees or specializations in quantum technology.”
When Prisco was in graduate school, he added, “There were four of us in the electrical engineering program with the kind of physics training this field calls for.” More recently, “I’ve recently seen universities like MIT and Columbia investing in offering this training to current students, but it’s going to take awhile to produce experts.”
There’s every chance that increased demand for quantum-skilled technologists could drive even more universities to spin up the right kind of training and education programs. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is evaluating post-quantum cryptography that would replace existing methods, including public-key RSA encryption methods. Time is of the essence when it comes to governments and companies coming up with these post-quantum algorithms; the next evolutions in cryptography will render the current generation pretty much obsolete.
Combine that quest with the current shortage of trained cybersecurity professionals, and you start to see where the talent and education crunch will hit over the next several years. “While hackers weaponizing quantum computers themselves is still a far off proposal, the threat of ‘harvesting attacks,’ where nefarious actors steal encrypted data now to decrypt later once quantum computers are available, is already here,” Prisco said, pointing at China’s 2015 hack of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which saw the theft of 21 million government employee records.
“Though that stolen data was encrypted and there is no evidence it has been misused to date, the Chinese government is likely sitting on that trove, waiting for the day they have a quantum computer powerful enough to crack public key encryption,” he said. “Organizations that store sensitive data with a long shelf-life need to start preparing now. There is no time to waste.”
But what will make a good “quantum” technologist?
Herman Collins, CEO of StrategicQC, a recruiting agency for the quantum-computing ecosystem, believes that sourcing quantum-related talent at this stage comes down to credentials. “Because advanced quantum expertise is rare, the biggest sign that a candidate is qualified is whether they have a degree in one of the fields of study that relates to quantum computing,” he said. “I would say that degrees, particularly advanced degrees, such as quantum physics obviously, physics theory, math or computer science are a good start. A focus on machine learning or artificial intelligence would be excellent as part of an augmented dynamic quantum skill set.”
Although Google, IBM, and the U.S. government have infinite amounts of money to throw at talent, smaller companies are occasionally posting jobs for quantum-computing talent. Collins thinks that, despite the relative lack of resources, these small companies have at least a few advantages when it comes to attracting the right kind of very highly specialized talent.
“Smaller firms and startups can often speak about the ability to do interesting work that will impact generations to come and perhaps some equity participation,” he said. “Likewise, some applicants may be interested in working with smaller firms to build quantum-related technology from the ground up. Others might prefer a more close-knit team environment that smaller firms may offer.”
Some 20 percent of the quantum-related positions, Collins continued, are in marketing, sales, management, tech support, and operations. Even if you haven’t spent years studying quantum computing, in other words, you can still potentially land a job at a quantum-computing firm, doing all the things necessary to ensure that the overall tech stack keeps operating.
“It is equally important for companies in industries where quantum can have impactful results in the nearer term begin to recruit and staff quantum expertise now,” Collins said. “Companies competing in financial services, aerospace, defense, healthcare, telecommunications, energy, transportation, agriculture and others should recognize the vital importance of looking very closely at quantum and adding some skilled in-house capability.”
Given the amount of money and research-hours already invested in quantum computing, as well as some recent (and somewhat controversial) breakthroughs, there’s every chance the tech industry could see an uptick in demand for jobs related to quantum computing. Even for those who don’t plan on specializing in this esoteric field, there may be opportunities to contribute.