Quantum computing: how BMW is preparing for the next technological revolution

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BMW has been preparing to be quantum-ready for the past four years.

Image: Johannes Simon/Staff/Getty Images News

Quantum Computing perhaps still in its early stages, but BMW has been quietly making plans for when it comes of age.

Most recently, the company just launched a “quantum computing challenge” – a call for talent to encourage outside organizations to come up with solutions that help the automaker to make the most of quantum technologies.

“It’s a search for hidden gems,” Oliver Wick, technology scout at BMW Research and Technology, told ZDNet.

“It’s a clear message to the world that BMW is working on quantum, and if you have innovative algorithms or great hardware, please come to us and we can see if we can use it for BMW.”

TO SEE: What is quantum computing? Everything you need to know about the strange world of quantum computers

Running in partnership with Amazon’s quantum computing division AWS Braket, the challenge targets businesses as well as startups and academics with a simple pitch: Come up with quantum solutions to the problems BMW has identified.

Specifically, Wick explains, BMW wants to tackle four challenges. In the pre-production phase, quantum algorithms can help optimize the configuration of functions for the limited number of cars that can be assembled for different tests, so that as many tests as possible can be performed with a minimum amount of resources.

Likewise, optimization algorithms can improve the placement of sensors on vehicles, to ensure that the final sensor configurations can reliably detect obstacles in different driving scenarios – something that is becoming increasingly important as autonomous driving becomes more common.

Candidates are also invited to submit ideas for the simulation of material deformation during production, to predict costly problems in advance, and for the use of quantum machine learning to classify imperfections, cracks and scratches during automated quality control.

Participants must submit a draft proposal for one of the four challenges, after which a panel of experts shortlists the most promising ideas. The successful candidates then have a few months to build out their solutions on Amazon Braket before they are presented in December. Winning ideas earn a contract with BMW to run their projects in real-life pilots.

“We use the power of the crowd to solve our own problems within BMW,” says Wick.

The quantum challenge is just the latest development in a strategy that aims to aggressively push the company’s quantum readiness.

BMW’s powerful computers currently process 2,000 tasks per day, ranging from high-quality visualizations to crash simulations; but even today’s most advanced systems are quickly reaching their computing limits.

Quantum computers could one day perform calculations exponentially faster, meaning they could solve problems that classical computers find unmanageable. For example, the amount of computing power required to optimize the placement of vehicle sensors is proving increasingly difficult for classical algorithms; quantum algorithms, on the other hand, could come up with solutions in minutes. On BMW’s production scale, this could represent tremendous business value.

Wick explains that the company identified the potential of quantum computers as early as 2017. A technical report quickly followed to gain some knowledge about the technology and key suppliers before work on proofs of concept began.

At this stage, Wick says, the biggest challenge has been to figure out the business case for quantum computing. “We started with proofs of concept in optimization or planning, but those were activities that didn’t have a business case,” says Wick. “Initially, everyone came to me and asked why we needed quantum computers.”

But now proof-of-concepts are slowly emerging as business projects. For example, one of the company’s first research proposals was about using quantum computers to calculate the optimal circuit to be followed by a robot sealing welds on a vehicle. More recently, BMW revealed that it has made progress in designing quantum algorithms for supply chain management, which have been successfully tested on Honeywell’s 10-qubit system.

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BMW says it has now identified more than 50 challenges at various stages of the value chain where quantum computing could provide significant benefits — four of which have now been delegated to the crowd thanks to the quantum challenge.

In other words, quantum computing, from a blue sky, is now firmly implanted in BMW’s strategy. “We’ve now built two teams, one in the development department and one in the IT department,” says Wick. “From this perspective, we have integrated quantum computing into our strategy.”

Partnerships are central to this approach. Last June, BMW co-founded the Quantum Technology and Application Consortium (QUTAC), along with companies ranging from Bosch to Volkswagen. The goal, Wick says, is to come up with a set of problems shared by different industries, to join forces to find solutions that can then be applied to each specific use case.

BMW is also providing €5.1 million ($6 million) to the University of Munich in support of a professorship, which is expected to conduct research into applying quantum technologies to industrial problems like the one facing BMW.

But just because quantum computing has become part of BMW’s business strategy doesn’t mean the technology is already generating value. Quantum computers are still small-scale experimental devices completely incapable of running programs large enough to be usable. They are known as Noisy, Intermediate-Scale Quantum Computers (NISQ), a term that indicates how emerging the technology remains.

“We’re in the NISQ era and we’re going to need better quantum computers,” Wick says. “Personally, I think we can have business benefits in five years. But that doesn’t mean we have to wait five years, sit back and let other companies do the work.”

TO SEE: Bigger quantum computers, faster: This new idea could be the fastest route to real-world apps

Preparing for large-scale quantum computing means developing partnerships with the best talent, filing patents to secure IP, but also deeply understanding business processes to know how to reshape them.

“You need imagination to rethink your own processes,” Wick says. “I can imagine that in the next 20 years BMW customers will sit in front of a screen and configure their own BMW in real time, for example. This is what quantum computing is for: to rethink processes and setups.”

The biggest challenge for now, according to Wick, is to fully understand the ever-expanding quantum ecosystem, to ensure that the right quantum algorithms are equipped with the right quantum hardware to solve the right business problem.

This is easier said than done in a field that is bustling with activity and where noise and reality are difficult to distinguish. Quantum computing is quickly joining blockchain, AR, VR and others on the list of popular buzzwords, and Wick can only rely on his experience as a technology explorer to ensure the company does not fall prey to the quantum hype.

In the automotive industry, BMW’s competitors are preparing for quantum computing to change business processes as well. Volkswagen, for example got to the bandwagon early, and has since expanded its capabilities. There’s a lot of pressure not to fall behind in the race for quantum technologies, or so it seems – and BMW makes it clear that it wants to lead the way.

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