If you pay even a little attention to technology news, you've undoubtedly heard about the amazing potential of quantum computers, which exploit the unusual physics of the smallest particles in the universe. While many have heard the buzz surrounding quantum computing, most don't understand that you can't actually buy a quantum computer today, and the ones that do exist can't yet do more than your average laptop.

Don't let that discourage you from digging deeper into the promising field. If your organization uses advanced scientific or mathematical models, the time to start building your quantum computing capabilities may be now.

Why now? Because quantum computers that are powerful enough to shake up some of the world's largest industries will begin to hit the market in just three to five years. And it will take you at least that long to build the expertise required to take advantage of them for your own business benefit.

The key to understanding quantum computers is that they are nothing like the computers we have now. Conventional computers are linear and deterministic. Double the number of transistors or bytes of memory, and you should expect to double the computing power. They represent data as distinct numbers and execute programs step by step. Quantum computers are parallel and probabilistic. Add a single quantum bit to the system and its power generally doubles. Information is represented as the odds that something might be true, and quantum algorithms can evaluate myriad potential scenarios at the same time.

As it happens, a lot of the hardest problems organizations face today involve making sense of complex systems of interconnected yet uncertain events, often in the form of mathematical models that cannot generally be solved. Think about predicting the economy a year from now. Or plotting the best routes for a nationwide delivery company in a blizzard. Or even simulating the behavior of large molecules used in pharmaceuticals and advanced materials. All of these problems stump even the most powerful supercomputers we have now.

So if your company deals with complexity—big or small—quantum computers may be the key to breakthrough discoveries and significant improvements in efficiency. But you'll need completely new algorithms, written by people with very different skills than you have now.

Here's what you can do now to be ready:

  • Create a formal effort to explore quantum computing applications. It needs people and resources, but not many to start. Treat it as a research and development expense with a high probability of paying off in three to five years.
  • Identify where quantum computers can help your company most. These are likely to involve optimizing complex systems that are difficult or impossible to model today. There are other applications, such as cryptography, that you may discover in your field.
  • Build relationships with quantum computer makers. As companies refine their hardware, they are eager to help potential future customers develop software. Some make online access to quantum computers available through the cloud. Others have published simulators for some of the growing numbers of quantum programming environments. Even though you can't buy a quantum computer now, you can get access to tools to develop applications.
  • Cultivate emerging talent. The biggest problem that many companies will face as quantum computers become available is the shortage of software engineers who know how to use them. Now is the time to build relationships with universities that have cutting-edge quantum computer programs. Get to know the faculty and students. Sponsor events. Hire interns. You need help with your R&D now, and you'll need a lot more soon enough.
  • Build prototype quantum applications in your field. What you can do with them today may seem trivial. What's important is that you create new algorithms that use the distinctive mathematics of quantum computers. After you develop the right approach, you'll be ready to use more powerful hardware as it becomes available.

For example, at IonQ, the company I co-founded to build quantum computer hardware, we used our first-generation machine to simulate a key measure of the energy of a water molecule. Why get excited when ordinary computers can handle the same calculation without breaking a sweat?

The excitement is what comes next. Water only has 10 electrons to consider with just thousands of configurations. In a few years, more powerful hardware can use the algorithms we wrote to understand molecules with hundreds of electrons, having more configurations than there are atoms in the universe! Calculating properties of such molecules will be needed for breakthroughs in drugs, fertilizers, batteries and other materials.

For ours and the other companies building quantum computers, it's an exciting time. It's taken decades of work to learn how to build working machines that can handle a few dozen quantum bits of information (qubits). It will take a few more years of engineering for us to build capacity in the hundreds of qubits, but I am confident we will, and that those computers will deliver on the amazing potential of quantum technology.

The choice facing technology leaders in many industries is whether to start working today on the quantum software that will use the next generation of computers or whether to wait and watch the breakthroughs be made by more agile competitors.