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Quantum Computers Might Save the World—If Companies Can Find Workers to Build Them

Quantum computing may be decades away from being a practical reality, but that’s not stopping tech companies from convincing businesses that they should start preparing for the next evolution of computers.

Speaking at Fortune’s annual Brainstorm Tech conference Monday in Aspen, Colo., Microsoft general manager of quantum software Krysta Svore explained why people should care about the experimental technology. Essentially, workable quantum computing could, in theory, help solve some of humanity’s most pressing problems like capturing “carbon from the atmosphere to save the planet” and improving clean and energy and food production, Svore said.

It’s not as if conventional computers can’t handle the calculations underpinning the feats Svore mentioned. It’s just that it would take a person’s lifetime, as opposed to the “matter of weeks or months” it would take a quantum computer to process the information related to the problems.

Both Svore and speaker Andrew Fursman, the co-founder and CEO of the startup 1QBit, had the challenging task of explaining how quantum computing works to the audience of business executives and financiers. Fursman joked that it’s likely many of the business-savvy audience members don’t understand how conventional computers work, but they know what they want those computers to achieve and help their businesses.

“I doubt many [audience members] don’t understand how phones work,” he said as the audience laughed. “In some sense that is how quantum computers work—I don’t know!

When people typically think about quantum computing, they are referring to “harnessing the power of quantum mechanics and physical properties,” Svore said. For conventional computers, a transistor is used to encode and represent data as either a “0” or “1” in what are known as “bits,” which help power your laptops or smartphones.

Quantum, however, relies on mysterious so-called qbits, which can represent data in multiple states like a “0” or “1” at the same time; it’s a head-scratching idea to wrap one’s brain around, but its crucial to harnessing the power of quantum computing. Designing algorithms that take advantage of the mysterious properties of qbits can bring “billions of years of compute time to seconds or hours or days,” Svore said.

With quantum computing still being developed, companies are racing to hire skilled talent, which is currently limited because the field is so nascent. Svore said that currently “there are not enough people educated in space” to meet the employment demand, and companies like Microsoft need people who are trained in fields like materials science, cryogenics (quantum machines need to run in extremely cold temperatures), as well as quantum theory and development. Fursman said that it’s taken five years for his quantum software startup to employ 100 people, which he said is “not a sustainable thing to build this industry.”

As for what separates a giant company like Microsoft from his startup in quantum research and development, Fursman cracked wise: “Microsoft has more lawyers than we have employees.”

More must-read stories from Fortune Brainstorm Tech 2019:

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—Ancestry CEO talks genetic data privacy and the business of DNA testing

—Analyst: Expect more tech regulation despite declining user privacy concerns

Barbie movie will cast minority actors, according to Mattel CEO 

—Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield isn’t worried about battling chief rival Microsoft

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