Maritime shipping is big business. More than 10 billion tons of cargo are carried over the waves every year. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that maritime shipping accounts for about 90% of the goods ferried around the world, and the tonnage shipped is expected to triple by the year 2050.
Maritime shipping is also a polluting business. OECD estimates that today, shipping represents 2.6% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Shippers are under increasing pressure to curb climate-warming emissions.
Lastly, maritime shipping is a complex business. Shippers try to balance quality of service, based on shipping speed and accuracy of arrival time, with cost, energy consumption and risk. Shippers can select the shortest route, but they can also select other options based on their estimation of weather, waves and wind, water temperature and other sea conditions. They can use more fuel to travel faster, or decide to go slower and save money in certain portions of their trips.
Geopolitical events are also a factor. In 2012, for instance, many ships avoided traveling close to Somalia because of the risk imposed by pirates. Wait times at busy ports and waterways such as Singapore and the Panama Canal might also vary. Labor disputes may slow down the loading and unloading of cargo. The Suez Canal was blocked in 2021, causing major congestion. And if this sounds complex for a single vessel, imagine how it is for a fleet of ships that travels around the globe.
A cargo ship takes 15-30 days to cross the Pacific Ocean and about 10-20 days to cross the Atlantic. A lot can change during this time. Weather models might be based on historical averages, but it's difficult to forecast the weather four weeks into the future.
Because of these factors, the scheduling of routes and decisions on which cargo will go onto which ship is a herculean task. It takes supercomputers many hours to run sophisticated algorithms that try to balance all these variables.
But what happens when weather, geopolitical or other conditions change? How often can a shipping company recalculate part or all of its schedule?
Dealing with an ocean of data, complex models and rapidly changing conditions is where quantum computers can provide assistance. Because of its ability to run numerous options in parallel, a quantum computer could theoretically take a few seconds to perform what a classical computer completes in many hours.
Many researchers have begun working on algorithms for quantum computers to optimize maritime voyages. Quantum computers require software programs that are written in a completely different way than those that run on classical computers.
Companies such as ExxonMobil are excited by the potential of quantum computing, envisioning huge returns driven by reduction in operating costs, while at the same time gaining opportunities for service improvements and carbon footprint reductions.
We see this happening in two steps: first speed, then performance.
Initially, quantum computers were capable of achieve good results, but do it much faster. Think of playing speed chess with a grandmaster: If you allocate five minutes to each move, play would be nearly perfect, but even a five-second move is pretty good. Armed with this capability, companies can make on-the-fly adjustments when conditions change.
As quantum computers become even stronger, they’ll generate superior schedules and routes, delivering even greater benefits.
To reach this goal, two things are required: hardware and software.
Quantum computing hardware is progressing rapidly, but the capabilities of today’s machines — often measured by “quantum volume” or approximated by count of their qubits (quantum bits) — still leave a lot of room for improvement.
As quantum computers become larger, software becomes a critical issue. Programming a quantum computer today is a highly specialized task, and as computers grow, the current methods don’t scale. It’s like trying to manually build a high-end CPU using discrete AND, OR and NOT gates. Fortunately, new quantum software development platforms are emerging, paving the way for creating scalable quantum software with relative ease.
The payoff for those who crack the quantum shipping code is enormous. That’s why, in spite of the current limitations of quantum computers, companies are hiring people who are proficient in quantum programming, investing in software development platforms, and building both intellectual property and internal competencies. The benefits will be massive: for those companies, for consumers, and for the planet.
Yuval Boger is chief marketing officer at Classiq Technologies.
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