Quantum computers vs. Covid-19
The pandemic has turned the life we have grown accustomed to over the last few decades on its head. Will technology help us minimize the damage caused by the current crisis? What role can quantum computers play in this process?
The shock we are experiencing is sure to transform research priorities, development goals and economic models across the tech industry. The big tech companies are putting a lot of their resources into developing coronavirus information sites, interactive outbreak tracking maps and contact tracing apps. All these projects have a common feature that is a far cry from what we have seen so far in the highly commercialized world of smart technologies. Their implementation requires close, trust-based cooperation between the tech giants on the one hand and the state and a wide range of social and professional communities on the other. Such a private public partnership is unprecedented and can, over time, lead to a complete overhaul of the value system that has so far defined the global economy.
It is still too early to tell whether the tech industry will change the fate of the world or will only use the current circumstances to improve its own image.
Qubits in place of bits
The epidemic offers an opportunity to see quantum technology perform in the new circumstances characterized by chaotic flows of various kinds of data. Before I discuss examples of how the current situation is driving interest in quantum computing, I would like to briefly summarize how quantum computers work. Their smallest unit of information is qubit. Unlike classical bits which take the value of either 0 or 1, qubits can be 0 and 1 simultaneously. The state that allows operation with two opposing values is called “superposition”. While classical bits work independently, qubits interact with one another to form interdependencies called “entanglement.” These features allow complex operations and exponential growth in the number of states: one qubit represents the two states of 0 and 1, two qubits represent four states, three qubits eight states, and so on. This property enables quantum computers to perform tasks considerably faster than the computers we know from our daily lives.
A hundred million worlds
I will use a simple analogy to describe the advantages of quantum technology. Imagine having to find a piece of information hidden in one of a hundred million books and only having tens of seconds to do it in. A conventional computer would be doomed to failure. However, a quantum machine will succeed by acting as if it operated in a hundred million alternative realities in parallel, thus sifting through each book simultaneously. Instead of solving the problem one step at a time as a classical computer would, a quantum computer will solve the whole problem in one massive sweep.
Pandemic-induced data chaos
Let’s relate this to our pandemic-stricken world. Within the limited time available to us, we need to trace the origin of the virus, develop virus spread models, design and deploy confinement measures, develop new versions of vaccines, check the efficiency of new supply chains, assess the resilience of healthcare systems, examine the economic impact of the pandemic, and more. As you can see, we are dealing with an unprecedented volume of diverse data and need a simulation to produce instant conclusions. Only quantum technology–at least in theory–offers hope of completing such complex computational tasks within the required time. According to Brian C. Britt of the University of Alabama, quantum computations are perfectly suited for assessing the spread of a virus in networks. No matter whether it’s a video, a meme going viral or a virally transmitted SARS-CoV-2 or any other type of data, quantum technology provides the kinds of analytical tools that can succeed in their calculations.
The quantum awakening
The industry is showing growing interest in using computers in the new reality. In 2020, IDC published the results of a survey of 520 IT users and IT companies around the world, including the users of quantum computers. Over 75% of the respondents said their organizations had a keen interest in quantum computing. 52 percent plan to carry out quantum computing experiments over the next 18 to 24 months. According to experts, quantum computers can be helpful in the early identification of problems of the kind we are currently facing. They could help conduct the analyses needed to slow virus transmission. They could also be useful in creating new, alternative supply chain models at a time when the existing ones are experiencing a meltdown.
Quanta in the cloud
Concrete actions are already being taken and specific applications are emerging. Since March, D-Wave Systems has been offering free access to a cloud computing service that is based on both classical and quantum hardware. The service supports solving complex analytical problems with up to 10,000 variables. Its users can create hybrid (quantum-classical) simulations to accelerate the resolution of Covid-19-related problems in the fields of pharmacology and epidemiology.
The pharma wants to go quantum
Last year, BCG published a fascinating article on the impact of quantum computers on R&D in the pharma industry showing a number of possible applications of quantum technology in research on new medicinal substances. I will quote its authors to list the quantum technology’s main promises made to the pharmaceutical industry:
• Quantum computing can accelerate, enhance the quality of and reduce the costs of data-rich R&D processes.
• Quantum computers provide powerful tools for studying complex systems such as human physiology and the impacts of drugs on biological systems and in living organisms.
• Quantum supercomputers can facilitate the modeling of molecular structures, mapping of the interactions between a drug and its target and simulations of the drug’s metabolism, distribution and interactions.
• Virtual screening tools are faster than chemical processes for screening large compound libraries. They are 3D representations of molecules derived from quantum mechanics that are used to determine interaction between drugs and their targets.
The authors of the study emphasize that–as large as the benefits of quantum technologies may be–they cannot overshadow the fact that we are still plagued by high error rates. Qubits are unstable and susceptible to external influences that disrupt the operation of quantum systems. However, in the coming years, better hardware and advances in algorithmic technologies should help promote quantum technology as a useful tool that will revolutionize modern pharmacology and even health care systems.
Quanta altering supply chains
The pandemic has caused tremendous disruptions to global logistics systems and supply chains. Could quantum technology help restore the balance? Most definitely so. Quantum computers can prove themselves useful in handling the chaotic task of assessing resources (which applies to all products, and today especially to meds, masks and tests) and identifying the most effective ways to distribute them. Appropriate coordination of activities in populations as huge as that of China is at a premium. Quantum computers can also be handy in monitoring the messages that are flooding today’s media–both traditional and social. Such language tracking can be invaluable in monitoring emerging new crises.
What can we expect?
Decades ago, the staff of research laboratories operating large-sized computers could not possibly have imagined that–by the early 21st century–a regular smartphone would be a thousand times more powerful than those historic machines. Less than a hundred days ago, we couldn’t possibly have pictured empty streets and sealed borders. The present unusual circumstances could well bring about a breakthrough in quantum computing. Before the epidemic, realistically-minded people forecasted it would take a dozen plus years for a major breakthrough in this field to appear. The problems we are facing can significantly reduce the required time. The world needs a positive change and this definitely also applies to the realm of technology.
BCG, Frank Ruess, The Next Decade in Quantum Computing — and How to Play, Link, 2020.