Technology can give us a quantum jump in medicine

We are now hunkering for cover in a hyper-connected world that has become a petri dish for pandemics.

By Shalini Verma

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Published: Mon 16 Mar 2020, 7:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 16 Mar 2020, 9:10 PM

As the world fights the deadly coronavirus, we have reached the climactic point in the battle when the enemy seems to be momentarily pushing ahead. It is a cliffhanger moment in a movie when the audience is holding its breath, waiting for the protagonist to claw his or her way back to the top.
We are now hunkering for cover in a hyper-connected world that has become a petri dish for pandemics. In this mayhem, some people remain focused on the mission to find the vaccine for coronavirus. The entire process is time consuming because of the clinical trials that involve weeding out vaccines that do not work. It is a trial and error process.
Biotech companies are using AI (artificial intelligence) to quickly develop vaccines and scan through existing drugs to see if any of them could be repurposed. AI algorithms are used for understanding the gene makeup of the virus. AI looks for compounds that will likely bind to the coronavirus protein. It needs to muster enough power to wade through or crunch huge amounts of data at great speed. For this, we need massive compute power and our classical supercomputers are simply not enough. Underlying AI's search for the secret sauce is the raw power of physics that needs to deliver.
A revolutionary technology called quantum computing holds the promise to provide the processing power that AI needs for such computations. You may have heard that its processor chips will be 100 times faster than our classical computers. Quantum computing is modelled on the intrinsic design of nature - that's why its mere mention lights up the eyes of any geek. Quantum computer chips look fascinating, like a modern sculpture, except it is high-tech and stored in sub-zero temperature that is colder than outer space.
Quantum computing research is as big as the space race of the twentieth century. Many tech stalwarts such as IBM, Google, Honeywell, Tencent, and nations like US and China are competing for pole position.
But it's complicated because scientists are trying to use the atomic nuclei inside the silicon, the stuff that processors are made of. These quantum bits or qubits hold the power to explode the compute power when they are manipulated using magnetic fields. They possess the bizarre behaviour of quantum mechanics - meaning they can be in two states at the same time. Computer processors have traditionally flipped between 0s and 1s. However, quantum bits can be at 0 and 1 at the same time. One of the wonderous ways that nature works. This allows the computer to compute at an exponential pace and have the capacity to solve big problems.
But there is problem with quantum computing. It suffers from noise and loss of coherence triggered by electromagnetic wave vibrations, temperature fluctuations, and all kinds of interactions with the environment. They interfere with the quantum nature of the computer. For massive computations, which is what quantum computing is ordained for, thousands or perhaps millions of qubits need to toil without these pesky errors.
The duality of quantum computing (meaning being in two states simultaneously) essentially represents nature's fascinating ability to remain in a state of multiple outcomes, also known as superposition. Quantum superpositions are very fragile making quantum computers error prone.
Scientists are trying to reduce the errors with special codes. In Australia, for example, they have had a breakthrough with a universal code for physical qubits like photons, to allow for error corrections on the fly. They are encoded with information that correct the logical qubit doing the actual compute work. Think of this as a worker bee that while computing is being corrected by a swarm of informer bees in real time. The beauty is that photons can be trapped in a high-quality optical or microwave cavity making them indistinguishable. This could reduce the number of physical systems needed to build a quantum computer.
Some scientists are trying to use a hybrid approach of running only the most performance intensive parts of a programme on a quantum computer, while large parts of the programme can run on a classical computer. The error reducing tactics are still in labs making it difficult to scale quantum computing.
While all this may seem overwhelming for non-scientists, what becomes amply clear is that the prospects of seeing a handsome quantum computer on our desk any time soon is fairly remote. Currently, no quantum computer can outdo classical supercomputers.
However, as nearly three dozen companies are building quantum computers, we will get there pretty quickly. Engineers reckon that every year, their processing power is at least doubling, and at some point, they will outperform the most powerful computer ever built. It will be our moon landing moment all over again.
Quantum computers will effectively fuel AI to rapidly suggest a vaccine before a disease outbreak flares into a pandemic. In future, the road to a new vaccine will likely run through quantum computing. But we are at least a decade away from such explosive compute power. Until then we need to wash our hands correctly and practise social distancing when a new disease outbreak occurs.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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