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Solving problems by working together: Could quantum computing hold the key to Covid-19?

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Given the enormous potential for quantum computing to change the way we forecast, model and understand the world, many are beginning to question whether it could have helped to better prepare us all for a global pandemic such as the Covid-19 crisis. Governments, organisations and the public are continuing the quest for answers about when this crisis will end and how we can find a way out of the current state of lockdown, and we are all continuing to learn through incremental and experimental steps. It certainly seems plausible that the high compute simulation capabilities of our most revolutionary technology could hold some of the answers and enable us to respond in a more coherent and impactful way.

A focused global effort

Big investments have already been made in quantum computing, as countries and companies battle to create the first quantum supercomputer, so they can harness the power of this awesome technology. The World Economic Forum has also recognised the important role that this technology will play in our future, and has a dedicated Global Future Council to drive collaboration between public and private sector organisations engaged in the development of Quantum Computing. Although it’s unlikely to result in any overnight miracles, it’s understandable that many are thinking about whether these huge efforts and investments can be turned towards the mutual challenge we face in finding a solution to the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are already some ground-breaking use-cases for quantum computing within the healthcare industry. Where in the past some scientific breakthroughs – such as the discovery of penicillin – came completely by accident, quantum computing puts scientists in a much stronger position to find what they were looking for, faster. Quantum raises capacity to such a high degree that it would be possible to model penicillin using just a third of the processing power a classical computer would require to do the job – meaning it can do more with less, at greater speed.

In the battle against Covid-19, the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is already using quantum supercomputers in its search for drug compounds that can treat the disease. IBM has also been using quantum supercomputers to run simulations on thousands of compounds to try and identify which of them is most likely to attach to the spike that Covid-19 uses to inject genetic material into healthy cells, and thereby prevent it. It has already emerged with 77 promising drugs that are worth further investigation and development – progress that would have taken years if traditional computing power had been used.

Partnering for a collaborative ecosystem

Other businesses are likely to be keen to follow in the footsteps of these examples, and play their own part in dealing with the crisis, but to date it’s only been the world’s largest organisations that have been using quantum power. At present, many businesses simply don’t have the skills and resources needed to fabricate, verify, architect and launch a large-scale quantum computer on their own.

It will be easier to overcome these barriers, and enable more organisations to start getting to work with quantum computing, if they open themselves up to collaboration with partners, rather than trying to go it alone. Instead of locking away their secrets, businesses must be willing to work within an open ecosystem; finding mutually beneficial partnerships will make it much more realistic to drive things forward.

The tech giants have made a lot of early progress with quantum, and partnering with them could prove extremely valuable. Google, for example, claims to have developed a machine that can solve a problem in 200 seconds that would take the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years – imagine adding that kind of firepower to your computing arsenal. Google, IBM and Microsoft have already got the ball rolling by creating their own quantum partner networks. IBM Q and Microsoft Quantum Network bring together start-ups, universities, research labs, and Fortune 500 companies, enabling them to enjoy the benefits of exploring and learning together. The Google AI quantum initiative brings together strong academia support along with start-up collaboration on open source frameworks and tools in their lab. Collaborating in this manner, businesses can potentially play their own part in solving the Covid-19 crisis, or preventing future pandemics from doing as much damage.

A collaborative ecosystem for a quantum leap forward

Those that are leading the way in quantum computing are taking a collaborative approach, acknowledging that no one organisation holds all the answers or all the best ideas. This approach will prove particularly beneficial as we search for a solution to the Covid-19 crisis: it’s in everyone’s interests to find an exit to the global shutdown and build knowledge that means we are better-prepared for future outbreaks.

Looking at the bigger picture, despite all the progress that is being made with quantum, traditional computing will still have an important role to play in the short to medium term. Strategically, it makes sense to have quantum as the exploratory ‘left side of the brain’, while traditional systems remain in place for key ‘business-as-usual’ functions. If they can think about quantum-related work in this manner, businesses should begin to feel more comfortable making discoveries and breakthroughs together. This will allow them to speed up the time to market so that ideas can be explored, and new ground broken, much faster than ever before – and that’s exactly what the world needs right now.

Kalyan Kumar, CVP & CTO, IT Services, HCL Technologies