Could this computer help you beat cancer?


The 1960s marked the arrival of computers in medicine. Expensive, cumbersome hunks of plastic and metal that could (maybe) get test results to a doctor faster. The 1980s saw the first real difference-making functions computers could offer – clinical, financial, administrative – and in 1991, the Institute of Medicine published the first manifesto on what electronic health records could (and would) be.

Since then, we’ve seen computer breakthroughs across all areas of medicine, with artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality, and telemedicine brought to the fore. But something else is brewing that not a lot of people know about yet: Quantum computing, a completely new type of computing has already begun to advance everything from drug development and disease identification to the security of electronic records.

“Think of it as transitioning from getting light through fire and candles and now having electricity, and there’s a light bulb that is lighting it all,” said Lara Jehi, MD, Cleveland Clinic’s chief research information officer.

What is quantum computing?

Classical computers (aka binary computers), which are the foundation of today’s devices, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, work by using information known as bits. These appear as 0 or 1 (sometimes defined as off/on or false/true).

Quantum computers, on the other hand, use quantum bits known as qubits. And yes, the definition of “quantum” – as in: very, very small – applies.

International Business Machines, more commonly known as IBM, is currently leading this new tech. A common misconception about quantum computers is that they are “a next evolution of computers that will get faster,” said Frederik Flöther, PhD, life sciences and health care lead with IBM Quantum Industry Consulting. Instead, he wants us to look at quantum computing as something completely new “because it is fundamentally a different hardware, a different software, not just an evolution of the same.”

How does it work differently from existing computers? Quantum computing deals in nature. Therefore, qubits have to be based on the natural world. What does that mean? Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman was famously quoted as saying: “Nature isn’t classical, dammit, and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you’d better make it quantum mechanical, and by golly it’s a wonderful problem, because it doesn’t look so easy.”

Nature, said Dr. Jehi, doesn’t work in black and white or fit into boxes.

“We have to convert it to zeros and ones because that’s what computers speak,” she explained. But quantum computing uses the principles of quantum mechanics. “It’s exactly how nature works, because it is based on the fundamental unit of everything in nature, which is atomic structure.”

Very, very small indeed. And that’s why quantum computing could be game-changing tech in medicine.

“Quantum computers can be used to represent a bunch of different solutions to a problem all at the same time, and then collapse down to the optimal solution, the one that actually works,” said Tony Uttley, president and chief operating officer with Quantinuum, a collaboration between Cambridge Quantum and Honeywell Quantum Solutions that is working to drive the future of quantum computing. “And the reason it does that is because of some fabulous properties of quantum physics.”


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