Quantum Computing – A Matter of Life and Death

Even the greatest ships can get it wrong.

In terms of commercial use cases, I have looked at corporate IT, as well as how a quantum computer will fit in with the evolving cloud computing infrastructure.  However, where QC will make the most difference -as in, a difference between life and death – goes entirely unnoticed.  Certainly by those whose lives will eventually depend on it.

Hyperbole? I think not.

As detailed in my brief retelling of quantum computing history, it all started with the realization that most quantum mechanical systems cannot efficiently be simulated on classical computers.  Unfortunately, the sorry state of public science understanding means that this facilitates hardly more than a shrug by even those who make a living writing about it (not the case for this humble blogger who toils away at it as a labor of love).

Prime example for this is a recent, poorly sourced article from the BBC that disses the commercial availability of turnkey-ready quantum computing without even mentioning D‑Wave, and at the same time proudly displays the author’s ignorance about why this technology matters (emphasis mine):

“The only applications that everyone can agree that quantum computers will do markedly better are code-breaking and creating useful simulations of systems in nature in which quantum mechanics plays a part.”

Well, it’s all good then, isn’t it? No reason to hurry and get a quantum computer on every scientist’s desk.  After all, only simulations of nature in which quantum mechanics plays a part will be affected.  It can’t possibly be all that important then.  Where the heck could this esoteric quantum mechanics stuff possibly play an essential part?

Oh, just all of solid state physics, chemistry, micro-biology and any attempts at quantum gravity unification.

For instance, one of the most important aspects of pharmaceutical research is to understand the 3D protein structure, and then to model how this protein reacts in vivo using very calculation-intensive computer simulations.

There has been some exciting progress in the former area.  It used to be that only proteins that lend themselves to crystallization could be structurally captured via X-ray scattering.  Now, recently developed low energy electron holography has the potential to revolutionize the field.  Expect to see a deluge of new protein structure data.  But despite some progress with numerical approaches to protein folding simulations, the latter remains NP complex.  On the other hand, polynomial speed-ups are possible with quantum computing.  Without it, the inevitable computational bottleneck will ensure that we forever condemn pharmaceutical research to its current expensive scatter-shot approach to drug development.

There is no doubt in my mind that in the future, people’s lives will depend on drugs that are identified by strategically deploying quantum computing in the early drug discovery process.  It is just a matter of when. But don’t expect to learn about this following BBC’s science news feed.

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