When it comes to finding a vaccine that can halt and eradicate the deadly COVID-19 virus, today’s supercomputers can only do so much. While supercomputers can do amazing things, they are not complex enough to find answers to nature’s deepest and most complicated secrets, such as quickly and carefully mapping out the molecular structures of viruses so they can be defeated with modern medicines and treatments.
But an answer awaits perhaps five to 10 years away in the form of quantum computers, which are exponentially more powerful than traditional classic computers, according to computer scientists and other researchers.
Recently a public-private partnership was formed to create a COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, which is working to harness the power of high-performance computing resources to massively increase the speed and capacity of coronavirus research. And though that work is today welcome in the fight against COVID-19, it won’t unlock all the incredibly difficult secrets that are held closely by such viruses.
For most pharmaceutical companies, supercomputers are used regularly to help research, find, and identify new drug treatments, including the identification of virus structures so cures can be found.
Yet supercomputers used today in virus and other pharmaceutical research are still based on classical computing architectures that view all data as a series of binary bits with a value of zero or one. Those machines face the limitations of modern bit-based computer architectures and power that is available today but can’t theoretically or physically handle all the tremendously detailed research that is still needed.
That’s where the future promise of quantum computing is expected to one day provide the vast computational power that could allow researchers to truly map out molecular structures in real time to solve medical mysteries and help quickly identify new drugs and treatments, said Chirag Dekate, a supercomputing and high-performance computing analyst with Gartner.
“If you’re trying to do a quantum realistic simulation of the molecules and interactions of a virus, that is where classical computing starts falling short,” Dekate said. “In classical computing, what you are able to simulate is only a fraction of what you can do with quantum computing.”
The problem, though, is that true quantum computing capabilities are probably at least five to 10 years away from actual use, Dekate said.
“When two molecules or compounds interact, in order to do a quantum computing simulation, you have to be able to simulate the electrostatic forces of the interaction at the atomic level between those things,” Dekate said. “This is where the computational complexity increases exponentially,” requiring the power of quantum computing over traditional classical computing architecture.
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Quantum computers are based on qubits rather than bits, which are far more complex and allow information to be stored in new ways, giving them added dimensions of computing power. But that intense power requires many more technical requirements to make it possible, and much work is still to be done to enable the technology.
Dr. Itamar Sivan, a physicist and the founder and CEO of Quantum Machines, a quantum computing technology company, said the promise of quantum computing will someday help during times of crisis, such as today’s coronavirus pandemic. Such machines are expected to be able to solve incredibly complex scientific problems in minutes in the future, compared with many years by even the most powerful supercomputers of 2020.
“Quantum computing is not a new field–it is already decades old,” Sivan said. “In academia it is being investigated, and in the last five years in industry as well. The interest in quantum computing stems from a promise of immense computational power that we will never be able to achieve with classical computation.”
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For researchers, quantum machines will provide power that will transform medical research and a wide range of other fields, he said. “If you would want to have an exact simulation of a molecule such as penicillin, you would never be able to do it with any classical computer because it is too complex. But quantum computers with hundreds of logical qubits will be able to do this task.”
Just how much more powerful is a quantum computer compared with a classical computer?
“In order to explain the information in a quantum computer with 300 qubits you would need a classical processor which is built from more bits than there are atoms are in the universe,” Sivan said. “It’s one of the toughest moonshots that we face as a society, but if we can do it it’s going to change the whole world.”
Sivan agreed that such machines are easily a decade away before they would be able to perform the quantum simulations that are needed for virus research breakthroughs.
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“For some problems, it’s not about just running an algorithm faster, it’s about making the impossible possible,” he said. “This is why in drug discovery today, the majority of the process is done with the molecules themselves in test tubes and culture dishes, because you can’t simulate them and look at their reactions and behavior using classic computers.”
The challenges of achieving usable quantum computing are huge, including the extremely delicate state of quantum data when it is used. In operation, quantum data is rapidly lost in experiments being done over the last few years, preventing stable use of the machines.
“There are immense challenges all over the stack to get to the Holy Grail of quantum computing,” Sivan said. “Once we solve the problem of loss of information, we will be fine.”
The coronavirus has infected almost 2 million people and killed 121,000 around the world so far. While many patients with COVID-19 have mild symptoms and don’t require hospitalization, with the incredibly wide scale of the pandemic, even at a 5% hospitalization rate large numbers of patients have been requiring emergency care in hospitals and other medical facilities that are struggling to keep up.