Health Tech

Better Get Your Quantum Computer

By KIM BELLARD

By all rights, I should be writing about the battle between Reddit forum WallStreetBets and Wall Street hedge funds. Depending on one’s point of view, it’s hilarious, frightening, or a searing indictment on stock trading – maybe all three. 

But I’m going to let Elon Musk and Elizabeth Warren handle that one.  Instead, I want to talk about quantum computing – and why healthcare needs to be looking ahead to it.

Let’s start with this: for the low, low price of $5,000, you could have your very own quantum computer.  Spin Q Technology, a Chinese company, has recently introduced its Spin Q, a less expensive, less powerful version of its Spin Q Gemini, which went for $50,000.  Other quantum computers, such as those by Google, IBM, or D-Wave, have a few more zeroes in their price.  Spin Q Technology has a clear goal in offering this version:

We believe that low-cost portable quantum computer products will facilitate hands-on experience for teaching quantum computing at all levels, well-prepare younger generations of students and researchers for the future of quantum technologies.

You may remember that Steve Jobs and Apple had a similar strategy in the 1980’s, establishing a presence in the education market and among a generation of users that has served it well. 

If you’re looking for something more powerful, maybe even use for business purposes, you are also in luck: today Microsoft announced that Azure Quantum “is now open for business.”    Microsoft bills Azure Quantum as “the world’s first full-stack, public cloud ecosystem for quantum solutions.” 

The announcement waxes eloquently:

As you start on your quantum journey, you can explore at your own pace, with the peace of mind that your data is secure in the most-trusted public cloud. You pay as you go, and scale when you are ready. You have the flexibility to choose from self-service development or tailored development services with our Enterprise Acceleration Program

As with Spin Q Technology, they expect many users will treat it as a learning mechanism.  “This means that developers, researchers, systems integrators, and customers can use it to learn and build,” Julie Love, senior director at Microsoft Quantum told ZDNet.  “…I’m most excited to see what new ideas developers come up with once they’ve had the tools and solutions in their hands.”

Once you’ve got computers, of course, the next thing you want to do is network them, and – voila! – soon there’s a quantum internet.  A quantum internet would exchange “qubits” – the basic unit of information for quantum information, akin to how the bit is to classical computing.  It involvement “entanglement” of qubits on different machines, so that a change in one instantaneously impacting the other. 

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Energy released its blueprint for development of the quantum internet, asserting it was one of the most important technological frontiers of the 21st century – and that a prototype was achievable within a decade.  One wonders if that goal is ambitious enough.  

Last fall researchers at Brookhaven National Lab and Stony Brook University used standard internet cables to entangle qubits from two quantum computers with a third several miles away.  “It’s not really feasible to lay new cables everywhere, so being able to use what’s in the ground was important,” said Kerstin Kleese Van Dam, the director of Brookhaven’s Computational Science Initiative. 

Then, in December, researchers from Fermilab announced they’d demonstrated “sustained, long-distance (44 kilometers of fiber) teleportation of qubits of photons (quanta of light) with fidelity greater than 90%.”  Panagiotis Spentzouris, head of the Fermilab quantum science program, bragged: “This is a key achievement on the way to building a technology that will redefine how we conduct global communication.”

It’s not entirely clear what a quantum internet would do, but it is expected to be much, much faster and allow for levels of encryption that are impossible now.  But, as Dr. Egan Figueroa told Dan Hurley of Discover Magazine:

Many of the things these devices will do, we are still trying to figure it out.  At the moment, we are just trying to create technology that works. The really far reaches of what is possible are still to be discovered.

Gary Fowler, writing in Forbes, proclaims: “The truth is, a revolution is coming. And it has already begun making significant promises for security, speed, efficiency and capabilities.”  He specifically cites healthcare and drug development as one of the industries most likely to be impacted.

It’s worth noting that, what is still to be discovered is actively being worked on in China.  It is already sending “uncrackable” encrypted messages far distances, even into space; it claims to have the fastest quantum computer; it has a quantum communications network; it is testing a mobile quantum network using drones; it has achieved three dimensional quantum teleportation. 

John Prisco warns in Forbes that, when it comes to quantum computing, “the United States isn’t winning — we’re battling for second place behind China.”

If you think this may all be very interesting but something far downstream from what healthcare, with its faxes and data interoperability issues, needs to worry about, well, the future comes at you fast.  IBM already has its list of quantum computing use cases for healthcare. 

Back in 2018 three St. Louis University researchers predicted:

We may be at the advent of a revolution in computer applications in clinical care and medical research. Quantum computing can exponentially advance computational power and promises to usher in a new epoch in computing technology.

Basically, if you’re already bought in to the application of AI to healthcare, or recognize the need for more secure healthcare data, then you better also be thinking about quantum computing and the quantum internet. 

Quantum physicist Shohini Ghose suggests business leaders should be developing strategies around:

  • Planning for quantum security;
  • Identifying use cases;
  • Thinking through responsible design.

The latter issue is what has led a group of quantum computing experts – The Quantum Dailyto call for open discussion of the ethics around it.  Professor John Martinis, formerly of Google, warns: “Whenever we have a new computing power, there is potential for benefit of humanity, [but] you can imagine ways that it would also hurt people.” Cambridge Quantum Computing CEO Iiyas Klan added: “This is the equivalent of a whole new industrial revolution…We ought to have those conversations today.” 

If healthcare isn’t careful, it’s not only going to use quantum computers/internet too late, but realize too late the ethical issues it should have prepared for.  So, maybe you should buy a Spin Q and start playing with it.

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.

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