Quantum computing holds huge promise

A tiny little particle called a qubit may be poised to transform care

A Canadian computing company called D-Wave Systems has been in the news recently, since it was announced this spring that NASA, Google and the Universities Space Research Association (a nonprofit wing of National Academy of Sciences, comprising universities with graduate programs in space science) have contracted to use its technology.

D-Wave bills itself as the first commercial quantum computing firm. Its computer, the D-Wave Two, will be put to work at the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab – jointly launched by NASA, Google and the USRA – to advance machine learning and tackle some vexing computer science problems on earth and in the cosmos: everything from speech recognition to the search for exoplanets.

The deal represents a "fundamentally different approach to computing for both industry and government," said Steve Conway, IDC research vice president for high performance computing, in a written statement. "Organizations that depend on leading-edge technology would do well to begin exploring the possibilities for quantum computing."

So what could quantum computing do for healthcare? And, more to the point, what the heck is quantum computing?

As most people know, most computers are binary – they do their computing on the basis of bits that can be either of two things: a zero or one. That's the same, effectively, as yes or no (or on or off).

Quantum computing, which is still a relatively new phenomenon, practically speaking, moves past that binary system. These computers operate via what are called quantum bits – or qubits – that can exist in what's referred to as "superposition": They can be ones or zeroes, or they can be in multiple states at once.

While a typical computer can tackle one challenge at a time, quantum machines are able to blaze through lots of different computations at once. The upshot – glossing over lots of complex physics – is that qubits make for speed and horsepower that far outpace even the most advanced of conventional supercomputers.

"When you string several qubits together, instead of operating on one bit at a time, you can operate on the superposition of exponentially many bits at the same time," Colin Williams, director of business development at D-Wave Systems, tells Healthcare IT News. "There's a fundamentally different mechanism available because you're harnessing different physical principle."

So far, D-Wave has been able to double the amount of quantum bits every year, and its current Vesuvius processor runs at a whopping 512 qubits.

"We've been able to have a fairly rapid design fabrication and test cycle," says Williams. "That's allowed us to knock down some of the tallest engineering problems pretty quickly."

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