Cosmic Tech

IBM marks medical milestone for quantum computers

IBM and Cleveland Clinic today unveiled the first quantum computer dedicated solely to research in health care and life sciences — a sleek cube of glass and metal that’s likely to generate sci-fi movie concepts for years to come.

Researchers hope IBM Quantum System One will eventually generate new biomedical discoveries as well.

“This includes quantum machine learning to design more efficient immunotherapies and designing quantum-accelerated models to predict drug combinations,” Jeanette Garcia, senior research manager of quantum computational science at IBM, said in an emailed statement.

The potential applications extend beyond medical research.

“As quantum computing continues to be integrated into life science applications, there is promise of using it as an optimization tool,” said Lara Jehi, Cleveland Clinic’s chief research information officer. “The impact to the clinical space would result in possible optimization of clinical trial planning, scheduling algorithm of clinical personnel, and/or healthcare finances, since it is being used by other industries to optimize finances.”

Quantum computers take advantage of the weird properties of quantum physics to address certain types of problems that would be far tougher for classical computers to solve. In contrast to the standard one-vs.-zero bits used in classical computers, quantum computers deal with quantum bits, or qubits, which can represent multiple values during processing. That makes them potentially better-suited for optimizing complex systems or sifting through huge amounts of data.

Researchers working together in a 10-year project called the Cleveland Clinic-IBM Discovery Accelerator say that quantum computing — when combined with artificial intelligence and hybrid cloud computing techniques — could help screen and optimize drugs targeted to specific proteins, or improve prediction models for cardiovascular risk following non-cardiac surgery.

Another potential application involves searching through genetic sequencing results and drug-target databases to identify existing drugs that could help patients with Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

Garcia said IBM Quantum System One could “solve some of today’s most intractable challenges that classical supercomputers cannot practically solve and never will.”

“Powering this system is the 127-qubit IBM Eagle processor, the first quantum processor in which quantum circuits that cannot be reliably simulated exactly on a classical computer can be researched,” she said.

Among the dignitaries on hand for today’s unveiling in Cleveland were Susan Monarez, deputy director of the federal government’s Advanced Research Project Agency for Health, or ARPA-H; U.S. Rep. Shontel Brown, D-Ohio; Ohio Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted and Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb.

Quantum computers are still in the experimental stage, and it’s likely to be a while before Cleveland Clinic’s cube-shaped computer crafts cures. But IBM Quantum System One will give researchers at Cleveland Clinic an opportunity to explore the frontiers of biomedicine as well as the frontiers of computing.

“This is just the start,” Garcia said.

IBM quantum cryostat
The cryostat for IBM Quantum System One is enclosed within a protective sheath. (IBM Photo)
Dignitaries line up for ribbon-cutting ceremony
Dignitaries take part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Cleveland Clinic’s quantum computer. (Cleveland Clinic Photo)

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: