New quantum computers - Potential and pitfalls | DW Documentary

New quantum computers - Potential and pitfalls | DW Documentary

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The miniscule world of quantum particles might be foreign to most of us — but not for the scientists currently using them to build a super-computer. Nobody knows what "quantum computing" really means, but it is going to change us. To its champions, quantum computers are a pioneering development and a game-changer. The quantum computer can open up an array of amazing possibilities. The scale of computer power enables us to solve problems that we are not yet even able to formulate.

Its many applications include simulating molecules: A ground-breaking advance in the development of new drugs. Quantum computing is still in its infancy — but is set to one day revolutionize scientific research. What looks like a computer chip made of plastic is in fact a model of a human lung.

Scientists at a Swiss start-up are aiming to tackle diseases faster — with the help of a super-computer. Nina Hobi founded Alveolix together with Janick Stucki. Their work won them the 2022 Swiss Med Tech Award. The team here use a pipette to transfer human lung cells to a thin, porous membrane. The cells can then be activated mechanically, to mimic a real lung.

We're able to simulate these cells by recreating the environment of the human body in this plastic chip. It enables us to simulate miniature organs that are far more similar to the real thing than any other options currently available. More similar than with in-vitro testing or animal experiments. The researchers say the mock miniature lung will make it easier to design new drugs.

The drug development process takes around 10 to 15 years. To begin with, you test a huge number of molecules in petri-dishes — although there, the cells aren't really like they are in the human body. There are no 3D layers or forces of attraction, for example. It's a very basic set-up. You later move on to animal experiments

and conduct tests for, say, toxic properties. The entire process is extremely involved, especially when you think about the animal testing required. And this is where our technology comes in. It's hoped the miniature lung will enable researchers, most notably at pharmaceutical companies, to speed up the drug-testing process. Here we have the endophil cells and the immune cells on top of it. They’re actually attached to it.

Did you do an infection? We can determine far earlier whether a particular molecule is effective and whether there are side-effects. It enables you to optimize the process and ultimately lower costs — by 500 million francs per drug, according to studies. Things that are already possible today could be done even faster and more efficiently with the technology — while also rendering animal experiments redundant. Our company's aim is to help in the development of better medication and the reduction of side-effects for patients. We also want our technology to help reduce or eliminate animal testing.

Animal experiments are simply not adequate predictors of whether a drug actually works with humans. It was my doctoral supervisor who originally got me interested in quantum computing. And I'm still there today! Back when I started studying physics at Zurich technical university, nobody was talking about it. I'd never heard of it.

Dominik Zumbühl is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Basel, specializing in quanta. They're the smallest units of energy known to scientists — but with properties that would make conventional bit-based computers look distinctly primitive. A regular computer with regular computing power performs one calculation per time unit or 'clock cycle'. In quantum physics, you have countless calculations being performed in parallel. A prime example is the factorization of very large numbers.

In this case, the quantum computer quickly arrives at the result by simultaneously trying to divide by all possible numbers. A classical computer processing a number with several thousand digits would take as long as the universe is old. But the same problem can be solved by a quantum computer in a matter of hours or even seconds. So what actually are quanta? Exploring this mysterious little world requires us to think in the smallest possible dimensions. Smaller still than atoms. At this tiniest-imaginable scale, the classical laws of nature no longer apply and something fascinating happens.

Quanta can exist in different states and in different places at the same time. Quantum theory was pioneered in the 1920s by the likes of Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger. They used thought experiments to illustrate these apparent paradoxes that stretch the limits of our imagination. Erwin Schrödinger was an Austrian physicist primarily known today because of a cat. More specifically: An experiment that he fortunately never carried out in practice. He imagined a cat in a box together with a device that would have a 50:50 chance of releasing a deadly poison in the next hour.

According to quantum theory, the cat is then simultaneously both dead and alive. But only provided we don't check inside the box! In a quantum mechanics system, mere observation influences the actual state inside. We cannot make an assessment without looking — including whether the cat is dead or alive. What sounds absurd was a demonstration of the conundrum at the heart of quantum mechanics. The simultaneously different states at the quantum level are not compatible with accepted laws of nature. In this little world, particles can be linked or 'entangled' with each other while at the same time being in different states and places.

And that simultaneity can be calculated. It's a state that can be called 'mathematical superposition' or... simultaneity. That state — represented as wave function 'psi' — comprises a coefficient for an upward spin plus another coefficient for a downward spin. And this is simultaneity.

And that's how you can imagine a qubit: an arrow pointing in a random direction. Quantum- or 'q' bits are the building blocks of a quantum computer. While a normal computer processes information in bits — as ones or zeroes — qubits have both values at the same time. It's comparable to a flipped coin, where you don't know whether it will land heads or tails. Before these qubits can be controlled and used for calculations, they have to be immobilized.

That in turn requires a complex procedure in which they are cooled down to temperatures otherwise seen in outer-space. Around minus 270 degrees Celsius. So the surface area helps to exchange the heat, so the cold liquid which we're pumping out is cooling the recondensing liquid which is coming down. We can actually then do the experiments at temperatures down to 10 milli-Kelvin.

Compared to 4 Kelvin that's about 400 times colder in temperature. PhD students here at the University of Basel are assembling a small quantum computer with a small number of qubits. The aim is to deploy the technology for a variety of applications once it's been fully developed. Quantum computers would then simulate molecules, for example — leading to the development of new drugs and the elimination of deadly diseases.

Another potential application is renewable energy storage. The technology has already brought benefits to logistics operations. The introduction of quantum algorithms has helped to increase the speed and capacity of cargo movement at the port of Los Angeles. As a result, the facility now operates more efficiently and with less energy. Quantum computing seems to have highly lucrative business potential.

For years now, a range of tech companies including Google and IBM — and nation-state players like China — have been in a race to build the first high-performance quantum computer. The money invested in research is in the billions. Switzerland has a different approach. Uptown Basel Infinity uses private-sector funding to provide companies with free access to American quantum computers. The hub is called QuantumBasel and is headed by Damir Bogdan.

The problems facing industries are getting increasingly complex. The use of artificial intelligence is a factor, of course. But when you eventually reach certain limits — and AI reaches its limits — then you have to think a couple of steps ahead. Artificial intelligence applications could run far more efficiently on quantum computers. And when I say 'efficiency', I mean not only computing speed but also energy efficiency.

The hub works with a hybrid system combining conventional and quantum computers. Start-ups in the program can turn to IBM's Frederik Flöther for advice on tackling their problems — and on thinking outside of the box. The first thing is to break down the individual issues and look at which specific quantum algorithm is at all relevant. And as quantum is a completely different kind of calculating, it enables you to give problems a complete rethink and perhaps find a new approach. This involves what we call the Quantum State of Mind.

Some 40 studies have already been conducted on the basis of the quantum computer with the purpose of simplifying and accelerating the development of medication. In both medicine and health care, we're seeing a significant increase in the data available — and also in the range of data... image data, data from fitness trackers, data in medical records and so on.

And processing the complex correlations between all those data requires the kind of computing power that classical computers struggle to achieve. And that's where quantum computers have real potential. An example from the pharmaceutical industry: To date, researchers have covered just 1% of all potentially active molecules for drugs. This is reflected in cancer treatment, for example. Only one in three patients respond directly to drug-based therapies.

We sadly won't be able to resolve all of these challenges with quantum computing, but we're confident of being able to help with some of them. Further south, in Berne, the team at Alveolix are hoping to resolve one of those problems in the very near future. Quantum computers can be used to evaluate huge amounts of data, providing detailed insights into a patient's genetic make-up. The small-scale replica of a lung — or another organ — is designed to deliver more effective treatments for cancer patients. We don't know yet which of the different types might be effective. You can look at the genome and wonder what the best one for the patient is, and maybe make a customized cocktail.

The patient might then start an immuno-therapy. And when they have a break, that's when we can take a tissue sample. After placing the sample onto our organ-on-chip, we would then try out a new cocktail, so that it would have a better effect when the patient goes for their next treatment.

What's especially crucial for cancer patients is minimizing side-effects. Instead of additional suffering, you want them to be safe and getting the most effective medication available. And that's where we can help. At the same time, Alveolix wants to help eliminate animal testing from preclinical studies.

For decades, animal experiments have been standard procedure in the development of new drugs, with rodents the most widely used species. In Switzerland alone, labs perform tests on over half a million animals a year. Our immediate objective is to reduce animal experiments.

There are a large number of drugs that are only effective with the human genome and human cells, making animal tests of zero advantage. So effective drugs don't even reach the market because they're stopped prematurely in the pre-clinical study phase. Our aim is not removing all of them from the market but abolishing the most severe tests where the animals are under extreme pain and duress. Experiments with severity levels 3 and 4. And we're very optimistic about helping to make this happen soon.

But in Europe, their efforts face a hurdle. The European Medicines Agency refuses to grant approval for drugs without animal testing beforehand. In the United States, however, a bill passed in 2022 removed the requirement for animal tests prior to market approval. And a proposed update on that legislation would also allow tests using computer models or artificial organs. There is already large-scale research in the US on this front — as seen at the Cleveland Clinic in the state of Ohio. The latest breakthrough there is an in-house quantum computer.

It's the first quantum computer in the world to be uniquely dedicated to healthcare research. And its work will be much appreciated, given the clinic's 10 million patient-visits per year. John R. Smith is a senior researcher at IBM and highlights the dividends from the vast amounts of medical data: This has the potential to drive our pace of progress to addressing the important disease challenges that we’re facing — and challenges in patient care. So much faster. And to produce breakthroughs and discoveries that will be absolutely essential for all of us. In March 2023 the clinic officially unveiled its treasured quantum computer.

Its CEO welcomed guests from Cleveland and further afield. Thank you very much. We’re bringing something new to our organization and to the world. The quantum computer System I — it sounds a little bit science fiction — which is right behind me, is the most advanced computational technology and computational platform that exists. We’re very excited because it is going to allow to us to advance research, advance discovery and advance medical care.

And it will also create a lot of jobs. Among the guests invited to the event was Damir Bogdan from QuantumBasel and UptownBasel — which is no coincidence. The US is the leading market in the development of quantum computers — and Uptown is a partner of IBM.

An Australian think-tank published a study citing 44 technologies that will change the world. And China is already leading in 37 of them. And one of the remaining seven, where the US is ahead, is the field of quantum computing. Bad news for the EU too, with a failed partnership agreement making cooperation more difficult. The decision by Switzerland or the EU that Switzerland cannot be involved in the Horizon program means we have to find someone else to work with.

It doesn't mean UptownBasel is no longer interested in European partnerships. But we are in the US a lot because of all that's happening there. Another attraction for the company executive is the Silicon-Valley mentality — a world away from the conservative, risk-averse approach in Switzerland. That said: Switzerland does have a lot of strong points.

We have brilliant research in this area — in Basel, at the EPFL and Zurich Technical University. What we're missing sometimes is the proper climate for start-ups to grow in — and that's a lot better in the US. The quantum computer's evolution to date promises incredible opportunities in the future. But scientists in universities are more cautious about developments. There's a risk of it perhaps taking longer, and of certain problems cropping up. Building a quantum computer that can immediately solve gigantic problems won't be easy. It will have to be one step at a time.

Today's computers took many, many years to develop. And quantum computers will likely be the same, and need 10 years or more to complete. Right now, we're still researching the basics.

More qubits means more computing power. The IBM quantum computers in commercial use today have 433 of them — although currently, pure research is still focused on the physics of the individual qubits. Some qubits are relatively easy to make. There are already computers with 100 or a thousand of them — and plans for reaching 10,000 or 100,000. The problem is that the quality isn't good enough yet, with a relatively high frequency of mistakes in calculations.

There's no point having as many qubits as possible if they're not good enough. We need major improvements, including work on individual or a smaller number of coupled qubits. But the race is totally open. Zurich's Technical University is another center of qubit research.

Professor of theoretical physics Renato Renner says that the development of the quantum computer has still barely begun: Quantum computers are at a similar stage to early transistors. They're still very big. The 100 qubits might together take up the space of a massive experiments table with all the lab electronics. And it's not yet clear how we could scale it down to at some point pack millions of qubits into a small space have a feasible working setup. That doesn't mean we can't do it, but comparatively speaking we're still in the vacuum-tube computer era. Think how back then there was nobody talking about the Internet or social media! We cannot yet appreciate the potential — nor the dangers either, of course.

Renato Renner is familiar with the dangers of quantum computing. He gives lectures in cryptography — data encryption. Quantum computers really do pose a threat to today's data security. When we do e-banking or use encrypted communication in other contexts, we need what's called 'public-key cryptography'.

And that system will become completely insecure once we have quantum computers up and running. Whoever has the quantum computer will have full and immediate access to all of that data. And that's a very concrete problem. So far, a simple mathematical method has been sufficient to protect our data: Factorization.

Some calculations are straightforward, say: 3 times 7 equals 21. But if I turn it around and ask: What are two numbers that give us that product, then I basically have to try out all possible combinations. And with the numbers having up to a hundred digits, I'll be at it forever. Not even a computer that can process far faster will be able to test all hundred-digit numbers.

A quantum computer, on the other hand, can try out the numbers in parallel — and arrive at the result in a fraction of a second. The implications have experts concerned. We're relatively late to the game, because we know the secrecy of the data being encrypted has a very limited lifespan. The things that I encrypt today using public-key cryptography will be readable once the quantum computer exists. Data can then only be encrypted by again using the quantum computer. In effect: by beating the enemy at its own game. And this is how:

The sender of the data generates qubits with a value of 0 or 1 — and then sends a completely random sequence of those qubits to the recipient. It serves as a key that only those two parties know. Of course, someone could try to spy on the transfer — but this is where quantum mechanics enters the equation.

An attempt to intercept the qubits will now change them — with both sender and recipient alerted immediately. So the key cannot be secretly copied or read. The actual encrypted message is not transferred until the key has first arrived un-read. The problem is: in technical terms, the idea is currently not really feasible.

It sounds extremely difficult if not near-impossible, but we know that it really does work — but it is expensive. A solution that is absolutely secure is going to cost a lot of money. But looking at a long-term horizon — not 10 but more like 40 or 50 years — then it could be a solution. And data security is not the only factor to consider in the long term. Quantum computing still has a lot of obstacles to overcome — meaning that investors will have to be patient.

Everyone's talking about quantum computing, but we can't expect to have this killer application in just a few years from now. It's going to take a lot of development stages and investment to get to the point where the application is available. And above all: time — although that in turn depends on investment. Investment is far higher than we could have imagined a few years ago. So that is reason to be optimistic.

There are start-ups and companies following the hype, and eager to invest in this future concept. As a result: Graduates studying physics and quantum computing have a range of jobs to choose from in the various start-ups or big tech firms pursuing quantum computing projects. There's a huge number of options. We can't imagine the changes involved — because they're quantum leaps! And that's why we need 'moon shots' — projects where you aim in a direction where you can't lose sight of the vision but will probably have to make a few adjustments along the way. And that's not possible, unless we find a new way of thinking.

2024-03-17 21:00

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