Home >Opinion >Columns >Virus outbreak can potentially spur next quantum leap for computing

Shortly after China welcomed the new year, the whole world was pressurized into quickly discovering a vaccine and a cure for covid-19. While scientists and researchers were busy in their labs, IBM’s Summit, the world’s fastest supercomputer, was busy running numerous simulations and computations to help scientists find promising molecules to fight the pandemic.

The latest update says the Summit has been able to identify 77 candidate molecules that researchers can use in trials, and this was achieved in just two days, while, traditionally, it has taken months to make such progress.

On one hand, while we are aghast at the havoc wreaked by the pandemic, on the other, we are marvelling at the progress in molecular research enabled through supercomputing. But is this progress fast enough? Given that we are all living in a connected world, the global carnage wreaked by the virus before we have a viable cure will be in trillions of dollars and thousands of jobs; in this case, we truly don’t have a second to waste.

Today, faster molecular discoveries are limited by the computing capacity, as much as the need for scientists to write codes for harnessing the computing power. It is no secret that classical computing power is plateauing and, till we have scalable artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), scientists will have to write code for not only different scenarios, but also for different computing platforms.

So, what we need today is more computing power and, given that we have already neared the peak of classical computing, the solution probably is quantum computing. Not just vaccines, quantum computing can accelerate many innovations, such as hyper-individualized medicines, 3-D printed organs, search engines for the physical world and, maybe, even the iron-man suit. All innovations currently constrained by the size of transistors used in classical computing chips can be unleashed through quantum computing.

In 1965, Gordon Moore had said the number of transistors that can be packed into a given unit of space will double about every two years. Subsequently, in an interview in 2005, he himself admitted that this law can’t continue forever. He had said: “It is the nature of exponential functions, they eventually hit a wall." Over the last 60 years, we reaped the benefits of Moore’s law in many ways. For instance, compared to initial days of the Intel 4004, the modern 14nm processors deliver way bigger impact—3,500 times better performance and 90,000 times improved efficiency, at 1/60,000th the cost! Yet, we are also seeing his 2005 statement coming true. All the experts agree that the ‘wall’ is very near.

So, what next? The answer again is probably the same—quantum computing.

It is no more a concept, there are working models available on the cloud.

Quantum computing uses the ability of sub-atomic particles to exist in multiple states simultaneously, until it is observed. Unlike classical computers that can store information in just two values, that is 1 or 0, quantum computing uses qubits that can exist in any superposition of these values, enabling quantum computers to solve in seconds problems which a classical computer would take thousands of years to crack. The application of this technology is enormous, and just to cite a few, it can help with the discovery of new molecules, optimize financial portfolios for different risk scenarios, crack RSA encryption keys, detect stealth aircraft, search massive databases in a split second and truly enable AI.

In the Union budget this year, the Indian government announced investments of 8,000 crore for developing quantum technologies and applications. Globally, too, countries and organizations are rushing to develop this technology and have already invested enormous capital towards its research. These are encouraging signs.

Unless we overcome classical computing limits, we will hurtle towards the modern catastrophe of frequent pandemics, uncontrollable climate change, scarcity of water, disappearing coastlines due to melting icebergs, plastic-poisoned water tables, and lifestyle diseases.

Historically, unprecedented crises have always created more innovations than routine challenges or systematic investments. Coincidentally, current times pose similar opportunities in disguise.

While the last decade has given us 10x increase in quantum computing, the next quantum leap is expected from a vicious cycle of climate- or health-related catastrophes—covid-19 could be one.

As the famous poet William Blake was quoted in his era: “What is now proved was once only imagined." I can’t agree more.

Ramnath Iyer is head, data management operations, MSCI, India

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