December 10, 2023


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What is quantum computing and what could it mean for Cleveland?

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The 10-year partnership between the Cleveland Clinic and IBM on quantum computing is the type of project economic development officials have craved for years, with the potential for Cleveland to be the site of major scientific advancements.

Quantum computing is still a rapidly developing technology, though researchers have discussed the concept for decades. The promises are astounding — the ability to simulate complicated physical and chemical processes and crunch numbers quicker than any supercomputer. The draw for the IBM-Cleveland Clinic “Discovery Accelerator,” is the technology’s potential, not so much what it can deliver now.

The partnership will eventually make Cleveland a site for a 1,000+ qubit computer, a milestone in quantum computing science. Researchers will explore how quantum computing interacts with other technologies, like artificial intelligence, to solve problems in healthcare. The Clinic’s Global Center for Pathogen Research and Human Health, where the accelerator is housed, will hire around 7,500 people.

“The partnership is not just on technology,” Dr. Lara Jehi, chief research information officer at the Cleveland Clinic, said. “The technology is a tool towards a goal, and the goal is advancing discovery. That’s why we have the big education component and workforce development component that is included in the partnership.”

John Donohue, a senior manager of scientific research at the University of Waterloo Institute for Quantum Computing, said the field of quantum computing has “exploded” in the past 30 years into an international effort and is moving from “a pie in the sky idea” to something more tangible.

“One of the bigger problems that people are having in quantum computing is reaching out to people in industry and kind of getting people involved on the ground floor to build awareness on the technology, build expertise on the technology among people who, you know, have that knowledge about what problems their industry has, and get people ready for when the hardware does catch up,” he said. “People always say it’s 20 years away, but it is accelerating very quickly.”

What is quantum computing?

Quantum computers will not replace the personal computer, laptop or phone that people use every day. The two types of technology, though sharing the term “computer” are meant for entirely different purposes. Quantum computers, which are large and part of which are shaped like chandeliers, are not going to be a staple of the average home.

Typical, everyday computers use “bits,” or ones and zeroes, to make up information. That represents being on or off. Every process on a computer is made up of those bits. Even the most advanced supercomputer still relies on ones and zeros, which limits the speed of computation.

“The simplest way of thinking about this is that nature and the universe is one great big computer,” Bob Sutor, Chief Quantum Exponent at IBM, said. “It’s a computer that manages everything around us, I mean, from every electron to atom to molecule, and how it all fits together, the chemistry, the biochemistry, plays in the physics. But that’s not how we built computers.”

Quantum computing relies on atomic devices called “qubits,” which represent both one and zero at the same time. That’s pronounced “cue-bit.”

Using qubits can help replicate complicated processes happening on a molecular level.

“What we’re trying to do is to understand how nature works as a computer, and then replicate and use its computing capabilities for our own reasons,” Sutor said.

He uses the example of chemistry, with a caffeine molecule. A quantum computer could simulate all the molecular reactions from that caffeine molecule, like the reactions that go on in the human brain.

Quantum computing is not eliminating the need for regular computers. This kind of technology is not meant to fulfill the same functions as a laptop or phone. But what quantum computing can potentially do is key for research, and holds promise in other fields like cryptography and finance, because of its power.

The quantum computer is enclosed in a glass box, and the chandelier shape holds the qubits at the core. The outside tubes and devices linking to the core have numerous functions, as the machine needs to be extremely stable as researchers send pulses to manipulate the qubits.

Quantum environments must be cold — the IBM Quantum System One computer to be housed at the Clinic will use cryogenic engineering to keep it cold and isolated. Any variables, like heat or noise, could throw off the system.

How do you create qubits?

Scientists use different methods to create qubits, which essentially means gaining close control of these very tiny, unstable atomic pieces. Creating an access point to control how these pieces interact or spin can involve using magnets, light or other approaches. The more qubits, the more power and capability for quantum machines to make these kinds of calculations.

As part of a quantum computing “roadmap,” IBM is looking to create a 1,000+ qubit quantum computer by 2023.

The Cleveland Clinic, as part of this partnership, is the first private business where IBM will put a quantum computer on-site. The projected 1,000+ qubit computer would go to a Cleveland site as well, though a press release on the project does not specify where besides a “client facility.”

What is quantum computing used for now?

Research and development is the main application for quantum computing. The near-term applications are in experimental calculations or technical fields like physics or chemistry, where people are looking at these interactions very closely.

For example, researchers from IBM and the parent company of Mercedes-Benz published a paper where quantum computing replicated processes in lithium molecules in batteries, which could have implications for the future of electric cars.

The federal Department of Energy is interested in the future of quantum computing; there are five federally supported National Quantum Information Science Research Centers. There was also a National Quantum Initiative Act passed in 2018, which created an umbrella where government agencies could establish research centers related to quantum computing.

The act also created the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, a partnership between government, private and public entities on quantum computing. IBM signed on to the partnership and is part of its steering committee.

What could quantum computing be used for?

Potential applications include nuclear science, logistics, cryptography and sensors. The Discovery Accelerator in Cleveland will allow the Clinic’s Center for Global and Emerging Pathogens Research to use the technology to address its research areas in health care. The ability of quantum computers to simulate interactions could help model pathogens to assist in research.

Part of having a quantum computer on-site is having access to its potential. The quantum computer on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic won’t be immediately able to solve all the problems researchers have in mind. Building out its capabilities and trying out these new applications is part of the process that will advance the field.

There are two areas where quantum computing needs to build: capacity and stability.

Capacity is building out the number of qubits. Researchers need to keep control of qubits — a difficult task.

When computers were first built, they used vacuum tubes instead of transistors, a staple in computers now. Pieces were breaking every 36 hours, Sutor said, but that wasn’t a comment on the future of the technology.

“When we talk about the stability of quantum computers, it’s exactly the same notion, which is that the hardware as we currently configure it, yeah, you know, it works for a while, and then it starts to get a little crazy,” he said. “So the first thing is, well, how much can we do in that ‘while’ and these are going to be the early applications.”

To talk about long-term applications, engineers will need to implement “fault tolerance” or “error correction,” which is built into today’s computers. That means if there’s a problem in the circuits, the computation will still be able to run.

Are quantum computers better than regular computers?

They’re used for different problems. A major task over recent years was to prove “quantum supremacy,” or that a quantum computer can do a calculation better than a regular computer.

A paper published in Nature in 2019 shows evidence that a team of researchers achieved quantum supremacy for a calculation. There still has yet to be consistency on quantum supremacy. The team, led by a scientist from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Google, conducted the calculation on a 53-qubit chip.

For context, researchers said in the Nature article describing the milestone that the quantum computer solved a calculation that would take a traditional supercomputer 10,000 years.

What does the new partnership mean for Cleveland and Ohio?

The lab does not just include quantum computing, it also includes artificial intelligence and other IBM software. It’s part of the Center for Global and Emerging Pathogens Research established as part of the “Cleveland Innovation District,” a partnership between leading health and education institutions in the Cleveland area.

“The quantum computing partnership between Cleveland Clinic and IBM is a great example of the types of innovation partnerships needed to accelerate research and technology development for pressing human health needs,” GCP’s incoming President and CEO Baiju R. Shah said.

The number of people who will be educated on quantum computing or other technology as part of the accelerator is not immediately clear, and a IBM spokeswoman did not have further information on the education programs.

The idea is to set up a long-term chain, where IBM’s education programs will train people for quantum computing and then fill positions with those people.

How the Clinic and IBM end up using the computer could shape opportunities moving forward. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee, researchers invite vendors to show them how they would use the technology, Quantum Science Center Deputy Director Travis Humble said.

“We learn from their experience, you know, what works and what doesn’t,” Humble said. “I’ll tell you right now that one of the key insights is that it takes many different disciplines to get the best solutions. Imagine building a house — you can’t have just a carpenter or just a plumber or just a mason — it takes all those skills in order to really build something sturdy. It’s same thing with quantum computing.” reporter Julie Washington contributed to this story.

This story has been edited for clarity.