ST Explains: How will quantum computing contribute to vaccine, EV development?

Baidu-developed quantum computer Qianshi is revealed in Beijing, China Aug 25, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - Singapore is stepping up its investments in quantum computing.

Chiefly, it will have a foundry to develop the components and materials needed to build quantum computers to establish an ecosystem of activities in the emerging field.

Singapore will also join a handful of nations - the United States, China, France, Finland, Germany, South Korea and Japan - in building its own quantum computer to gain first-hand experience with the technology.

The Straits Times explains what quantum computing is, and the benefits the technology brings.

1. What is quantum computing?

It is similar to traditional computing but operating at the far cooler temperature of nearly absolute zero, the temperature at which a thermodynamic system has the lowest energy corresponding to minus 273.15 deg C.

Under layers of casing and cryogenic components to attain this super cool state - colder than in outer space - quantum objects (an electron or a particle of light) are manipulated to execute complex mathematical calculations out of reach of traditional computers.

Traditional computers store information as either 0s or 1s. Quantum computers, on the other hand, use quantum bits (or qubits) to represent and store information in a complex mix of 0s and 1s simultaneously. As the number of qubits grows, a quantum computer becomes exponentially more powerful.

Quantum computing's long development history dates back to the 1970s, when the late American physicist Paul Anthony Benioff demonstrated the theoretical possibility of quantum computers.

By harnessing quantum physics, quantum computing has the potential to comb vast numbers of possibilities in hours and pinpoint a probable solution. It would take a traditional computer hundreds of thousands of years to perform a similar task.

Japan's first prototype quantum computer, unveiled in 2017, could make complex calculations 100 times faster than a conventional supercomputer.

Google's quantum computer created in 2019 could perform in 200 seconds a computation that would take the world's fastest supercomputers about 10,000 years.

A year later, in 2020, a team at the University of Science and Technology of China assembled a quantum computer that could perform in 200 seconds a calculation that an ordinary supercomputer would have taken 2.5 billion years to complete.

But none of these machines was given practical tasks.

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Singapore is stepping up its investments in quantum computing. But what is quantum computing and what benefits will the technology bring?

2. What are the real-world benefits of quantum computing?

The first real-world application could be in chemistry. Today, a traditional computer can simulate the structure of a simple water molecule, but only powerful quantum computers will be able to accurately simulate more complex molecules such as enzymes, proteins and DNA. Complex molecular simulations are key to the discovery of new drugs.

Riding on the success of their messenger RNA (mRNA) Covid-19 vaccines in the current pandemic, biomedical firms are developing mRNA vaccines for malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, all of which are still causing many deaths in lower-income countries.

For instance, BioNTech, joint developer of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, is working on an mRNA vaccine for malaria, tuberculosis and HIV. Clinical trials of an mRNA vaccine for malaria are expected to start some time this year.

Moderna is developing an mRNA vaccine for HIV. It administered the first doses to volunteers in a clinical trial in January this year.

More powerful quantum computers can also speed up the discovery of new materials to address present-day battery woes. Specifically, more efficient, safer and greener batteries are needed for electric and autonomous vehicles.

Lithium-ion batteries that power automotives use liquid electrolytes to move energy around. But these batteries can be slow to charge and do not last long enough for longer journeys. They also freeze in sub-zero temperatures and contain flammable material. What's more, their production requires the extraction of rare earth materials using large amounts of water.

Hyundai is working with IonQ to explore ways to supercharge lithium-ion batteries. IBM and Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, are working on lithium-sulphur batteries for a more powerful charge that lasts longer than lithium-ion ones. Ford, BMW and Toyota are working on safer solid-state batteries.

Advances in this space will spill over to mega-battery grids, currently also based on lithium-ion technologies, to ensure a smooth supply of renewable energy to homes and offices even when the sun or wind is out. Mega-battery storage facilities are located across the US as well as in England, Lithuania and Chile as the charge towards net-zero emission goals intensifies.

Also of interest to the energy sector is a more efficient way to plan global logistics such as those for transporting oil and gas.

Quantum computers are better suited for artificial intelligence (AI) applications than traditional computers as the former can better uncover complex patterns.

The biggest AI challenge is in automating the detection and removal of disinformation and toxic social media posts, videos and images - a growing scourge online. AI models need to understand the context and nuances of human language. Quantum computing, which works in similar ways to the human brain's neural network, is best suited for this task.

3. Quantum computing has been talked about for decades. When will it finally deliver on these benefits?

Today, the world's fastest quantum computer is based on a 127-qubit processor. Its maker IBM plans to release a 1,121-qubit quantum processor next year, under what is the most aggressive product road map among the world's quantum hopefuls.

If all goes as planned, that technological milestone will be an inflection point. Businesses will find it cheaper to execute real-world tasks on quantum computers than on traditional computers.

Solving real-world problems such as simulating drug molecules and processing images, natural language and software codes to filter hate speech, misinformation and software bugs will require quantum computers - each costing upwards of US$100 million (S$143 million) to set up - to become more powerful and cheaper.

4. Will a quantum computing chip be in my smartphone in the future?

No. Traditional computing methods are still needed to run most smartphone and computing applications such as data crunching, storage and management, spreadsheet calculations and video gaming.

Quantum computers are good only with specific tasks governed by quantum phenomena, such as modelling and designing complex materials. So, quantum computers will not take over traditional computers. They need to work together.

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