Quantum computing: IBM's first private sector on-premise quantum computer is going to this research lab

For the first time, Big Blue is bringing its quantum hardware directly to a customer, instead of offering quantum services over the cloud.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor
female lab technician doing research with a microscope in the lab. coronavirus

The Cleveland Clinic will rely on state-of-the-art IBM technology to support its latest public health project.  

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

High-performance cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and a couple of quantum computers: IBM is going all-in with a freshly signed, decade-long partnership that will see Big Blue provide the technology infrastructure for a new research center dedicated to public health threats such as the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Ohio-based Cleveland Clinic, a non-profit institution that combines clinical and hospital care with medical research and education, will use state-of-the-art IBM technology to support its latest project: a global center for pathogen research and human health. Supported by a $500 million investment, the new center will be dedicated to the study of viral pathogens, virus-induced diseases, genomics, immunology and immunotherapies. 

To assist researchers' work preparing for and protecting against emerging pathogens, IBM has designed a "Discovery Accelerator" – contributing the company's latest capabilities to better support data-based scientific work and fast-track the discovery of new treatments. 

"Quantum has been advancing rapidly in the last few years, and it goes without saying how much progress AI has made as well as cloud and especially hybrid cloud," Anthony Annunziata, director of the IBM Quantum Network, tells ZDNet. "This partnership is bringing them together – the emerging versions of the latest AI, quantum and next-generation capabilities in high-performance computing." 

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As part of the collaboration, IBM will, for the first time, deploy quantum hardware directly on-premises in Cleveland. First to be installed will be IBM's latest quantum processor at the time of deployment, with the exact number of qubits yet to be defined, but expected to sit anywhere between 50 and 100 qubits. The device will eventually be joined by another quantum computer exceeding 1,000 qubits, which the company recently pledged to develop by 2023

This means that the Cleveland Clinic's researchers will be the first to use IBM's quantum computers in their own facilities, since every other quantum customer of Big Blue's is currently restricted to accessing the hardware via the cloud, or else a dedicated machine in an IBM facility. 

The research programs that the Cleveland Clinic has designed for the new center are ambitious. They include broadening the understanding or viral pathogens and of the human immune response, creating personalized medicine, developing new treatments, deploying new diagnostic tests or even using predictive analytics to understand how socioeconomic factors might affect pathogens in certain communities. 

In other words, the institution is looking at exponentially data-heavy tasks. "One part of the problem is ingesting all the data that's out there in scientific literature and trying to make sense of it," says Annunziata. "Once you have some idea of this map of data, you need to try and generate insight from it, by drawing hypotheses that you can explore." 

This is where AI and high-performance cloud computing come in. IBM will provide the Cleveland Clinic's researchers with access to tools like Deep Search, which can quickly run through and analyze structured and unstructured data; or to the IBM Functional Genomics Platform, a cloud repository that is continuously updated with hundreds of thousands of features for different viral genomes, so that scientists can better target specific molecules in drug design. 

IBM's RoboRXN will also be deployed, which combines cloud, AI and automation, to let researchers design and synthesize new molecules remotely. RoboRXN is based on an AI model that has been trained on around one million known chemical reactions, and can translate a chemical procedure described via a web browser by a researcher sitting at home, into machine-readable instructions that a lab-based robot can execute. Scientists can then access their cloud-connected automated laboratory from anywhere in the world.  

It remains that most of the problems that the Cleveland Clinic is hoping to address are complex – so complex, in fact, that tackling them with conventional means can be impossible. Consider drug design: molecules are made up of many different atoms, and come with a large number of possible configurations and conformations, which means that a huge number of molecules could potentially constitute a valid drug. In other words, achieving a desired outcome requires substantial, data-heavy simulation work.  

This is why quantum computing, and its potential to carry out several calculations at once, is expected to have a big impact. "Quantum promises to make intractable problems tractable," says Annunziata. "It promises to allow us to understand chemical systems in much more detail than we do today. Using quantum to advance and come up with much more accurate simulations is a key component of this partnership." 

With a first system supporting less than 100 qubits, the clinic's researchers shouldn't expect to start solving large-scale problems just yet. Currently, quantum computers are only capable of simulating very small molecules, and it is only once the 1,000-qubit mark is reached that the technology is expected to bring about early value creation in pharmaceuticals and chemicals. 

Rather, explains Annunziata, the researchers will be laying the groundwork to prepare for quantum computers to mature. "They will be looking at smaller-scale problems today, understanding how they scale and what it takes to broaden the scope of problems that we can address," he says. "The near-term focus items will be getting ready for large-scale systems, understanding the techniques and how they fit into their scientific workflows." 

"This is a 10-year partnership, and we expect that advancement will happen over the full range of that 10-year period." 

By deploying quantum devices directly to a customer's premises, IBM is certainly showing that it is ready to start integrating the technology into workflows, to be used alongside classical computing methods – a new step towards commercializing quantum technologies. 

"We are going to develop a system and deploy it for the first time on a client's site," says Annunziata. "That will allow for a level of integration in their IT infrastructure that will be a first-of-a-kind thing." 

Big Blue's next move will be closely watched in a field that is moving fast, and where competition is accelerating. Last year, for instance, Rigetti Computing announced that it would build the UK's first commercial quantum computer, to be hosted in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. The device will be available for businesses and universities across the country to use within the next few years.  

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