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Quantum Computing Poised to Take Off in the Pharma Setting


Its path and application could model the same road as AI.

Mike Hollan

Mike Hollan
Assistant managing editor
Pharmaceutical Executive

It seems like each year, new advancements in a particular technology are pushed into the limelight and the public develops a new obsession. For example, while the technol-ogy had been around for a while, 2023 was the year that everyone couldn’t stop talking about artificial intelligence (AI). This can, of course, cause some problems. For example, in 2023, AI became a buzzword that companies began slapping onto any product they could to build hype, even if AI wasn’t really involved in that product’s operation. More concerning, excitement around new technologies can cause people to start implementing them in ways that can be damaging or even destructive.

Still, there are benefits. Due to its popularity among the general public, AI received a lot of attention and there were plenty of genuinely exciting advancements and implementations of AI tools.

This is why some people in the tech industry are hoping that 2024 will be the year of quantum computers. I recently spoke with Eric Huestis, a partner at the law firm Foley Hoag and co-chair of the firm’s technology industry group, about how these powerful computers are being used and areas where they could be implemented in the pharma industry.

Quantum computers are powerful computers that use quan-tum mechanics and can run multidimensional algorithms. They are very complex and expensive to manufacture, so they have yet to become available to the average consumer. They are, however, appearing in more and more laboratories, where scientists take advantage of the computers’ ability to solve complex problems.

“The exciting thing about quantum computing, as compared to classical computing, is that it is inherently easier to simulate quan-tum systems using quantum systems,” says Huestis. “Particularly in the near term, quantum simulation is what’s most exciting to me. The application in biotech is that it’s extremely computationally prohibitive to compute attributes of molecules and complex com-pounds in a classical regime, but quantum simulation and universal quantum computing allows us to compute those properties of phar-maceutically interesting molecules on a reasonable time scale with reasonable precision. That feeds directly into the discovery pipeline.”

Huestis says that these computers will likely be used primarily for complex algorithms. While these computers are useful at mak-ing items like chips or lasers, the pharma industry will see much more benefit using them to predict the behaviors of molecules interacting in complex and unpredictable ways.

“On the purely quantum side, optimized algorithms for pre-dicting the kinds of properties that a pharmaceutical company cares about is an interesting avenue,” says Huestis. “More broadly, there are some really interesting avenues combining quantum computing into hybrid solutions. For example, bringing to bear these quantum algorithms that have an advantage of classical algorithms as part of an end-to-end artificial intelligence-driven development pipeline.”

Naturally, quantum computers can also be used with AI. In fact, these powerful computers are capable of handling much more complex algorithms, which are the cornerstone of any AI program.

“There is a whole suite of problems, however, that quantum computing is really good at solving that work nicely into broader AI systems,” says Huestis. “When I think of a biotech and protec-tion opportunities, my mind goes to what kind of system archi-tectures combining quantum computing and drug discovery and screening processes are being solved.”

While Huestis expects the coming year to be exciting for quan-tum computing, he thinks it will be some time before it becomes as widely used as AI became in 2023. He thinks it’s a fair comparison, however, as AI was around for many years before it caught fire.

“Quantum simulation could be really important in the next year,” he says. “Are we going to achieve an error-resistant, gate-based quantum computer next year? No. That’s further down the road. There are very interesting near-term applications in quan-tum simulation or analog quantum computation that I do think will have a significant impact in 2024, even while we’re waiting for continued advancements in error-correction, gate-based dig-ital quantum computers.”

Technology keeps advancing, but not always in the same direc-tion. Looking at trends from recent years, it’s easy to see how certain technologies quickly become popular and then, just as quickly, disappear from the public conversation. For quantum computers, 2024 could be the year that investors and researchers discover just how useful they are across the entire industry.

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