Danish initiative aims to develop first quantum computer for life sciences

Denmark’s Novo Nordisk Foundation is to spend $200 million to develop what it says will be the first practical quantum computer for life science research, with applications ranging from creating new drugs to finding links between genes, environment and disease.

The nonprofit foundation, which is the majority owner of pharmaceutical group Novo Nordisk, joins a crowded group of universities and tech companies seeking to convert the theoretical superpowers of quantum computing into useful devices.

But he says his seven-year, Copenhagen-based program stands out because it will evaluate competing technologies before deciding which to pursue.

“The other major initiatives around the world have already chosen their platforms and are trying to optimize them, but we anticipate that many will hit a dead end,” said Peter Krogstrup, who will lead the program at the Niels Bohr Institute of the University of Copenhagen. “We’d rather spend seven years finding the platform that offers the greatest opportunity to build a usable quantum computer.”

Some quantum computer prototypes manipulate electrons, others photons (light particles). But all of today’s devices, whether electronic or photonic, “are noisy, fault-tolerant machines that can’t solve any problem facing humanity,” said Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, chief executive of the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

“It’s a very exciting initiative, with its coordinated effort on the hardware and software side,” said Professor Garrett Morris, a computational chemist at Oxford University who doesn’t work with the foundation. Simulations in his lab show that in many cases, quantum computers predict molecular structures much faster and more accurately than their conventional counterparts.

“Quantum computing could revolutionize so many aspects of science – if they can pull it off,” Morris added.

Quantum theory was formulated in the early 20th century, with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen playing a leading role, but technology didn’t allow researchers to start applying it to computing until almost 100 years later. .

Unlike the binary bits of classical computing, which are either zero or one, quantum bits or qubits exploit the counterintuitive properties of quantum physics to be both at the same time.

Quantum computers will exploit this principle of “superposition” by performing large numbers of calculations simultaneously – a capability that promises to be particularly useful for modeling chemical reactions, designing new materials and searching huge databases.

Thomsen proposed the analogy of conventional computing as operating in two dimensions while quantum computing operates in three.

“In the life sciences, for example, we can accelerate the development of personalized medicine by letting quantum computers process the enormous amount of data available on the human genome and diseases,” said Lene Oddershede, vice president head of the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Besides Danish universities, the quantum computing program will also involve researchers from institutions in other countries, including the Technical University of Delft and the University of Toronto.

Although the foundation does not want to commit to any specific technology offered by large companies active in quantum computing such as IBM, Microsoft and Alphabet or the many start-ups in the field, the program will be open to collaboration on specific projects.

He will also set up his own company, called Quantum Foundry, to manufacture the materials and hardware for the program.

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