Looking into the future of Quantum computing across industries

Publish Date

04 MAR 2020


Darmstadt isn’t just home to our global headquarters, it is a global science, technology and innovation hub. In fact, in 2019, it was again ranked* as Germany’s No.1 “City of the Future” in terms of scientific innovation.

Darmstadt isn’t just home to our global headquarters, it is a global science, technology and innovation hub. In fact, in 2019, it was again ranked* as Germany’s No.1 “City of the Future” in terms of scientific innovation. In retrospect then, it’s no surprise that the recent Applied Quantum Conference was hosted by a collaborative syndicate of large science-focused organizations based in Darmstadt: the Operations Centre of the European Space Agency (ESA/ ESOC); the newly opened Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research (GSI/FAIR); and Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, a vibrant science and technology company with more than 350 years of history. The conference focus was to discuss the coming paradigm shift in quantum technology. More specifically, the event aimed to identify quantum solutions to current and future needs, connect communities and facilitate interactions to foster future productive collaborations and solutions.  

What is “Quantum”?
Quantum mechanics in physics is fundamentally about how molecules, atoms, or sub-atomic particles behave. Over the years, such particles have been observed to act in ways which are highly unexpected and difficult to explain using the established laws of classical physics. As a result, there are currently close to 20 different philosophical interpretations of what quantum behavior is, all valid in their respective applications. Companies like ours are interested in quantum behavior as it applies in an industrial context. This includes how it can be used to approach challenges in Performance Materials, Life Science and Healthcare.

Specifically, it is hoped that Quantum Computing can address the limitations of traditional “digital”, computational methods and machine learning currently used to identify potential new materials and drugs, and their interaction with so-called drug targets. These methods are highly computationally intensive, if not impossible, and often rely on huge datasets to train the models. One promise of quantum computing is that it will significantly accelerate this process using so-called “qubits” instead of the traditional 0s and 1s of binary digital computing. A qubit can best be described as a vector pointing to a point on the surface of a sphere. Rotations of this vector and interactions with other vectors according to the laws of quantum mechanics can be used as encode calculations on quantum objects. However, it is currently neither clear how to use the algorithms for most real problems, nor possible to test the calculations because hardware with sufficient qubits does not yet exist. Nevertheless, the first interesting approaches for “quantum enhanced” computing are on the horizon.  

The Applied Quantum Conference
It’s within this context that Darmstadt-based science leaders ESA/ESOC, GSI/FAIR and Merck KGaA,  Darmstadt, Germany, organized the Applied Quantum Conference.  Held on February 4, 2020, it brought together very different sectors that are at the same time very similar in terms of the problems they face and are trying to solve.
The conference attracted a panel of highly distinguished speakers from our company, ESA/ESOC and GSI/FAIR. In addition, top universities presented the very latest progress from their labs, and a select group of startups and established international firms demonstrated products and results at the very cutting edge of this technology landscape. Speakers included renowned experts from the University of Oxford, the European Space Operations Center, the Jülich Research Center and CERN, and leading startups in the space such as HQS Quantum Simulations, PsiQuantum, Oxford Quantum Circuits, Cambridge Quantum Computing, and SeeQC. In addition, Dr. Stephan Dertinger and Dr. Martin Ruge from the Innovation Center, Dr. Thomas Ehmer, from IT, Dr. Philipp Harbach from our company’s Digital Organization and Dr. Daniel Franke from M Ventures were the key speakers of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, at the conference. Their talk, “Vibrant quantum - Surviving and Shaping Paradigm Shifts in the Quantum Age”, provided attendees with an overview of the history of quantum mechanics, its fundamental “weirdness” and insight into how to leverage the potential of quantum technology and computing for our company.

The potential of an emerging technology
While quantum systems are currently in their infancy, they have the potential to offer significant opportunities for companies like ours in the future. For example, Quantum Computing is poised to be ideal for predicting chemical reactions, material properties and drug behavior, since these effects are inherently quantum in nature and directly related to the way quantum computers work. Eventually, they will accelerate pharmaceutical development via an improved understanding of complex biochemical interactions. This will lead to faster development of novel drugs because it will be possible to synthesise and simulate their impact in biologically relevant environments much more accurately. In fact, the “low-hanging fruits” of quantum computing are right at the heart of the areas in which our company is active.  

Speaking on behalf of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, Stephan Dertinger from the Innovation Center highlighted how among the different emerging computing platforms, quantum computing might become of particular relevance to our company. Specifically, novel materials could be created that enable quantum computers. In addition, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, may become a user of quantum computers and novel algorithms to advance our in-house material and drug development. Thomas Ehmer from M IT brought quantum behavior down to earth by explaining it in the context of day-to-day reality and presented the journey of our company’s self-organized Quantum Computing Task Force. Meanwhile, Philipp Harbach from the Digital Organization provided a sneak peek into a project in the field which has demonstrated how quantum chemistry is transforming our ability to predict the properties of OLED materials. He explained how making these quantum calculations more predictable and scalable is leading to improved products, lower manufacturing costs and faster production cycles. Our contribution was rounded off by M Ventures’  Daniel Franke who presented on investments and strategic partnerships in the quantum era and focused on the expected impact of this technology in all three of our company’s business units - Healthcare, Life Science and Performance Materials,  as well as within the Digital Organization.

The event also covered both broad and very specific industrial challenges as well as the need to observe and shape future development of quantum computing capabilities. Fascinating "cross-industry" discussions covered, for example, what satellite navigation could learn from quantum chemistry (and vice versa), and how the transformation of a problem into a new framework could inspire new approaches to tackle problems that have proven unsolvable so far. 

Some of the key takeaways of the event were:   

  • Quantum computing is an emerging technology that is right now starting its transition from theory to reality with a promise to solve some of the toughest mathematical problems known to mankind. Its broad application capacity shows its enormous potential to generate value right across highly divergent organisations. 
  • The event leveraged the advantage of having three key players with very different backgrounds in the same location, enabling them to combine forces for the very first time. The importance of quantum computing was finally set as a common denominator in areas ranging from accelerating calculations for space debris, to molecular dynamics and accelerating drug developments, to high energy physics. 
  • Connecting different levels of the value chain of a technology that needs further assessment and understanding is the platform required to enable collaborations that  could push quantum computing towards productive industrial applications.

The Applied Quantum Conference was a spectacular collaborative showcase for a branch of scientific endeavor that could shape the progress of the 21st century. The three organizers, ESA/ESOC, GSI/FAIR  and Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, are very much looking forward to all the follow up activities that have been identified. 

*Ranked by WirtschaftsWoche magazine.