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Hot Topics in Health Innovation

Embracing Disruption: Lessons from building the first quantum computer

| Jan 14, 2013

Jeannette Lye

Research Associate

In 2000, the September-October issue of Harvard Business Review posed the question, “Will Disruptive Innovations Cure Health Care?” In this article, the authors encouraged health care professionals to embrace disruptive technologies that may threaten the status quo but will ultimately raise the quality and performance of the health care system for everyone.

How have Canadian health care professionals succeeded in embracing disruptive innovations since this article was published? Let’s consider a disruptive technology that has existed for three decades—the electronic medical record (EMR). The 2012 Commonwealth Fund's International Health Policy Survey of Primary Care Physicians revealed that Canada lags behind other countries in EMR use, with only 56% of doctor’s reporting usage in their practices. Clearly, Canada has some catching up to do, especially considering the rate of technological advancement. As new inventions are leveraged to create the next generation of technology, the capability of electronic devices is now growing exponentially.

Canadian Doctors Slow to Use EMRs in Their Practices

At a recent meeting of the Centre for the Advancement of Health Innovation, Jeremy Hilton, Vice-President, Processor Development at D-Wave Systems, discussed the potentially disruptive capability of a quantum computer. Quantum computing leverages the most fundamental mechanics of the universe to perform logic operations. This computing model is different from classical computation which adds numbers at blazingly fast speeds. In comparison, quantum computing allows for exponential increases in computing speed. But what does this mean for health care?

For all of the non-physicists in the audience, Mr. Hilton illustrated the potential of quantum computing using a comic book scenario:

Consider the 150 million units of information currently stored in the Library of Congress. An evil villain has hidden a piece of information somewhere in the library that holds the key to stopping his plot for world domination. It is up to you, the hero, to stop the villain from taking over the world. The first solution that comes to mind involves physically searching through each and every item in the library; however, even searching at the rate of one item per second would take you five years. A much faster solution can be devised using the quantum principles of superposition and entanglement. Superposition would allow you to create 150 million copies of yourself, with all searching the library simultaneously. Under the principle of entanglement, all of those copies can interact with each other and then separate, so that the only copy that finds the information will be left to exist and all the other copies will disappear.

D-Wave is currently investigating the use of quantum computing in understanding protein folding. Mr. Hilton explains “if we could understand the structure of proteins we would know what drugs can interfere with their activity.” D-Wave is also developing algorithms that can detect cancer based on x-ray information. This work is complex as machines do not work like a human brain—a machine cannot look at a picture and determine the problem the way that a human can. D-Wave’s algorithms work much more similarly to the human brain.

Many health experts believe that in the next five to ten years, quantum computing will radically improve the ability to understand, treat and cure diseases. This technology will have a disruptive impact in numerous fields: machine intelligence, internet, intelligence, data security and many others. There is a need for new and innovative ways to leverage this potential. This can only be achieved, however, if Canadians break with their past performance and embrace disruption.

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The Hot Topics in Health Innovation blog invites contributions from diverse voices in the fields of health innovation and health policy. If you have news, research, or insights you'd like to share, please contact Jessica Forster-McKewen.