This article is a continuation of my commentary on the Foresight 2013 conference. As I mentioned in my Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 posts, the Foresight folks have a strict media policy in place. So while I can’t really blog about the content of the presentations, I will discuss the work these speakers have previously made public.
I would love to say that anyone who thinks they understand quantum mechanics doesn’t understand quantum mechanics, but I really just don’t understand it. When Harvard’s Alan Aspuru-Guzik gave his Foresight 2013 talk “Simulating Quantum Mechanics with Quantum Devices,” I listened with more enthusiasm than comprehension. So bear with me. Aspuru-Guzik likes to use quantum simulation to go after electronic structure calculations which are some of the most computationally intensive problems in science. “The calculation time for the energy of atoms and molecules scales exponentially with system size on a classical computer but polynomially using quantum algorithms.” Aspuru-Guzik points out that theory is ahead of experimentation in this field, but he has found and built some toys to play with.
So the idea here is to leverage quantum devices to simulate quantum mechanics. I guess the NIST has some device with hundreds of qubits. But the systems Aspuru-Guzik gets to play with are more modest. He ran a simplified protein folding problem on an 81 qubit D-Wave system and got 13 correct results out of 10000 runs. “The fact that it worked at all was significant.” The investors must be thrilled. I have heard that aside from factoring numbers, there aren’t many uses for this quantum computing. But if you can factor numbers, you basically break all encryption. Of course when I say “you” I mean the NSA. But Aspuru-Guzik’s stuff is more benign. He will be folding proteins and figuring out photosynthesis and stuff. So he’s cool.
Next, Gerhard Klimek gave a talk about Nanohub.org. Here’s what they say about themselves:
What is nanoHUB.org?
nanoHUB.org is the place for computational nanotechnology research, education, and collaboration. nanoHUB hosts a rapidly growing collection of Simulation Programs for nanoscale phenomena that run in the cloud and are accessed through your web browser. In addition there are Online Presentations, Courses, Learning Modules, Podcasts, Animations, Teaching Materials, and more to help you learn about the simulation programs and about nanotechnology. nanoHUB supports collaboration via Workspaces and User groups.
So there are clearly educational resources for students, but I understand that researchers and industry folks get into the simulation stuff. Boasting 900 papers with an h-index of 41, Nanohub is a serious scientific resource. So why head head on over and simulate a carbon nanotube or something?
Carrying on in the simulation vein, Ron Dror of D.E. Shaw Research talked about their custom supercomputer, Anton. Anton is a massively parallel ASIC based pocket calculator that can figure out how drugs bind to receptors. Dror has published work on G-protein-coupled receptor modulators in particular, which represent one third of all drugs. Who knew? Pretty cool stuff. And this David E. Shaw fellow is an “intriguing and mysterious” character. He saunters from his Stanford PhD over to Columbia, toys with parallel supercomputing, yawns, strolls down to Wall Street, dabbles with high frequency trading, stretches, casually sets aside the resulting $27 billion hedge fund and sets up a computational biochemistry research group to model molecular dynamics simulations of proteins. What a slacker.
Topping off the conference was the venerable CalTech theorist, William A. Goddard, III. Your guess is as good as mine as to what he said… and I was in the audience. There was something about a ReaxFF force field which lets you model chemical reactions. He also said he was happy to see theory starting to be able to predict something useful, which I am sure is a huge understatement. But there was just too much math for me to really get a grasp on his talk.
I was incredibly awed by these sober scientists toiling away at the edge of human knowledge, delving into the the very underpinnings of chemistry and biology.What new wonders will be within our grasp as we come to understand and manipulate complex molecular interactions at the atomic level? Dare I hope for my beloved utility fog someday? If so, we will have them to thank. And uh, possibly pay royalties to, depending on how the IP plays out.