Quantum computing’s imminent arrival in Cleveland could be a back-to-the-future moment: Thomas Bier

CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Clinic’s partnership with IBM to use quantum computing for medical research brings to mind the most unfortunate instance of bad timing in the history of Cleveland: the 1967 merger of Case Institute of Technology with Western Reserve University just when the computer age was coming to life.

The merger squelched Case’s opportunity to be among the leaders in the most revolutionary technology ever (and to benefit Cleveland with computer-related jobs). Might the arrival of quantum computing mean fresh opportunity?

At the time of the merger, Case’s Department of Computer Engineering and Science had a good chance to be at the forefront. But capitalizing on that required support from senior administrators of the new Case Western Reserve University — administrators who could not be focused on technology to the degree that Case, on its own, had been. In the new world of CWRU, technology was one of many fields.

A “vision” for the merged institutions prepared by a prominent commission gave “only a brief mention of computing either as a current or potential strength of the new institution or as a challenge or opportunity to be addressed,” according to Richard E. Baznik in “Beyond the Fence: A Social History of Case Western Reserve University.” The goose with golden innards wasn’t even recognized, let alone encouraged to lay eggs.

Further, the merger created the worst possible institutional environment for computer advocates. Not only did administrators have to contend with issues of who might lose their job because of consolidation and who would have which power (particularly over budget), they also had to manage the challenge that all universities were facing as the post-World War II surge in enrollment and federal funding was ebbing.

Inescapably, the units that formed CWRU were locked in competition for shrinking resources, if not survival. And in that mix, dominated by heavyweights such as the School of Medicine and the main sciences, “computers” was a flyweight.

All of that was topped off by intense feelings among Case people of being severely violated by the Institute’s loss of independence, which feelings were heightened by the substantial upgrading that had occurred under the longtime leadership of former Case president T. Keith Glennan (president from 1947 to 1966).

Thomas Bier

Thomas Bier is an associate of the university at Cleveland State University.

The combination of those potent forces upset CWRU institutional stability, which was not fully reestablished until the presidency of Barbara Snyder 40 years later.

Although in 1971, CWRU’s computer engineering program would be the first of its type to be accredited in the nation, momentum sagged and the opportunity to be among the vanguard was lost. Today, the university’s programs in computer engineering and science are well-regarded but not top-tier.

But the arrival of quantum computing poses the challenge to identify new opportunity and exploit it.

Quantum computing, as IBM puts it, is “tomorrow’s computing today.” Its enormous processing power enables multiple computations to be performed simultaneously with unprecedented speed. And the Clinic’s installation will be first private-sector, on-premises system in the United States.

Clinic CEO and President Dr. Tomislav Mihaljevic said, “These new computing technologies can help revolutionize discovery in the life sciences” and “… help transform medicine, while training the workforce of the future and potentially growing our economy.”

In terms of jobs, the economy of Northeast Ohio has been tepid for decades, reflecting, in part, its scant role in computer innovation. While our job growth has been nil, computer hot spots such as Seattle and Austin have been gaining an average of 25,000 jobs annually.

Cleveland cannot become a Seattle or an Austin. Various factors dictate that. But, hopefully, the arrival of quantum computing a short distance down Euclid Avenue from CWRU will trigger creative, promising initiatives. Maybe, as young technologists and researchers become involved in the Clinic-IBM venture, an innovative entrepreneur will emerge and lead the growth of a whole new industry. Maybe, the timing couldn’t be better.

Quantum computing — bring, it, on!

Thomas Bier is an associate of the university at Cleveland State University where, until he retired in 2003, he was director of the Housing Policy Research Program in the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs. Bier received both his master’s in science degree, in 1963, and Ph.D., in 1968, from from Case/CWRU. Both degrees are in organizational behavior.

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