16 Aug 2021

Abu Dhabi unboxes the Middle East's first quantum supercomputer

Abu Dhabi unboxes the Middle East's first quantum supercomputer
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The team at the Technology Innovation Institute see developing quantum capabilities as a critical achievement for the Arab world

Achieving a temperature 100 times colder than deep outer space is about to become possible in Abu Dhabi – and in August.

But this isn’t about escaping the summer heat.

Quantum physicists at the capital’s Technology Innovation Institute have begun building the Middle East’s first quantum computer.

“This will put the UAE on the map to be a known entity for research on such a topic. And that’s a big achievement for the entire Arab world,” Boulos Alfakes, a senior researcher, told The National.

For the “brain” of the supercomputer to work, the one-by-one centimetre chip must operate in an extremely chilled environment.

Two dilution refrigerators, which can supply the constant deep freeze, arrived from Finland in massive wooden crates marked “extremely fragile scientific equipment”. The aluminium that will hold the quantum chip, produced by Emirates Global Aluminium in Abu Dhabi, did not have to travel as far.

Professor Jose Ignacio Latorre, the chief of research at the Quantum Research Centre, one of seven labs housed under TII, said it was merely the beginning of a much longer-term vision to develop leadership in the UAE on advanced technology, a move he sees as critical to national security and economic development.

“There will be a dramatic difference between the countries that own the technology and the ones that depend on the technology,” he said.

“The Emirates, like Singapore or Israel, [countries] of comparable sizes, cannot depend fully on allies. They have to develop their own technological strategies and they have to be sovereign. That is fundamental,” he said.

Futuristic, faster, better

A quantum computer is a kind of supercomputer, defined as a machine that can compute at a much faster rate than a typical modern version.

Unlike traditional computers, which use “bits” arranged as combinations of ones and zeros, quantum computers employ “qubits” and make use of quantum mechanics, in which particles can exist in two states simultaneously. This massively increases their computing power by allowing them to evaluate multiple outcomes at once.

The field is in its infancy. While real-world applications are under way, futuristic examples of what a quantum computer may one day solve, such as finding cures for cancers or answering questions about the origins of the universe, are still some years away.

Even at the extremely low temperature inside TII’s dilution refrigerators, the circuits of the supercomputer can only remain in a coherent superconducting state (otherwise known as “working”) for some microseconds, before unavoidable interactions with the environment disrupt it. But it takes only a few nanoseconds to execute hundreds of controlled quantum operations.

Once those quantum operations are under way, Abu Dhabi will focus its research on applications such as quantum algorithms for artificial intelligence and drug discovery, a new generation of navigation devices and cryptography that will make data safer in a post-quantum world.

At the same time as Prof Latorre is marshalling his team of 26 – a multinational group that includes Emirati, Chinese, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese members – to build out a laboratory, he is engaging the private sector in the UAE as well as universities with doctoral candidates in the field to identify ways they will work together.

He said efforts to develop local quantum computing capacity will be “useless” without education and talent development.

“We have to engage the country as a whole,” he said. “We need companies, oil and gas, telecommunications, so when a new technology comes, you [are] ready for that ... these efforts should merge with efforts at universities and should also engage industry.”

“The more educated people are, the more reasonable our planet should be.”

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