This week, physicists in Abu Dhabi unboxed the Middle East’s first quantum computer.
In doing so, the UAE joined some of the world’s most powerful nations and biggest technology companies in a global race to achieve “quantum supremacy”, the point at which a quantum computer can solve problems that no ordinary computer could, at mind-numbing speeds.
The assembly of this supercomputer, at the Technology Innovation Institute (TII), represents the beginning of a journey that is vital for the UAE not only to safeguard its strategic interests, but also to help solve the most urgent problems confronting humankind.
Quantum computing can take advantage of speed and specificity to help tackle complexities, but it has yet to solve real-world issues, including tackling the climate crisis, creating new cancer treatments and answering questions about the origins of the universe. The potential in the years to come is beyond doubt, however, and Abu Dhabi’s decision to join the US, UK, China, Japan and others will no doubt contribute to the human quest for solutions essential for the survival and well-being of our species. Work under way at the Quantum Research Centre laboratory – one of the seven labs housed under TII – is expected to result in breakthroughs in drug discovery and battery technology.
An increasingly insular and fragmented world can pose myriad security challenges to individual nations. And the UAE's embrace of this exciting technology is important for security and research, particularly as conflicts of the future are likely to be waged in cyberspace. Indeed, as Professor Jose Ignacio Latorre, the chief of research at the Quantum Research Centre, points out, some countries will have to develop their own technological strategies in order to preserve their sovereignty. “There will be a dramatic difference between the countries that own the technology and the ones that depend on it,” Prof Latorre said. “The Emirates, like Singapore or Israel, [and countries] of comparable sizes, cannot depend fully on allies.”
As with most scientific and technological breakthroughs, quantum computing can be a double-edged sword. Amid heightened concerns over data breaches in an increasingly digitised world, it is conceivable that quantum computers could one day upend decades of encryption, thereby posing unprecedented national security threats worldwide. It has taken foresight, therefore, for Abu Dhabi to open a software library to store algorithms capable of fighting off attacks from supercomputers. In March, only a week after it announced plans to build the region’s first quantum computer, TII launched the library for a cyber-threat landscape that includes quantum computing. This is a more prudent approach than simply shunning new technologies that are bound to become an inherent part of our lives.
It is important to note that, just as promising research is under way in the field of quantum computing, a plan is in place to educate future specialists as well, the purpose of which is to engage the country as a whole. Prof Latorre said: “We need companies, oil and gas, and 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.”
Indeed, an integrated approach that involves the broader society is necessary to tackle present-day challenges with the purpose of creating a safer, healthier and more sustainable future.