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Middle East countries accelerate quantum computing research

Gulf countries must invest in quantum computing research to ensure they continue to to remain digital pioneers

Universities in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have launched quantum computing research groups to cultivate homegrown knowledge of the tech that is set to transform the world.

Quantum computing, if practical, would mark a leap forward in computing capability far greater than that from the abacus to a modern day supercomputer.

A quantum computer would use quantum mechanics to process huge amounts of data through its ability to be in multiple states, and perform computations in powerful new ways not possible with today’s conventional computers.

According to Simone Vernacchia, partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Middle East, there are many potential applications for quantum computing in key industries in the region.

“Quantum computing can boost AI [artificial intelligence] performance to an unprecedented level. It can optimise manufacturing plants, energy research, weather research, energy efficiency, investment, and facilitate near real-time automation of complex decision-making,” said Vernacchia.

According to Wes Schwalje, COO at Dubai-based research firm Tahseen Consulting, innovations in AI and machine learning will be of “particular interest” in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region.

“As a logistics and aviation hub, quantum computing can be used in routing, optimising manufacturing, and in developing advanced materials,” he said.

“Combining leadership in blockchain with quantum computing could solidify the global position of several of the cities in the region as financial hubs into the future.”

Early partnerships

While the global quantum computing ecosystem is still in its infancy, the UAE is reaching out to global tech giants to form early-stage partnerships. Big US IT companies such as IBM, Google and Microsoft are investing in research into quantum computing.

The UAE minister for artificial intelligence recently partnered with Canadian company D-Wave to house the region’s first quantum computer in the Museum of the Future in Dubai.

Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) in June 2018 announced plans to work with Microsoft to develop quantum-based products to address energy optimisation where classical computers have serious limitations, making it the first organisation outside of the US to participate in the Microsoft Quantum programme.

As part of the deal, Microsoft will work closely with Dewa to identify the challenges where quantum computing will have the greatest impact.

Dewa will be able to programme and test quantum algorithms, then apply those quantum solutions within the existing Microsoft Azure platform. This work will also provide Dewa with easier migration to using Microsoft’s quantum computer once it is available.

“Public-private partnerships are one avenue for GCC countries to start developing competitive quantum computing sectors,” said Schwalje. “We will likely see other government entities following Dewa shortly.”

He said Saudi Arabia will also “make a strong play” for early leadership in the quantum computing space given the historical leadership of entities such as King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and Saudi Aramco’s experience with supercomputing systems.

“Quantum computing can significantly accelerate digital transformation,” said Schwalje. “Application of quantum computing in the GCC is still in its early phase, but it can be a big boost to innovation given the region’s leadership in big data, artificial intelligence, the internet of things [IoT] and cloud computing.”

Five application areas for quantum computing

  1. Drug and materials discovery: Untangling the complexity of molecular and chemical interactions leading to the discovery of medicines and materials.
  2. Supply chain and logistics: Finding the optimal path across global systems for ultra-efficient logistics and supply chains, such as optimising fleet operations for deliveries during the holiday season.
  3. Financial services: Finding ways to model financial data and isolating key global risk factors to make better investments
  4. Artificial intelligence: Making facets of AI, such as machine learning, much more powerful when datasets can be too big, such as searching images or video.
  5. Cloud security: Making cloud computing more secure by using the laws of quantum physics to enhance private data safety. 

The GCC countries will be some of the first countries to launch 5G. With this launch, they will open up their countries to innovations such as autonomous vehicles, IoT devices and industrial control systems.

GCC countries could also be leaders in commercialising security products based on quantum technologies, added Schwalje.

“Quantum computing will be much better than conventional computing in tackling future cyber security challenges through machine learning and quantum number generation,” he said.

“While quantum computing does pose security risks for the GCC if it falls behind, there are a handful of efforts to develop post-quantum cryptography and technologies like quantum key distribution and quantum random generators.”

PwC’s Vernacchia said the Gulf region should invest in quantum computing research to “protect itself”.

“[If the Gulf fails to invest in this] disruptive technology it will potentially undermine the competitiveness of local companies in the region. In a world in which major companies and government are having almost real-time insights based on artificial intelligence, the region would risk being left behind,” he said.

Schwalje also stressed the importance of ongoing and considerable investment into quantum computing to help facilitate innovation breakthroughs in the region. “Falling behind in the quantum age will put countries in the slow lane of innovation,” he said.

He added the Gulf region should emulate the National Quantum Initiative Act in the US, which has already allocated $1.3bn to train quantum engineers to build a quantum computing workforce. “A viable quantum computing industry will only be possible in the GCC with a very significant investment in training future quantum engineers,” he said.

Gulf nations that take swift action have a good chance of exploiting quantum computing to their advantage, said PwC’s Vernacchia.

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