Major investments in quantum technology have already been made in the US, China, Germany, Canada, India, Japan and several other countries. Now the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is joining the race, hoping to build the expertise required to solve the kind of problems that only quantum computers will be able to handle.
In partnership with Barcelona-based startup Qilimanjaro Quantum Tech, Abu Dhabi’s Technology Innovation Institute (TII) formed the Quantum Research Centre (QRC), an international centre of excellence for research into quantum technologies. The centre’s chief researcher is José Ignacio Latorre, who took a leave of absence from his full professorship in theoretical physics at the University of Barcelona to work on a series of projects involving particle physics.
TII is the dedicated “applied research” pillar of Abu Dhabi’s newly established Advanced Technology Research Council (ATRC). “We are at the cusp of a new era with the advent of quantum computing,” said Faisal Al Bannai, secretary general of ATRC, in an official statement. “We are proud to embark on building one of these wonderful machines which will help us in various fields, from discovering new medicines, to making new materials, to designing better batteries, to various artificial intelligence applications.”
Although quantum computers will never be able to perform the vast majority of the algorithms that supercomputers perform today, there is a small set of problems that quantum computers will be able to solve much more quickly than supercomputers. In fact, in some cases – decryption of RSA keys, for example – supercomputers are so slow that they could not find a solution in a billion years.
Most experts agree that the two practical applications that can reasonably be expected from quantum computers within a decade are simulating natural phenomena that have quantum mechanical properties, and solving optimisation problems. The most enticing case of the former is where pharmaceutical companies use quantum computers to simulate biological molecules to develop new drugs much more quickly. A good case of the latter is where a logistics company needs to figure out the optimal routes for a fleet of trucks to deliver to several dozen cities.
The QRC plans to work with other scientific institutes and industrial partners to conduct basic research and to launch projects involving several kinds of quantum technologies – including quantum cryptography, quantum communications and quantum sensing. But the most tangible output from the centre in the near future will be a usable quantum computer, which will be based on superconducting circuits, much like the machines that have already been built by Google and IBM.
To keep the circuits down to superconducting temperatures, a giant cryostat was developed by Finnish company Bluefors and delivered to Abu Dhabi in August 2021. A helium dilution refrigerator uses a mixture of helium isotopes to cool components down to the temperatures they need to operate. The top level of the refrigerator is at room temperature, with five other layers underneath, each with successively lower temperatures down to the lowest layer, which is at 10 millikelvin (mK) or -273.14°C.
“The first step in the process is to build a laboratory, equip it and complete installation of the cleanroom equipment, all of which is on track,” said Latorre in a QRC press release on 21 April 2021. “Once done, the first qubits will be prepared, characterised and benchmarked. We expect the first simple quantum chips ‘made in Abu Dhabi’ should come by the end of the summer.”
Like most organisations that build quantum computers, the QRC overran its stated schedule. But it might be forgiven, because its plan to start out small seems sound in a field where hyperbole is the norm.
The Abu Dhabi team’s reasonable ambition is to first experiment with one qubit, then two and three to learn to manage the inherent instability of qubits and the ways they are measured. Eventually, the centre expects to produce a usable quantum computer based on a relatively small number of high-quality qubits.
It will take a long time for the QRC to catch up with IBM, which offers access to its quantum computers in the cloud. IBM recently announced progress towards a 127-qubit system, which will far surpass anything that has been accomplished so far.
The idea behind quantum computing began in the early 1980s, when Richard Feynman and other physicists pointed out that quantum mechanical systems could never be simulated with digital computers, because they have too many variables to be represented by standard hardware. However, if a computer based on quantum mechanics could be developed, then it could be used to simulate physics.
Mathematicians and physicists continued to develop the idea through the 1980s and 1990s, with a notable breakthrough from MIT mathematician Peter Shor, who discovered quantum error correcting costs and fault-tolerant methods that would make it possible to perform quantum computing, even when the underlying hardware is noisy. Shor also demonstrated mathematically how quantum computing could one day factor large prime numbers – and even break RSA encryption very quickly.
Since then, Google, IBM and Microsoft have all built quantum computers, and so have several startups, including Rigetti, D-Wave and Xanadu. Software development kits are now available for the general public to experiment with, developing algorithms to solve the kind of problems that quantum computers can solve. Cloud services offered by IBM and Rigetti allow people to run their code on a real quantum computer.
But researchers call the current era of quantum computing the noisy intermediate-scale quantum (NISQ) era, because the current generation of quantum computing hardware is highly susceptible to noise. The QRC is hoping its first system will be a second-generation quantum computer based on quality qubits and much more reliable measuring techniques.