Arab world must get on board with new computing revolution

Arab world must get on board with new computing revolution

Engineers make quantum devices at the Australian National Fabrication Facility in this handout 2012 photo. (Australian National Fabrication Facility/AFP)


Three months ago, US President Donald Trump signed the National Quantum Initiative Act, allocating funding of $1.2 billion over the next five years with the aim of ensuring that the country does not fall behind in the ongoing race for quantum computers. Also last year, the EU launched a similar 1 billion-euro ($1.1 billion) quantum computing research and development program. And, in 2017, China announced the construction of a $10 billion facility for quantum information sciences.

Why this race now? How far are we from major achievements? And why should the Arab world pay close attention — and even launch its own initiatives — in this field?

Quantum computers are the next big step in the series: Microprocessors, computers, laptops, and supercomputers. We are quickly reaching the limits of how big and how fast computers can be, as transistors (the basic building blocks in microprocessors) reach the physical barrier of a few nanometers, the size of atoms and molecules. Moreover, classical computers are limited by the way they work, with all information stored and processed using bits (zeroes and ones) and, as the data becomes huge (“big data”), storing, retrieving, scanning, combining, analyzing, manipulating and sending it becomes more and more difficult, or at least inefficient.

Quantum computers, however, use “qubits” (quantum bits), which are “fuzzy” superpositions of zeroes and ones, thus automatically carrying much more information. In addition, they take advantage of one of the strangest effects in the quantum world: The so-called entanglement, where two quantum objects that have been made to interact will “remember” the mutual information they share; thus, when we make a measurement on one, we automatically know the information that the other carries. This helps reduce the number of qubits needed in storing data as well as in performing computations, simulations or data analyses.

Typically, where a million bits are needed for a piece of data, a thousand qubits will suffice, and where a trillion are needed for some analysis, only a million qubits will be needed for the same task. So, one can see that quantum computers will represent a huge increase in speed and power compared to classical computers, but is that really why the US, EU and China are investing billions of dollars?

To understand the reasons behind that, one must ask where quantum computers will make a key difference. The two main fields where the impact will be immediate and huge are cryptography and biomedicine.

The two main fields where the impact will be immediate and huge are cryptography and biomedicine

Nidhal Guessoum

Once computing becomes extremely fast, one will be able to both break current codes — those that computers cannot break — and produce stronger ones. This will obviously have critical impacts on national security and financial accounts. This is the main reason for the unfolding quantum computing race.

In biomedicine, very fast computers will allow researchers to model large complex molecules and thus develop new drugs. This obviously interests big pharmaceutical companies, with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake.

We are not there yet. Fifteen months ago, IBM announced that it had developed a 50-qubit computer that was stable for 90 microseconds. Google unveiled a 49-qubit computer at about the same time. Since then, more stable, but small, quantum computers have been put on the cloud for researchers to use with simple programs.

But, as I mentioned, to get to the next level of computing we’ll need machines with thousands, if not millions, of qubits. That is what the US, EU and Chinese initiatives are aiming for. And that is why major universities — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Caltech, Berkeley and others — are now offering courses and programs in quantum computing. Likewise, big companies are already training their technical staff to be ready to use new quantum software and hardware as soon as it becomes available.

What should the Arab world do in this regard? First, universities and research centers should develop strategies on quantum technology, teach quantum sciences and technologies (China is talking about quantum radars, which stealth planes/bombers cannot evade) and invest in research and development in all these fields/subfields. We don’t want to wake up in 10 years and realize that all our computers, banks and military facilities are vulnerable.

The good news is that we have at least 10 years to get ready. Indeed, as I’ve explained, fast progress is being made on quantum computers, which are getting bigger, faster and more powerful, but they still have a long way to go. We are at the early stages of the quantum computing revolution, but things will most certainly go faster than they did in the electronics and computers revolution — it took 40 years to go from the transistor to the supercomputer. One can imagine that it will take 10 to 20 years to go from the small quantum computers that IBM and Google announced a year ago to the game-changing ones that will be developed in the near future. We need to use this time to get ready.

Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum

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