Abu Dhabi: At the heart of Abu Dhabi’s science research hub in Masdar, a new era of computing is taking shape. With massive investments towards becoming a leader in the field, Abu Dhabi could well revolutionise quantum computing when a newly-developed foundry starts churning out quantum chips this summer.
With the world of computing still undecided on which platform works best to enable, and then scale up, quantum computing, chips manufactured at the laboratory will allow important experiments into the possibilities of various material and configurations.
The laboratory is part of the Quantum Research Centre, one of a number of research interests at the Technology Innovation Institute (TII), which focuses on applied research and is part of the over-arching Advanced Technology Research Council in Abu Dhabi.
“TII Quantum Foundry will be the first quantum device fabrication facility in the UAE. At the moment, it is still under construction. We are installing the last of the tools needed to manufacture superconducting quantum chips. We are hoping that it will be ready soon, and hopefully by then, we can start manufacturing the first quantum chips in the UAE,” Alvaro Orgaz, lead for the quantum computing control at the TII’s Quantum Research Centre, told Gulf News.
“The design of quantum chips is an area of active research at the moment. We are also interested in this. So, we will manufacture our chips and install them into our quantum refrigerators, then test them and improve on each iteration of the chip,” he explained.
What is quantum computing?
Classical computers process information in bits, tiny on and off switches that are encoded in zeroes and ones. In contrast, quantum computing uses qubits as the fundamental unit of information.
“Unlike classical bits, qubits can take advantage of a quantum mechanical effect called superposition — where they exist as 1 and 0 at the same time. One qubit cannot always be described independently of the state of the others either, in a phenomenon called entanglement. The capacity of a quantum computer increases exponentially with the number of qubits. The efficient usage of quantum entanglement drastically enhances the capacity of a quantum computer to be able to deal with challenging problems,” explained Professor Dr José Ignacio Latorre, chief researcher at the Quantum Research Center.
Why quantum computing?
When quantum computers were first proposed in the 1980s and 1990s, the aim was to help computing for certain complex systems such as molecules that cannot be accurately depicted with classical algorithms.
“Quantum effects translate well to complex computations in some fields like pharmaceuticals, material sciences, as well as optimisation processes that are important in aviation, oil and gas, the energy sector and the financial sector. In a classical computer, you can have one configuration of zeroes and ones or another. But in a quantum system, you can have many configurations of zeroes and ones processed simultaneously in a superposition state. This is the fundamental reason why quantum computers can solve some complex computational tasks more efficiently than classical computers,” said Dr Leandro Aolita, executive director of quantum algorithms at the Quantum Research Centre.
Complementing classical computing
On a basic level, this means that quantum computers will not replace classical computers; they will complement them.
“There are some computational problems in which quantum computers will offer no speed-up. There are only some problems where they will be superior. So, you would not use a quantum computer — which is designed for high-performance computing — to write an email,” the researcher explained. This is why, in addition to research, the TII is also working with industry partners to see which computational problems may translate well to quantum computing and the speed-up this may provide, once the computers are mature enough to process them.
Quantum effect fragility
At this stage, the simplest quantum computer is already operational at the QRC laboratory in Masdar City. This includes two superconducting qubit chips mounted in refrigerators at the laboratory, even though quantum systems can be created on a number of different platforms.
“Here, the super conducting qubit chip is in a cooler that takes the system down to a temperature that goes down to around 10 millikelvin, which is even cooler than the temperature of outer space. You have to isolate the system from the thermal environment, but you also need to be able to insert cables to control and read the qubits. This is the most difficult challenge from an engineering and a technological perspective, especially when you scale up to a million qubits because quantum effects are so fragile. No one knows exactly the exact geometric configurations to minimise the thermal fluctuations and the noise, [and this is one of the things that testing will look into once we manufacture different iterations of quantum chip],” Dr Aolita explained.
The quality of the qubit is also very important, which boils down to the manufacture of a chip with superconducting current that displays quantum effects. The chips at TII are barely 2x10 millimetres in size, and at their centre is a tiny circuit known as the Josephson junction that enables the control of quantum elements.
“It is also not just a matter of how many qubits you have, as the quality of the qubits matters. So, you need to have particles that preserve their quantum superposition, you need to be able to control them, have them interact the way you want, and read their state, but you also have to isolate them from the noise of the environment,” he said.
Despite these massive challenges to perfect a minute chip, Dr Aolita was also quite hopeful about the work being accomplished at TII, including discussions with industry about the possible applications of quantum computing.
“I think we could see some useful quantum advantages in terms of classical computing power in three to five years,” he said. “[Right now], we have ideas, theories, preliminary experiments and even some prototypes. Quantum computers even exist, but they are small and not still able to outperform classical supercomputers. But this was the case with classical computing too. In the 1950s and 1940s, a computer was like an entire gym or vault. Then the transistor arrived, which revolutionised the field and miniaturised computers to much smaller regions of space that were also faster. Something similar could happen here and it really is a matter of finding which kind of qubit to use and this could ease the process a lot. My prediction for a timeline is optimistic, but not exaggerated,” the researcher added.
Apart from the techonological breakthroughs, the QRC’s efforts are likely to also improve Abu Dhabi’s status as a hub for science and research.
“The UAE has a long tradition of adopting technologies and incorporating technologies bought from abroad. This is now [different in] that the government is putting a serious stake in creating and producing this technology and this creates a multiplicative effect in that young people get more enthusiastic about scientific careers. This creates more demand for universities to start new careers in physics, engineering, computer science, mathematics. This [will essentially have] a long-term, multiplicative effect on development, independent of the concrete goal or technical result of the project on the scientific environment in the country,” Dr Aolita added.
The QRC team currently includes 45 people, but this will grow to 60 by the end of 2022, and perhaps to 80 people in 2023. “We also want to prioritise hiring the top talent from across the world,” Dr Aolita added.