Malaysia must pivot towards quantum computing before it’s too late

Quantum computing would be central to our quest to achieve digital sovereignty.

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Published in Astro Awani, image by Astro Awani.

Today’s digital world has altered the physical reality of our lives in so many ways – some more significant than others.

Virtually everything in mainstream life is now interconnected in a complex of cyberspaces and ICT (information and communications technology) networks driven by broadband and data transmission via frequency signalling or wireless and cable/fibre, satellite, and so on (including not least, 5G).

This has given rise to the fantasia of the “metaverse” (conflation of “meta” and “universe”) – an alternative reality – where humans interact with each other solely via avatars, i.e., 2-D or 3-D (dimensional) graphical icons or models characteristic in role-playing games/RPGs.

We can even push the metaphor further by positing that the only thing which “separates” virtual reality from the “exterior” world circumscribed by time and space (geography) is the humble crystalline silicon – used to produce the tiny microchips which are the foundation of digital technology.

And the remarkable speed at which the digital world is progressing has now given us what’s known as quantum computing.

Based on the logic of quantum physics, quantum computing harnesses and deploys the principles of superposition (simultaneity of multiples states at any one time and space) and entanglement (co-dependence of existence), etc. to operate very/highly complex tasks that conventional computers are typically constrained from – due to the binary digits (bits) of 0 and 1 as arranged in opposition to one another, i.e., either/or (dualism), i.e., 0,1.

In turn, the dialectical logic is rooted in Western philosophy (as eminently embodied by Aristotelian logic of the law of the excluded middle, the law of identity, and the law non-contradiction and mediated by medieval scholasticism and inherited by the Enlightenment, etc. with examples like Boolean algebra). In short, distinction is opposition.

Bits are the smallest and most basic unit and value (form) of data and information which a computer stores and processes. Put in another way, bits are the fundamental and rudimentary alphabets of computing language for the hardware (as opposed to computing language/script for the software, i.e., programming).

What separates the foundations of quantum computing from conventional computing is how the binary digits (bits) are arranged. Hence, quantum computing uses qubits which defies binary logic and allows two states to co-exist simultaneously/same time and space. That is, we can now use 0, 1 or anything in between to represent one qubit (a unit of information) – which opens the door for tremendous/incredible implications in computing.

The ongoing developments of quantum computing over the past few years have led to a remarkable breakthrough in numerous domains that have improved the dynamism of the current technological systems.

Rapidly emerging technologies such as cloud-based quantum computing allow businesses to access quantum computing power without purchasing or owning quantum computers, and assist physicists and scientists conduct experiments in quantum physics, etc.

To appreciate the scope of quantum computing, this “… new generation of technology … involves a type of computer 158 million times faster than the most sophisticated supercomputer we have in the world today. It is a device so powerful that it could do in four minutes what it would take a traditional supercomputer 10,000 years to accomplish” (Live Science).

Furthermore, it’s estimated that a potential quantum computer such as a 4,099-qubit one would only need 10 seconds to break a Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA) encryption (one of the most secure encryption algorithms in the world). In contrast, conventional computers would need 300 trillion years to do so.

No quantum computer has yet attained this stage but increasing investment and extensive research coupled with strong political will would shorten the time for such development to fully materialise (“Encryption Security for a Post Quantum World”, Georgia Wood, Center for Strategic and International Studies/CSIS, June 2, 2022).

To leverage on these possibilities, many countries especially major powers, namely US and China, have embarked on a race to achieve (unrivalled) quantum supremacy due to the growing realisation of its far-reaching impact on geopolitics and geo-economics.

The quantum sector is anticipated to grow into a multibillion-dollar industry within the next ten years.

Quantum computing is projected to capture approximately USD700 billion in value as early as 2035 with the market estimated to exceed USD90 billion annually by 2040 (“How quantum computing could change the world”, McKinsey, June 25, 2022).

For this reason, the US Department of Energy (DOE) has supported and funded the five National Quantum Information Science Research Centers (NQISRC) massively since 2020 to set the stage for future scientific quantum discoveries. The NQISRC comprises around 70 institutions across the US (“How the five National Quantum Information Science Research Centres harness the quantum revolution”, Argonne National Laboratory, August 26, 2022).

Rival China has also successfully developed its first-ever quantum computer, dubbed “Qianshi”, that’s made accessible to the public and surpassing Google in quantum supremacy last year (“China has quantum computers that are 1 million times more powerful than Google’s”, Tech HQ, October 28, 2021).

Our closest neighbour Singapore is stepping up investments in quantum computing and collaborating with various non-state and state actors (particularly with Finland). Singapore is, of course, leading the way in the region – with the National Quantum Computing Hub poised to develop the components and materials needed to build quantum computers and devices (“Singapore sets the pace for quantum computing in Southeast Asia”, Tech Wire Asia, June 6, 2022).

During the World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) 2018 edition entitled, “Global Discourse on Quantum Computing”, Tun Musa Hitam (former chairman of WIEF) remarked that North America might be leading the way in terms of research in this field. However, Malaysia can still aspire to play a role and have a stake in the development and progress (“Quantum computing to propel businesses further”, The Malaysian Reserve, September 21, 2018).

Is our country ready to take up the challenge?

Malaysia needs to prepare to adopt quantum computing technology in order not to be left behind.

This would include responding to ever-evolving cyber threats that is an integral aspect of the overall national security – affecting everything from food, water and energy security to even “remote” areas such as the stock exchange (securities market) in terms of e.g., trading platforms and data feeds affecting intra-day volume alongside misconduct such as insider trading, etc.

Not only that, as it is, quantum computing will enable us to definitively address and resolve critical issues relating to our self-sufficiency levels (SSLs) to redress our balance of payments (BOP) deficits in food imports and promote a more integrated and aggregated supply-chain and logistics as it’s capable of processing highly complex logistics algorithms in real-time, among others.

Quantum computing can be key to providing us with holistic and out-of-the-box solutions to the horizon of range of risks and challenges confronting us such as the link between climate change resilience and sustainable flood management practices.

It also means we don’t have to overly rely on outside help and assistance in mapping out our own digital journey and blueprint and that we can be “buffered” against any geopolitical quantum supremacy which seeks to pit one bloc against the other (when we have achieved some measure of quantum computing self-sufficiency).

Quantum computing would, therefore, be central to our quest to achieve digital sovereignty.

Towards this end, EMIR Research would like to offer some policy recommendations in the push for a national quantum computing blueprint and roadmap:

  1. A specially focussed national quantum computing blueprint and roadmap would bring together, incorporate and further develop on the pre-existing policies such as the Malaysia Artificial Intelligence (AI) Roadmap (2021-2025), the Malaysia Cyber Security Strategy (MCSS) 2020-2024, and the Malaysia Digital Economy Blueprint (MyDIGITAL) – the goal of which is the convergence and integration of AI and quantum computing.

AI is simply the algorithms and models that could be transplanted into quantum computing as driven by qubits.

The combination and “synchronisation” will further speed up the process and development of specific AI parameters. This by enabling AI to break out of the conventional computing framework as driven by bits.

The logic of quantum physics (in contradistinction to Aristotelian/Boolean logic) would become normalised and regularised in AI – set within the framework of quantum computing.

In turn, our AI can then achieve the status of Artificial Superintelligence – capable of going beyond human intelligence.

On the other hand, the potential for quantum computing to perform and solve highly complex problems will be correspondingly heightened and take the machine learning (ML) role to a higher level. This is where human intelligence can be re-created in the quantum computing framework.

AI can help transform cyberspace into a quantum communication network. For example, when small quantum processors instantly transfer quantum data (travelling even faster than the speed of light), this can be performed without optical fibres as well as manual manipulation (i.e., by the human).  

Finally, it’s very critical for the national quantum computing blueprint and roadmap to also “internalise” the IOOI (Input-Output-Outcome-Impact) model – so that the resources deployed would achieve the intended results optimally/maximally for the long-term (including sustained private sector investment).

2. Establish a dedicated national agency that only focuses on quantum computing technologies. This national agency will be responsible for policy and technical inputs and outputs on the full spectrum of quantum computing, including defence and security.

3. Utilise Malaysia’s neutral standing by forging closer strategic cooperation with major powers in quantum research and development (R&D).

In conclusion, quantum computing is a promising field in which we can’t afford to be left behind when the time comes.

After all, the global quantum race could well be just another geopolitical and geo-technological zero-sum game that Malaysia must be well-prepared to manage, adapt to and ride on.

Jason Loh and Hazriq Iqmal Abdul Aziz are part of the research team of EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research. 

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