Meet the people at the forefront of the city’s exciting tech scene

A logic-locked chip programmed with the secret key executes the required command of displaying AHLAN on the LED.

The chances are, if you take a look at the technology around you right now, you’ll come across a few familiar names.

Your smart phone might be Apple, your television could be Sony and your fridge is probably Samsung.

One from the US, one from Japan and the other from Korea, these are the known leaders of the current tech market.

But, here’s something you probably didn’t know: Abu Dhabi has a vibrant new technology culture of its own.

And while you might not have heard of them yet, these bright sparks are set to make a name for themselves in the technology world.

With that in mind, we take a look at the future of technology being developed on a local level, and the enterprising people doing it.

Sustainable solutions

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For Baraa Ahmed and her team from United Arab Emirates University (UAEU), who
are based out of the campus’ Science and Innovation Park, inspiration came in the form of an unlikely source – and quite by accident – with ZeoPi.

After throwing a rock into a fishpond, the team found that the particular properties of the stone not only cleaned the water, but also remineralised it, leaving water that was safe to drink.

Inspired by the unique act of fate, the team realised they had the power to make positive change when they considered the bigger picture.

“There’s a huge lack of fresh water sources in the world,” Baraa tells us. “About one billion people don’t have access to clean water, and between six to eight million people die annually from water-related diseases.

“Our filtration stone is a natural system that converts any water source into a drinkable one. It captures heavy metals and toxins, and the result is mineralised, healthy water.”

With the knowledge that they could do some good in developing countries, the team formed for-profit company ZeoPi under the guidance of mentor Iskren Krusteff, a sustainable start-up investor from UAEU’s Science and Innovation Park, and their programme director, Dr Nihel Chabrak.

With an aim of improving access to water in developing countries, the team, who are currently testing their filtration stone for the market, plan to offer a like-for-like donation whenever a stone is purchased.

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“When we think about these problems, people always think about charities – but ours is a bit more like TOMS shoes,” Baraa notes. “We want to inspire people to buy our product, and help other people around the world at the same time.

“Starting from the Year of Giving, we adopted the business model that means that if you buy one of the filtration stones in the UAE, we’ll give one to those who need it.”

Chipping in

In a world of ever-increasing fear over our data security, hackers and cyber spies, it now seems more important than ever to give more thought to how we protect the technology we use on a daily basis.

It’s with this in mind that a team of researchers at NYUAD’s Design for Excellence (DfX) lab have created the latest in computer chip technology that protects it on a hardware level and prevents crucial data from being stolen or tampered with.

“Chips are everywhere – they’re in your phones, computers and medical devices,” explains Ozgur Sinanoglu, NYUAD associate dean of engineering for academic affairs, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and head of DfX.

Ozgur Sinanoglu Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Ozgur Sinanoglu
Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering

“Currently these chips are designed by specific companies,” he adds. “But when they’re fabricated, it’s typically done by a third party.

“Financially, this works great as the companies are reducing their costs, but there are growing concerns about whether the chips that come out of fabrication are actually trustworthy.”

From tampering to malicious circuitry, the DfX team wanted a solution that would end the threat of data theft, and with it, created an unhackable piece of software.

Built into the chip hardware itself, the programme locks computer chips before manufacture and can only be unlocked using a binary code key.

“This offers a layer of protection that end users, like us, won’t notice,” Ozgur notes.

“No matter how secure your software is or your operating system, if the hardware is compromised, the whole system is compromised, because everything is built on that.”

With applications ranging from the defence and financial sectors to consumers, the potential for the chip extends far and wide.

A logic-locked chip, left, programmed with the secret key executes the required command (displaying HELLO on the LED) and is placed next to a baseline chip that can't execute the same command because it hasn't been fed the secret key.

“Even with consumer electronics – things that you would think are not absolutely critical – you are using your phone to do financial transactions,” Ozgur explains. “In the long run, even consumer applications will need solutions like this.”

But with lofty claims of creating an ‘unhackable’ solution to the problem of data security, is the team setting itself up for future failure?

“The type of hacking we see in the news like the WannaCry ransomware, these are the ones that we know more about because they directly affect end users,” Ozgur comments.

“But for me, the more concerning attacks are the ones we’re not aware of, like hardware attacks.”

But to counter the threat of hackers, Ozgur already has a test in mind by inviting them to give it a crack themselves.

“We’re developing a web-based platform where we’re going to put all the information available about our chip,” he laughs. “Then, we’re going to invite them to try and attack it. To us, this is the ultimate way of validating our security.”

Energy leaders

As one of the leaders of Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy research sector, Masdar is a name that has garnered global renown – and you only have to head down to Masdar City to see how serious they are about going green.

With knowledge creation at the centre of Abu Dhabi’s Vision 2030 plan, one way the organisation is contributing to the technology sector is with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.

With projects ranging from designing a smart city, to thinking up solutions for local problems like desalination and looking at ways of increasing the reach of solar power, the institute contributes on a global scale through the lens of sustainability.

But the research isn’t just on the ground; the university recently reached for the cosmos with the launch of its Yahsat Space Laboratory to inspire a new generation of young technologists and scientists.

Equipped with the latest tech to further the UAE’s aims of conquering space, the facility allows students to design, create and launch their own miniature satellite, as well as promoting research into subjects including robotics, gamma rays and spacecraft dynamics.

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“One of the first things is that it’s very important this project is being done here. This is the UAE putting in all the way,” explains Dr Tod Laursen, president of Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research, which merged with Masdar Institute in October 2016.

“My generation was inspired by space. It was unthinkable at the time that we would be a part of it – only governments launched rockets when I was a student,” he continues. “Kids get that – space is no longer hypothetical for them. People like them are doing things like this.

“This is a big opportunity, and it’s unique. There aren’t that many nations that have made this level of commitment on a comprehensive level.”

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