I just returned from the KAUST IT Summit, hosted by Saudi Aramco. You will recall from my earlier post that this summit was convened to discuss the computing technology needed to support a new science and technology university, scheduled to open in 2009. (Thanks to Amazon CTO Werner Vogels for the photograph. Incidentally, Amazon was the only place I could find a travel guide to Saudi Arabia.)
KAUST is intended to serve as a catalyst for a knowledge economy in Saudi Arabia, with a $10B operating endowment and a new campus being built on the Red Sea. King Abdullah has charged Saudi Aramco with the design and initiation of the campus, its faculty and its students. The trip was a fascinating experience, for many reasons, personal, cultural and academic.
On arrival at the King Fahd International Airport in Damman, we were whisked off the jetway down to a limousine on the tarmac, then past security. After a 185 KPH ride through the darkness, we were each deposited at a guest house in the Saudi Aramco complex, complete with a personal butler. I’d not had a butler before, so this was an interesting and somewhat unnerving experience.
The Aramco complex is a western enclave on the site where oil was first discovered in Saudi Arabia. The houses, cinema, baseball fields and streets could have been in any Phoenix suburb, and the Saudi rules on dress and interaction are relaxed. Outside the complex, though, very conservative rules apply. Women wear burqas, and the higher education system treats men and women in pointedly different ways. Indeed, some universities do not accept women, and those that do educate them separated by partitions in the classroom.
On our first day, we toured the Saudi Aramco research and control complex. This began with a discussion of next generation oil drilling and extraction technologies: lateral drilling, smart wells, nanobots and other approaches. I was especially impressed by the real-time adaptive control process for drilling and extraction. This is a great example of what the PCAST report called networked systems that interact with the physical world, its top priority for additional IT research funding.
The Aramco control complex spans oil and gas well management, refining and processing, pipelines and transport. The control room includes the largest display wall I have seen in person, with panels for each of the major functions and control consoles for each. World-wide sensors provide status updates each 15 seconds.
In short, I was impressed. The Saudis are very, very good at this.
The summit began the second day, with some opening remarks and three panels on the future of computing:
- Current and Future Science Research Trends
- Future of Cyberinfrastructure Needs and Vision
- KAUST the Next Generation Cyberinfrastructure<
I chaired the first panel, with presentations by Tony Hey, Omar Ghattas and Garth Gibson. The three panels were great fun, with lots of give and take among the panelists. We had an audience of about 200 and the event was webcast throughout Aramco. I also had a fascinating lunch with Abdullah Jum'ah, the President of Saudi Aramco.
The gist of our discussion was the need for open and global information technology sharing (the lessons of the open source model), the rise of computing clouds, and the need for multidisciplinary computational science. We also discussed the critical need for broadband network connections.
From discussions, it is really clear is that the success or failure of KAUST will depend on Saudi Aramco’s ability to recruit world-class faculty to Saudi Arabia. As I noted in my closing comments, the old Zenith marketing slogan remains apt: “The quality goes in before the name goes on.” The jury is definitely out on the future of KAUST, with multiple cultures within Saudi Arabia competing for its future.