Quantum computing is important for Africa

June 20th, 2019, Published in Articles: EngineerIT, Featured: EE Publishers

Dr Solomon Assefa, IBM Research Africa (left) and Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits deputy vice-chancellor for research and postgraduate affairs.

Launching a partnership with the University of the Witwatersrand, Dr Solomon Assefa at IBM Research Africa said that classical computing has served society incredibly well but many of the world’s biggest mysteries and greatest opportunities remain beyond the grasp of today’s classical machines.  “To continue the pace of progress we need to augment the classical approach with a completely new paradigm, one that follows its own set of rules. It is called quantum computing. For Africa to remain competitive we must get the next generation of students quantum ready,” Dr Solomon Assefa said.

IBM is expanding its quantum computing initiative to Africa in a new collaboration with the University of the Witwatersrand, IBM’s first African partner on the IBM Q network, which will become the gateway for academics across South Africa and 15 other universities who are part of the African Research University Alliance (ARUA).

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits deputy vice-chancellor for research and postgraduate affairs said, “This is the latest development in the joint partnership between IBM Research and Wits. The partnership started in 2016 when IBM opened its second lab in Africa at the Wits University’s Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Johannesburg. To expand the IBM Q Network to include Wits will drive innovation in frontier-technologies and benefit African-based researchers, academics and students who now have access to decades of quantum computing capabilities at the click of a button”, he said.

Quantum computing promises to be able to solve problems such as chemical simulations and types of optimisation that will forever be beyond the practical reach of classical machines. IBM first made quantum computers available to the public in May 2016 through its IBM Q Experience quantum cloud service and has doubled the power of its quantum computers annually since 2017.

IBM established the IBM Q Network, a community of Fortune 500 companies, start-ups, academic institutions and research labs working with IBM to advance quantum computing and explore practical applications for business and science. “Having access to IBM Q is pivotal for Wits University’s cross-disciplinary research programme and allows our researchers in quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and in the broad natural sciences, including laser technology, quantum optics and molecular design, to leverage the next level of discovery research. It’s envisioned that the first results from this collaboration will be forthcoming in the next two years,” said Prof. Vilakazi.

Researchers at Wits will investigate the use of quantum computing and machine learning in the fields of cosmology and molecular biology with a specific focus on HIV drug discovery.

IBM’s recently unveiled IBM Q System One, the world’s first integrated universal approximate quantum computing system designed for scientific and commercial use available through the IBM Q Experience platform. More than 10-million experiments have run on the platform and users have published over 160 third-party research papers. Also, developers can work with  Qiskit, a full-stack, open-source quantum software development kit, to create and run quantum computing programs.

Are the days of supercomputing numbered?

Dr Ismail Akhalwaya, IBM quantum physicist.

 EngineerIT posed this question to Dr Ismail Akhalwaya, IBM quantum physicist.

“Quantum computing will be used in specific applications resolving very complex problems. Quantum computers are built on the principle of quantum mechanics, the complex and fascinating laws of nature at the microscopic level. These laws have always been there but their weirdness can only be harnessed under extremely delicate conditions outside of which the strange effects remain hidden from view. By harnessing such natural behaviour, quantum computers can run types of algorithms to potentially solve previously unsolvable problems in optimisation, chemistry and machine learning.” Quantum computers will not replace supercomputers, both will work in tandem.

Does Africa have the talent?

It is an important question to ask. Dr Akhalwaya said South Africa has a history of innovation in quantum physics to draw upon. He cited examples as such as the Nobel prize for the invention of the CT scan and more recently successes in supercomputing which is strongly intertwined with quantum computing. Over a recent four-year period, the South African Supercomputing team were three-times world champions in the international supercomputing competition.

“One of the most promising indicators is that South Africans move quickly and invest in nurturing the skills. We already have a long history of academic activity in quantum physics. For example, the Chris Engelbrecht Summer School in Theoretical Physics has had its main theme in quantum related fields since the 1980s. There are well established research groups including those led by Prof. Andrew Forbes (Wits University), Prof. Francesco Petruccione (University of KwaZulu-Natal) and Prof. Hermann Uys (University of Stellenbosch).”

IBM Q System One, the world’s first integrated universal approximate quantum computing.

Part of ARUA are Addis Ababa University; University of Ghana; University of Nairobi; University of Lagos; University of Ibadan; Obafemi Awolowo University
lle-Ife; University of Rwanda; University Cheikh Anta Diop; University of Cape Town; University of Kwa-Zulu Natal; University of Pretoria; Rhodes University; University of Stellenbosch; University of the Witwatersrand; University of Dar es Salaam and Makerere University. They will have the opportunity to apply for access to IBM Q’s most-advanced quantum computing systems and software for teaching quantum information science and exploring early applications. To gain access to the IBM Q quantum cloud service, ARUA scholars will be required to submit quality research proposals to a scientific committee of Wits and IBM experts for approval.

To further increase skills development, IBM Q is hosting an invite-only Qiskit Camp in South Africa this December for 200 quantum researchers and computer scientists where they will learn in an immersive environment and receive hands-on training.

 

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