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South Africa takes a quantum leap and joins the race

- Zeblon Vilakazi

Quantum technologies are exploding and no longer the purview of laboratory experiments only.

The race is on for governments and private industries to adopt its most promising and robust ideas into applications. Already a billion-pound (R18-billion) industry in the UK, most developed countries and a few BRICS states have already invested millions of euros in quantum technologies. Should South Africa follow suit?

Co-ordinated and competing international efforts to develop quantum technologies are systematically leading the birth of a new high-tech industry. Early estimates show the current market value for components supplied to primary researchers in quantum technologies is around £100-million (R1.8-billion).

In May, a leading scientific journal, Nature, reported that the European Commission has quietly announced plans to launch a billion euro (R16.2-billion) research project to boost a raft of quantum technologies on the continent – from secure communication networks to ultra-precise gravity sensors and clocks. In Asia, Chinese scientists are nearing completion of a 2 000 kilometre-long quantum-communication link – the longest in the world – to send information securely between Beijing and Shanghai. US technology giants such as IBM, Google, Microsoft and Lockheed Martin are leading the quantum computing field with huge investments in related hardware and software development.

These advancements are further making the case for South Africa to become an active participant and not just passive recipient in shaping and driving some of the cutting-edge knowledge and technological quantum developments that have largely been concentrated in Europe, North America and North Eastern Asia.

Last week Wits University and IBM announced a new collaboration that makes Wits the first African partner on the IBM Q Network. Wits will act as the gateway through which its own researchers, as well as scholars from South Africa and the 15 universities in the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), can gain access to the 20 qubit-IBM Q quantum computer with its advanced quantum computing systems and software for teaching quantum information science and exploring early applications. This is no mean feat indeed, as it positions South Africa at the cutting edge of developments in this frontier field of computing.

Dr Solomon Assefa is the Vice President | IBM Research: Africa & Emerging Market Solutions (left) with • Professor Zeblon Vilakazi is Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Postgraduate Affairs at the University of the Witwatersrand with a 3D printed IBMQ quantum computer

Advances in the engineering of quantum states have given rise to the “second quantum revolution” with the arrival of new technologies, such as enhanced medical imaging, efficient light harvesting materials (clean energy) and secure optical communication networks (cybersecurity). These advances also led to the development of exponentially faster computers (quantum computers) that are closely integrated with diverse technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning and considered a core security component of devices that will fuel the fourth industrial revolution.

Quantum research in South Africa over the past decade has produced significant results and, in some cases, has been world leading. The benefits offered by the leap in quantum computing technology advances are critical if the country is to continue to be part of this new wave of research.

In announcing the IBMQ/Wits partnership last week, Dr Solomon Assefa, Vice President for IBM Research: Africa & Emerging Market Solutions encompassing the South African and Kenyan labs and recipient of a MIT Technology Review award for “Top Young Innovator under 35”, said: “To remain competitive for the coming decades we must get the next generation of students and researchers quantum ready.”

One of the most promising applications of quantum computing will be in the area of chemistry. In the South African context, early interest in this field is in HIV drug delivery research. Researchers in molecular and cellular biology at Wits are specifically focusing on understanding the virus’s C-subtype, the most prevalent and frequently transmitted HIV subtype in sub-Saharan Africa that has been suggested to account for greater than 95% of infections in South Africa. Molecules obey the rules of quantum physics, and in order to model a molecule in nature you need instrumentation that behaves and follows the rules of that particular molecule. Researchers are exploring how to use quantum computing to do just that.

On a global scale, Wits physicists have already shown that real-time error correction in quantum communications is possible and access to IBM Q Network will significantly enhance the leading research conducted at the Wits Structured Light Laboratory, among other research groups in South Africa.

Far from being a leap of faith, investment in quantum technologies in South Africa is crucial if we want to leverage the next level of discovery research that can help us to address the country’s most intractable problems. Just as crucial is the digital economic potential that quantum computing holds for technology start-ups in the hardware and software development fields.

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Postgraduate Affairs at Wits University. This article was first published in the Daily Maverick.