South Africa is a few steps ahead in the advancement of quantum computing and quantum technologies in general, said Mark Tame, professor in photonics at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape.
South Africas University of KwaZulu-Natal has also been working on quantum computing for more than a decade, gradually building up a community around the field.
The buzz about quantum computing in South Africa just started recently due to the agreement between [Johannesburgs] University of the Witwatersrand and IBM, said Professor Francesco Petruccione, interim director, National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Science, and South African Research Chair in Quantum Information Processing and Communication at the School of Chemistry and Physics Quantum Research Group, University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Interest was intensified by Googles announcement last October that it had developed a 53-qubit device which it claimed took 200 seconds to sample one instance of a quantum circuit a million times. The IT company claimed it would take a state-of-the-art digital supercomputer 10,000 years to achieve this.
A University of Waterloo Institute for Quantum Computing paper stresses quantum computers ability to express a signal (a qubit) of more than one value at the same time (the superposition ability) with that signal being manifested in another device independently, but in exactly the same way (the entanglement ability). This enables quantum computers to handle much more complex questions and problems than standard computers using binary codes of ones and zeros.
The IBM Research Laboratory in Johannesburg offers African researchers the potential to harness such computing power. It was established in 2015, part of a 10-year investment programme through the South African governments Department of Trade and Industry.
It is a portal to the IBM Quantum Experience, a cloud-based quantum computing platform accessible to other African universities that are part of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), which involves 16 of the continents leading universities (in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa).
Levelling of the playing field
The IBM development has levelled the playing field for students, [giving them] access to the same hardware as students elsewhere in the world. There is nothing to hold them back to develop quantum applications and code. This has been really helpful for us at Stellenbosch to work on projects which need access to quantum processors not available to the general public, said Tame.
While IBM has another centre on the continent, at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2018 the University of the Witwatersrand became the first African university to join the American computing giants Quantum Computing Network. They are starting to increase the network to have an army of quantum experts, said Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, a nuclear physicist, and vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the Witwatersrand.
At a continental level, Vilakazi said Africa is still in a learning phase regarding quantum computing. At this early stage we are still developing the skills and building a network of young students, he said. The university has sent students to IBMs Zurich facility to learn about quantum computing, he said.
To spur cooperation in the field, a Quantum Africa conference has been held every year since 2010, with the first three in South Africa, and others in Algeria and Morocco. Last years event was in Stellenbosch, while this years event, to be hosted at the University of Rwanda, was postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Growing African involvement
Rwanda is making big efforts to set up quantum technology centres, and I have former students now working in Botswana and the Gambia. It is slowly diffusing around the continent, said Petruccione.
Academics participating at the Stellenbosch event included Yassine Hassouni of Mohammed V University, Rabat; Nigerian academic Dr Obinna Abah of Queens University Belfast; and Haikel Jelassi of the National Centre for Nuclear Sciences and Technologies, Tunisia.
In South Africa, experimental and theoretical work is also being carried out into quantum communications the use of quantum physics to carry messages via fibre optic cable.
A lot of work is being done on the hardware side of quantum technologies by various groups, but funding for these things is not the same order of magnitude as in, say, North America, Australia or the UK. We have to do more with less, said Tame.
Stellenbosch, near Cape Town, is carrying out research into quantum computing, quantum communication and quantum sensing (the ability to detect if a quantum-sent message is being read).
I would like it to grow over the next few years by bringing in more expertise and help the development of quantum computing and technologies for South Africa, said Tame.
Witwatersrand is focusing on quantum optics, as is Petrucciones team, while there is collaboration in quantum computing with the University of Johannesburg and the University of Pretoria.
Building up and retaining talent is a key challenge as the field expands in Africa, as is expanding courses in quantum computing.
South Africa doesnt offer a masters in quantum computing, or an honours programme, which we need to develop, said Petruccione.
This is set to change at the University of the Witwatersrand.
We will launch a syllabus in quantum computing, and were in the process of developing courses at the graduate level in physics, natural sciences and engineering. But such academic developments are very slow, said Vilakazi.
Further development will hinge on governmental support, with a framework programme for quantum computing being developed by Petruccione. There is interest from the [South African] Department of Science and Innovation. Because of [the economic impact of] COVID-19, I hope some money is left for quantum technology, but at least the government is willing to listen to the community, he said.
Universities are certainly trying to tap non-governmental support to expand quantum computing, engaging local industries, banks and pharmaceutical companies to get involved in supporting research.
We have had some interesting interactions with local banks, but it needs to be scaled up, said Petruccione.
While African universities are working on quantum computing questions that could be applicable anywhere in the world, there are plans to look into more localised issues. One is drug development for tuberculosis, malaria and HIV, diseases that have afflicted Southern Africa for decades, with quantum computings ability to handle complex modelling of natural structures a potential boon.
There is potential there for helping in drug development through quantum simulations. It could also help develop quantum computing networks in South Africa and more broadly across the continent, said Vilakazi.
Agriculture is a further area of application. The production of fertilisers is very expensive as it requires high temperatures, but bacteria in the soil do it for free. The reason we cant do what bacteria do is because we dont understand it. The hope is that as quantum computing is good at chemical reactions, maybe we can model it and that would lead to cheaper fertilisers, said Petruccione.
With the world in a quantum computing race, with the US and China at the forefront, Africa is well positioned to take advantage of developments. We can pick the best technology coming out of either country, and that is how Africa should position itself, said Vilakazi.
Petrucciones group currently has collaborations with Russia, India and China. We want to do satellite quantum communication. The first step is to have a ground station, but that requires investment, he said.
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