Africa is joining the global race in quantum technology to solve certain everyday problems, faster. This next era of computing is opening up new industries and opportunities.

You may never own one in your home. The likelihood of a quantum computer in your office? Also slim. Yet the next ‘big thing’ in computing technology is unlike the everyday machines we know – quantum computers are extremely fragile and have to be kept in rooms where the temperature is a few degrees away from zero.

The idea of quantum technology is intriguing… yet quantum computers are already here and capable of such complex calculations (and at such a rapid speed) that it’s worth getting excited about the potential of quantum technology and what it means for Africa.

“It is important for Africa to be competitive in the field of quantum information science, and that the necessary skill-sets are transferred to the next generation of students so that a quantum technology environment can be established,” says Dr Yaseera Ismail, a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu–Natal (UKZN) in South Africa.

UKZN’s Quantum Research Group is the largest quantum group in Africa, comprising both theoretical and experimental physicists working in the fields of quantum computing, communication, machine learning, biology and open quantum systems.

“By exploiting the fundamental processes of quantum mechanics, quantum computers show potential exponential speed-up for certain applications such as factoring large numbers, solving optimization problems or simulating quantum systems,” says Ismail.

Quantum computing is currently a mix between fundamental research and early-stage technology. It holds the promise of solving complex problems that are insurmountable today with our most powerful supercomputers.

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“That’s because unlike conventional computers that are based on transistors and require data to be encoded into binary digits (bits), quantum computers use quantum bits (qubits), that can exist in multiple states simultaneously,” explains Jim Clarke, the Director of Quantum Hardware at Intel Corporation.

“As a result, operations on qubits can amount to many calculations in parallel, which could make certain kinds of computing problems much faster to solve.”

Intel is heavily invested into quantum research and development. Partnering with QuTech (a global quantum computing and internet research lab), the computing giant have also explored silicon spin qubits, an alternative quantum computing technology that resembles Intel’s advanced transistors and may offer a better path to large-scale systems.

Intel ships roughly 400 quadrillion transistors per year so it is to their advantage to explore quantum technologies based on transistor infrastructure. But Intel is not alone – Google AI are also developing quantum processors and algorithms to help researchers and developers solve near-term problems.

“We need to cater to the curiosity of young scientists and offer local centers of excellence where they can dive into exciting research fields,” adds Dr Maria Schuld, also a part of UKZN’s Quantum Research Group. Schuld, however, isn’t convinced that quantum computers are perfectly suited for the African research landscape.

“Fundamental research has few near-term benefits to society… early-stage technology is risky, very costly and has an ultra-fast turnover. With these thoughts of caution, I am still very happy that quantum computing is getting more traction on the continent. We need to be involved in developing the technologies of tomorrow, in order to contribute our perspectives, influence power structures in future markets and to have knowledge readily available.”

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IBM are working closely with the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg to expand their IBM Q network and make it available to academics across South Africa as well as the 15 universities who form part of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA).

“Because Wits are in the education space, they know that they have to ready the next generation of computer scientists and physicists,” explains IBM’s Dr Ismail Akhalwaya. “Quantum computing offers amazing new opportunities for a wide range of industries. This is the time to get everyone excited. This is the time to start learning how to use a quantum computer.”

Akhalwaya believes that beneficiating our own natural resources – in this case, scientific data – is imperative. The exponential nature of quantum technology means that Africa won’t be left behind when it comes to developing Africa-specific solutions. In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, new classes of medication are developed daily with billions of dollars going into research. The result? Only a handful are relevant to African medical conditions.

“What about the diseases endemic to Africa and not the rest of the world?” asks Akhalwaya. “HIV C is prevalent in Africa and the third world but pharmaceutical companies are not investing as much into finding drugs to cure this strand.”

Ultimately, the promise of quantum is about greater efficiency and performance when it comes to handling certain problems, but will quantum computers eventually replace emerging technologies like neuromorphic computing?

“The intent of quantum computers is to be a different tool to solve different problems,” explains UKZN’s Ismail. “Quantum computers will be good for solving optimization problems, however, they cannot replace certain tasks of classical computers such as emails. Quantum computers will also change the way we ensure the security of information.”

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The industries that will truly reap the benefits of quantum computing technology are those that have high-performance computing workloads. IBM’s African research lab, at first, will focus on HIV drug discovery, cosmology and molecular biology. The team will also join a study in quantum teleportation, a field pioneered by IBM fellow Charles Bennett.

“There are Africa-specific problems like HIV/AIDS and developing drugs for malaria resistance, urgent problems that need to be solved in order to save lives. As soon as we have technology that will help us solve these problems, there’s almost a moral obligation on us to try. And fortunately, quantum computers fit exactly that bill,” adds Akhalwaya.

“Classical computers changed the world. We as Africans should be paying attention. We want to be part of the next revolution, we don’t want to be left behind.”