Why Africa must be ready to take the quantum leap

Radio telescopes at the proposed South African site for the SKA telescope.
IBM is bringing quantum computing to African universities, where it's expected to boost research.
Image: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Built on the principles of quantum mechanics, quantum computers take a new approach to processing information. We expect them to open doors that we once thought would remain locked indefinitely. But what does that really mean?

Simply put, for certain types of problems, the number of possible solutions doubles every time you add another component into the equation. And that makes it exponentially more difficult to compute.

There’s a classic fable that demonstrates the nature of exponential growth. It goes like this:

There once was a craftsman who invented the game that we now know as chess. He brought his creation to the emperor as a gift, who was so pleased that he told the craftsman to name his reward.

The craftsman made a seemingly modest request: some rice, to be delivered over 64 days, representing the 64 squares on the chess board. On the first day, he would receive a single grain. On each subsequent day, the amount would double.

The emperor considered this a bargain and delivered that single grain on day one. The next day, he doubled it. On day three, the craftsman received four grains and then eight grains, and so on. After a full week, the craftsman had only collected 127 grains of rice in total, not even enough to fill a teaspoon.

But within a month, thanks to the power of exponential growth, it was becoming clear that the craftsman’s request wasn’t so modest after all. On the 30th day, the craftsman was due more than a billion grains. To keep his bargain on the 64th day, the emperor would have to surrender 535 billion metric tons of rice. That’s a pile the size of Mount Everest.

Some problems work like this, too. When they’re small, with just a few components to consider, they’re analogous to the tiny quantities of rice during the first few days of the craftsman’s reward.

Quantum computers are uniquely capable, for certain problems, to deal with this exponential growth. They are built on the principles 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 mostly hidden from view.

By harnessing such natural behaviour, quantum computers can run new types of algorithms to potentially solve previously “unsolvable” problems in optimization, chemistry and machine learning. And this is why Africa needs to act now to not miss this new era. We need to educate, we need to skill up and we need to brainstorm around the most pressing African use cases.

Why quantum computing is important for Africa

Humans first appeared between around 300,000 and 200,000 years ago, but only left Africa around 70,000 years ago (to select the largest of multiple waves of migrations). During these periods and up to the present day, genetic diversity has been increasing, with the net result that Africans still have more diversity than the rest of the world combined. Such diversity is a treasure trove of genetic information. This includes the ability to more easily infer the role of different genes (by averaging over more varieties) and also discovering natural immunities to diseases.

Furthermore, in the age of personalized genetic medicine, solutions for one population group don’t necessarily help another. This all points to the need for us Africans to mine the jewels of our own genetic heritage using the latest techniques for genetics and drug discovery. Quantum computing promises to open exciting new avenues of research in this area including simulating the effects of certain medicines on your body, hastening the process of drug discovery and ushering in an era of personalized medicine.

Our genetic heritage is only one surprising natural resource that Africa has – another is the clarity of our night skies at high altitudes. This won southern African countries the prestige of being selected to host what will be the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Array (SKA).

African and global scientists who come to Africa to use the SKA should also participate in the processing and interpretation of SKA data on African soil, with all the spin-off benefits coming to Africa. Indeed, this is part of the reason for having local supercomputing facilities on the continent.

Complementing classic supercomputers, quantum computing also promises to solve physics simulation and pattern discovery problems relevant to the SKA, such as removing the noise in the data from the science.

The quantum computing expertise that must be fostered to fulfill the goal of making sense of the raw SKA data would also have local spin-off benefits for Africa. Why? Well, the SKA will capture more data per day than is on the internet, meaning if you are a start-up and have algorithms that can find patterns in this enormous data set, working with banking or e-commerce data will be effortless.

The last African-specific reason justifying investment in quantum computing are the future security implications. Quantum computers have the long-term potential to crack certain types of encryption we use to safeguard transactions. There are classical solutions to being quantum-safe, and it would be prudent if Africa had local expertise. Such precautions would steer a middle path between complacency and unwarranted hype and alarm.

Africa’s got talent

Sometimes the question is put to us: while the argument to diversify and nurture local expertise is well founded, do we have the raw talent? Fortunately, in South Africa we have a history of innovation in quantum physics to draw upon (for example, the Nobel prize for the invention of the CAT scan), and even recent surprising successes in the already mentioned supercomputing field, which is strongly intertwined with the quantum field. Over a recent four-year period, the South African supercomputing team were three-time world champions in the International Supercomputing Competition.

This is what gave IBM and Wits the confidence to bring quantum computing to Africa, to enable African researchers to keep abreast with cutting-edge developments in this extremely promising technological field. By leveraging the African Research Universities Alliance, and its additional 15 university members, we can be bold and optimistic.

To jumpstart the learning and community-building process, 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.

In summary, my fellow Africans, let’s get quantum-ready.

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