IBM, Wits partner to accelerate quantum computing in Africa

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 12 Jun 2019
Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits deputy vice-chancellor, research and postgraduate affairs, and Dr Solomon Assefa, VP for emerging market solutions and director at IBM Research Africa, during a press conference this morning.
Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits deputy vice-chancellor, research and postgraduate affairs, and Dr Solomon Assefa, VP for emerging market solutions and director at IBM Research Africa, during a press conference this morning.

US-based computing giant IBM today announced the expansion of its quantum computing efforts to Africa in a new collaboration with the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) in South Africa.

Wits University is the first African partner on the IBM Q Network and will be the gateway for academics across SA and to the 15 universities that are part of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA).

“This is the latest outcome of the joint partnership between IBM Research and Wits, which started in 2016 when IBM opened its second lab in Africa in Wits University’s Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Johannesburg,” said professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits deputy vice-chancellor: research and postgraduate affairs.

“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.”

Dr Ismael Akhalwaya, a quantum physicist at IBM, explains that quantum computers are incredibly powerful machines that take a new approach to processing information.

“To understand what this means, the number of computational states in a quantum computing system with 200 qubits will exceed the number of particles in the universe.

“With rapid progress over the last couple of decades, we are entering a new paradigm of computing and Africa needs to act now. We need to educate, we need to skill up and we need to brainstorm on how we can benefit from this technology to address the most pressing African use cases,” Akhalwaya says.

IBM explains that quantum computing promises to be able to solve certain problems – such as chemical simulations and types of optimisation – that will forever be beyond the practical reach of classical machines.

The company 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.

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. The teams will also jointly study quantum teleportation, a field pioneered by IBM fellow Charles Bennett.

“For Africa to remain competitive for the coming decades, we must get the next generation of students quantum-ready,” said Dr Solomon Assefa, vice-president, emerging market solutions and director at IBM Research, Africa.

As part of the partnership between IBM and Wits, scholars from 16 ARUA universities including: 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, 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.

“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 in 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 Vilakazi.