Wits gets R54m funding to put SA on quantum map

Staff Writer
By Staff Writer, ITWeb
Johannesburg, 21 Oct 2022

Wits University has secured R54 million in funding from the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), to kick-start the South African Quantum Technologies Initiative (SA QuTI).

This follows a written proposal by a national consortium led by Wits professor Andrew Forbes, which saw the DSI commit the first tranche of funding up until March 2025, to set up the national quantum technologies initiative.

Approved by the DSI last year, the SA QuTI is a national undertaking that seeks to create conducive conditions in SA for a globally-competitive research environment in quantum computing technologies, and to grow the local quantum technology industry.

According to Wits, the funding will focus on human capital development, development of emerging leaders, access to quantum computers and advocacy, as well as support for quantum communications and quantum sensing and metrology deployment through start-up entities.

In addition, it will help in the establishment of quantum nodes at five centres, namely Wits University, University of Zululand (UniZulu), Stellenbosch University, University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) – eventually increasing the number of active centres across the country by finding and supporting new emerging quantum leaders.

“We managed to convince government that quantum research is too important to leave to a small research group, and that they should invest in a national programme,” says Forbes.

“It means we can drive the technology and get many quantum nodes up to scratch,” he states, adding the emphasis is on quantum technology, rather than quantum science.

“The aim is to develop people who can do something with the science, so that we can be part of the quantum revolution and develop a quantum economy.”

Quantum computing technology and quantum technology-driven research is not a new concept for the Braamfontein-based higher learning institution.

In 2019, US-headquartered computing giant IBM announced the expansion of its quantum computing efforts to Africa in a new collaboration with Wits.

The partnership saw the institution become the first African partner on the IBM Q Network and the gateway for academics across SA and to the 15 universities that are part of the African Research Universities Alliance.

Professor Andrew Forbes, Wits University School of Physics.
Professor Andrew Forbes, Wits University School of Physics.

In the case of the SA QuTI, Wits will manage the project, as well as administer and distribute the funding, while strengthening other research nodes with existing quantum projects, such as Stellenbosch University, CPUT, UKZN and UniZulu, the university reveals.

The aim will also be to start and support new nodes at other research institutions, it notes.

Says Forbes: “The aim is to eventually have a well-established critical mass in the national quantum community and to work with government to draft new legislation, where it comes to quantum technologies.”

While SA is not the first country to adopt a quantum policy framework, the professor is of the view that the move will put the country on the “quantum map”.

As an example, new legislation might be needed to govern the use of quantum computers to crack existing bank security codes. In a new quantum world, a bank would, for instance, not be able to say its systems are secure, if they are not “quantum secure”.

“The moment quantum computers can crack the code, current encryption systems are going to fail. You will need to have quantum security in place,” he says.

The national quantum project will not be focused on building quantum computer hardware, but will focus on writing software and building apps for quantum computers, which Forbes believes is where SA can play a strategic role in the international quantum community.

“It is important to see this not as a physics initiative. We want to involve people with different skillsets, wherever they are, so that we can build a vibrant quantum community and a viable quantum industry,” he concludes.