Quantum computing can solve some SKA problems, says IBM

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IBM sees a lot of quantum computing use cases in SA and the rest of Africa.

This week, the US-based computing company held its IBM Think event in Johannesburg, where it partnered Wits University to drive quantum computing on the African continent.

IBM believes the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope can be one use case where quantum computing can be deployed.

SKA is a radio telescope project proposed to be built in SA and Australia. If built, it would have a total collecting area of approximately one square kilometre.

Processing the vast quantities of data produced by the SKA will require very high-performance central supercomputers capable of in excess of 100 petaflops (one hundred thousand million million floating point operations per second) of raw processing power.

The giant radio telescope needs such immense computing power because scientific image and signal processing for radio astronomy imaging consists of several fundamental steps, all of which must be completed as quickly as possible across thousands of telescopes connected by thousands of miles of fibre-optic cable, the SKA says.

It adds that the computers must be able to make decisions on objects of interest, and remove data which is of no scientific benefit, such as radio interference from things like mobile phones or similar devices, even with the remote locations which will host the SKA.

Dr Ismail Akhalwaya, IBM’s quantum physicist, says classical computing has served society incredibly well.

“It gave us the Internet and cashless commerce. It sent humans to the moon, put robots on Mars and smartphones in our pockets. But many of the world’s biggest mysteries and potentially greatest opportunities remain beyond the grasp of today’s classical computers.

“To continue the pace of progress, we need to augment the classical approach with a completely new paradigm, one that follows its own set of rules. It’s called quantum computing.”

He explains that quantum computers are incredibly powerful machines that take a new approach to processing information.

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

“Quantum computers 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 hidden from view.”

Dr Solomon Assefa, vice-president and emerging markets and director for IBM Research in Africa, says African and global scientists who come to Africa to use the SKA should participate in the processing and interpretation of SKA data on African soil, with all the local spin-off benefits coming to Africa.

“Indeed, this is part of the reason for having local supercomputing facilities on the continent. Quantum computing also promises to solve physics simulation and pattern discovery problems relevant to the SKA that complement the power of the classical supercomputers.”

Assefa adds that the quantum computing expertise that must be fostered to fulfil the goal of beneficiating the raw data would also have local spin-off benefits for Africa.

IBM is bringing quantum computing to Africa and will collaborate with universities across the continent to train students and professors on the functionalities of this new computing paradigm.

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