Africa’s Quantum: Welcome To The 1960s

Published 29 days ago
By Forbes Africa | Tamsin Mackay
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Quantum security in Africa may not be as advanced as in other regions, but it is recognized as an important facet of computation in the future.

“Right now, quantum computing is where classical computing was in the 1960s.”

Quantum is about to change how computers are used to attack. No, it’s not here right now. It’s probably not going to be here tomorrow. But it’s coming and it’s time to pay attention.

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The World Economic Forum is listening. It released a Quantum Readiness Toolkit in 2023 discussing the speed of quantum development, the increase in quantum computers and the cybersecurity threats these introduce. The European Policy Centre published its quantum security agenda the same year, putting the quantum conversation firmly in the security spotlight. Quantum has the potential to change everything, including cybersecurity.

“It will change how computers will be used to attack and defend, potentially cracking cryptographic algorithms at speed,” says Martin Potgieter, Co-Founder and Technical Director at Nclose in Cape Town, South Africa. “While quantum computers are largely experimental and impractical, the idea is that when they become mainstream, they will introduce exponentially greater computing power.”

Professor Bruce Watson, Director of the Computational Thinking for AI Group, in the Centre for AI Research (CAIR), in Stellenbosch University, South Africa, adds: “They are complex and expensive to build requiring facilities that have liquid nitrogen or liquid helium cooling with vibration-proof infrastructure that can cost upwards of $100 million just for the lab. Right now, quantum computing is where classical computing was in the 1960s.”

This is globally, not just in Africa. While some of the big names in technology are putting their money in the quantum basket, the technology and its capabilities are on par with the grainy photographs of giant computers and stacks of floppy discs over 70 years ago. The only difference is that countries like the United States (US) and China have the budgets to drive the quantum agenda.

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“In Africa, there are several labs working on quantum experimentation but none are building full-blown quantum computers,” continues Watson. “It comes back to the cost point. Even though we have the scientists and the mathematicians and are building up this expertise on the continent we’ll be making use of overseas facilities for the foreseeable future.”

However, this doesn’t change the need to prioritize quantum security on the continent. Just as the first virus – the Creeper – released in 1971 was an unexpected side-effect of innovation back then, so it will be for the quantum computer in the future.

“I don’t see this as a region-specific phenomenon,” says Potgieter. “Should Sothern African Development Community and the African Union put quantum security on their agenda, if they don’t already? While we have a lot of problems in Africa that need attention and there are a lot of variables, it should be discussed at a high level.”

Looking ahead, it is very likely that sectors such as finance and healthcare – both very much in line to benefit from the potential of quantum – will look to implementing protocols and guidelines that will ensure they are protected.

According to Jean-Francois Bobier, Partner and Vice President, Deep Tech at Boston Consulting Group, there are no regulations specifically for the banking sector in Africa at the moment. In Morocco, initiatives are driven by leading banking groups such as Attijariwafa Bank at a preliminary stage but central banks are still struggling to impose Transport Layer Security (TLS) with classical cypher algorithms.

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“It’s likely Africa will follow the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) guidelines which are based in the US and we expect them to mandate the move to post-quantum cryptography in 2025,” he adds. “We anticipate it will be similar to Y2K, even worse because crypto is everywhere, has never been properly documented, and is sometimes hard-coded in applications and certificates.”

Quantum security in Africa may not be as advanced as in other regions, but it is recognized as an important facet of computation in the future. Steven Cohen, Managing Director of Triple S Solutions, adds: “The continent’s diverse economic and technological landscape means different countries will engage with this issue at different paces and levels of intensity. However, given the global nature of digital security and communication, quantum security is a conversation worth having.”

Over the next five years, quantum is unlikely to leap into mainstream but the groundwork laid in these years will be critical for shaping the quantum future in Africa.

As Watson concludes: “As far as I can tell, we don’t have a single significant post-quantum cryptography effort or quantum security effort for designing new algorithms. There are people across Africa advocating for the need for post-quantum cryptography but the vast majority don’t yet understand that they should be taking action now.”

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