Africa is joining the global race in quantum technology to solve certain everyday problems, faster. This next era of computing is opening up new industries and opportunities.
You may never own one in your home. The likelihood of a quantum computer in your office? Also slim. Yet the next ‘big thing’ in computing technology is unlike the everyday machines we know – quantum computers are extremely fragile and have to be kept in rooms where the temperature is a few degrees away from zero.
The idea of quantum technology is intriguing… yet quantum computers are already here and capable of such complex calculations (and at such a rapid speed) that it’s worth getting excited about the potential of quantum technology and what it means for Africa.
“It is important for Africa to be competitive in the field of quantum information science, and that the necessary skill-sets are transferred to the next generation of students so that a quantum technology environment can be established,” says Dr Yaseera Ismail, a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu–Natal (UKZN) in South Africa.
UKZN’s Quantum Research Group is the largest quantum group in Africa, comprising both theoretical and experimental physicists working in the fields of quantum computing, communication, machine learning, biology and open quantum systems.
“By exploiting the fundamental processes of quantum mechanics, quantum computers show potential exponential speed-up for certain applications such as factoring large numbers, solving optimization problems or simulating quantum systems,” says Ismail.
Quantum computing is currently a mix between fundamental research and early-stage technology. It holds the promise of solving complex problems that are insurmountable today with our most powerful supercomputers.
“That’s because unlike conventional computers that are based on transistors and require data to be encoded into binary digits (bits), quantum computers use quantum bits (qubits), that can exist in multiple states simultaneously,” explains Jim Clarke, the Director of Quantum Hardware at Intel Corporation.
“As a result, operations on qubits can amount to many calculations in parallel, which could make certain kinds of computing problems much faster to solve.”
Intel is heavily invested into quantum research and development. Partnering with QuTech (a global quantum computing and internet research lab), the computing giant have also explored silicon spin qubits, an alternative quantum computing technology that resembles Intel’s advanced transistors and may offer a better path to large-scale systems.
Intel ships roughly 400 quadrillion transistors per year so it is to their advantage to explore quantum technologies based on transistor infrastructure. But Intel is not alone – Google AI are also developing quantum processors and algorithms to help researchers and developers solve near-term problems.
“We need to cater to the curiosity of young scientists and offer local centers of excellence where they can dive into exciting research fields,” adds Dr Maria Schuld, also a part of UKZN’s Quantum Research Group. Schuld, however, isn’t convinced that quantum computers are perfectly suited for the African research landscape.
“Fundamental research has few near-term benefits to society… early-stage technology is risky, very costly and has an ultra-fast turnover. With these thoughts of caution, I am still very happy that quantum computing is getting more traction on the continent. We need to be involved in developing the technologies of tomorrow, in order to contribute our perspectives, influence power structures in future markets and to have knowledge readily available.”
IBM are working closely with the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg to expand their IBM Q network and make it available to academics across South Africa as well as the 15 universities who form part of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA).
“Because Wits are in the education space, they know that they have to ready the next generation of computer scientists and physicists,” explains IBM’s Dr Ismail Akhalwaya. “Quantum computing offers amazing new opportunities for a wide range of industries. This is the time to get everyone excited. This is the time to start learning how to use a quantum computer.”
Akhalwaya believes that beneficiating our own natural resources – in this case, scientific data – is imperative. The exponential nature of quantum technology means that Africa won’t be left behind when it comes to developing Africa-specific solutions. In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, new classes of medication are developed daily with billions of dollars going into research. The result? Only a handful are relevant to African medical conditions.
“What about the diseases endemic to Africa and not the rest of the world?” asks Akhalwaya. “HIV C is prevalent in Africa and the third world but pharmaceutical companies are not investing as much into finding drugs to cure this strand.”
Ultimately, the promise of quantum is about greater efficiency and performance when it comes to handling certain problems, but will quantum computers eventually replace emerging technologies like neuromorphic computing?
“The intent of quantum computers is to be a different tool to solve different problems,” explains UKZN’s Ismail. “Quantum computers will be good for solving optimization problems, however, they cannot replace certain tasks of classical computers such as emails. Quantum computers will also change the way we ensure the security of information.”
The industries that will truly reap the benefits of quantum computing technology are those that have high-performance computing workloads. IBM’s African research lab, at first, will focus on HIV drug discovery, cosmology and molecular biology. The team will also join a study in quantum teleportation, a field pioneered by IBM fellow Charles Bennett.
“There are Africa-specific problems like HIV/AIDS and developing drugs for malaria resistance, urgent problems that need to be solved in order to save lives. As soon as we have technology that will help us solve these problems, there’s almost a moral obligation on us to try. And fortunately, quantum computers fit exactly that bill,” adds Akhalwaya.
“Classical computers changed the world. We as Africans should be paying attention. We want to be part of the next revolution, we don’t want to be left behind.”
‘WFH’ here to stay?
The home will be hub and flexible working the norm. The result? Renewed employee trust, wellness and cost savings, say more companies.
Even the words out-of-the-box seem out of date at a time when shipping containers are turning into ICU hospitals and arms firms are making ventilators and personal protective equipment.
If technology is being repurposed, so too homes and humans.
Over the last few months the world over, the pandemic-induced ‘new normal’ has seen homes turning into head offices, with the volatile economy forcing businesses to rethink long-term strategies in a work from home (WFH) environment that looks here to stay.
Even the big corporates say this could extend post-pandemic.
Barclays CEO Jes Staley said its staff will not revert fully to its pre-January work habits. “There will be a long-term adjustment in how we think about our location strategy; the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past,” he said after the company reported its first quarter profits for 2020.
Internet giant Google said all staff are expected to work from home until 2021, according to a May 2020 report in Bloomberg. S,imilarly, Facebook will let staff work remotely through 2020. Twitter, on the other hand, announced a short while later it would let staff work from home “forever”.
Euromonitor International’s Global Consumer Trends 2020 report has highlighted areas that Covid-19 will have an impact for the year ahead. Some of these include multi-functional homes where, in the long-term, the home becomes the hub and businesses will adapt accordingly; private personalization, which will put privacy concerns on hold in the short term but will return in the long term; and inclusivity for all would see disabled communities benefitting from technology.
In South Africa, the government has stipulated five levels of lockdown dictating how businesses may be carried out, including which sectors can operate as levels change. This requires flexibility and being able to adapt from one week to the other.
Jordan Rittenberry, Edelman Africa CEO, says the company’s transition towards more flexible working policies has been sped up by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the process has been a success with renewed trust in employees.
“We believe that flexibility, particularly in the current environment, is a useful way for companies to treat their staff right and foster mutual trust,” he tells FORBES AFRICA. “The pandemic has required a rapid mind-set change as companies take on new responsibilities towards the people that work for them and employee wellness is the first port of call as we navigate these uncharted waters.
“Every crisis presents opportunities and new ways of doing things. The shift we are seeing now is one of those that could help to meaningfully improve employer-employee relationships if managed carefully.
“As more people work from home, we will naturally require less space over time and this will yield cost savings to the business that can be passed on to clients.
“Besides employee costs, real estate is our biggest expense,” he says. Pieter Bensch, Executive Vice President at Sage Middle East and Africa, has come to a similar conclusion. “We realized that we do not need as much office space going forward and working remotely using cloud technology tools has maintained productivity levels from our colleagues,” says Bensch to FORBES AFRICA.
“Our entire workforce began working remotely before lockdown and are in no rush to return until it is safe but have encouraged video calls so they can see each other.
“Our cloud accounting and payroll product sales have increased, which is a clear indication that our customers now understand the power and benefits of cloud solutions to maintain business continuity.”
The mental wellbeing of employees has also been top priority. “All Sage colleagues received a free subscription to Headspace, a brilliant award-winning app and guide to everyday mindfulness,” adds Bensch. The company also formed a ‘[email protected]’ community for staff looking for peer support on how to adapt with differing family needs and challenges.
A Johannesburg-based agency called BetterWork that specializes in design thinking for human resources has been hosting weekly lunchtime Zoom calls since the beginning of lockdown in South Africa. Attendees include a mix of its professional network, members of The GoodWork Society and other members of the general public. Some of its takeaways have proven that WFH is more productive than working in the office, which cited minimal distractions and the extra hours gained from not having to sit in traffic. Additionally, introverts seem to be thriving and tend to feel more comfortable with contributions to teamwork. On the other hand, BetterWork says parents on the call have expressed being overwhelmed with not just their own work but also the additional responsibility of being teacher-guides to their children.
The company believes the home-office is now the responsibility of the employer where people-focused services such as tele-therapy, support for parents and social programs become an additional duty to ensure a healthy, productive team. It adds that an obvious benefit would be the compensation or subsidizing of laptops, stable internet connectivity, webcams, etc.
Palesa Sibeko, Co-founder of BetterWork, says offices are typically expertly assessed and constructed to suit an organization’s work activity needs, but the same is not true for the millions of homes that are now acting as places of work. “There is not a concerted effort to view home-work life more holistically, to identify the needs and address them to create environments conducive to doing great work.” BetterWork says it is currently looking into how to support organizations on this important mission.
– Nafisa Akabor
Warning: COVID-19 Contact Tracing Apps Could Be Turned Into Tools For Domestic Abuse
If governments don’t focus on strong privacy protections in their COVID-19 contact tracking tools, it could exacerbate domestic abuse and endanger survivors, according to a warning from women’s support charities.
They’ve urged the U.K. government to include domestic abuse and violence against women and girls (VAWG) experts in the development of such initiatives.
Though the U.K. doesn’t yet have a widely available track and trace app, the charities – including Women’s Aid and Refuge – are already anxious enough about the current tracing program, where infected people are called up and asked to register themselves online as someone who has contracted COVID-19. They’re then asked to share details on people with whom they’ve been in contact so they too can be informed.
In a joint whitepaper, the nonprofits said they were anxious about contact tracing staff inadvertently leaking contact details of survivors to perpetrators. They also raised fears the program could be turned into a “tool for abuse.”
“For example, perpetrators may make fraudulent claims that they have been in contact with survivors in order for them to be asked to self-isolate unnecessarily, and in these circumstances survivors will have no means to identify the perpetrator as the original source,” they warned. “Perpetrators or associates may also pose as contact tracing staff and make contact with victims [or] survivors requesting they self-isolate or requesting personal information.”
The paper also claims abusers are already using the coronavirus pandemic for “coercive control,” in some cases deliberately breathing, spitting and coughing in survivors’ faces. As Forbes previously reported, the sharing of child abuse material has also spiked during global COVID-19 lockdowns.
As for apps, the report warned they required location services to be switched on. “While the NHS app itself doesn’t collect location data, if a perpetrator has installed spyware onto a survivor’s phone or is able to hack into it, then turning on location services will expose their location.”
Problems with Palantir?
The charities also raised concerns about a number of companies who’d partnered with the U.K. on the contact tracing initiatives. They said Serco, which is handling recruiting for contact tracing staff, “has a significant track record of failings and human rights violations, including running a controversial women’s immigration detention centre where staff have been accused of sexual misconduct and involvement in unlawful evictions of asylum seekers.” Serco also recently had to apologize for leaking email addresses of contact tracer staff.
Serco denies that it has any kind of significant track record of failing and human rights violations and that the evictions to which the charities are referring were in Scotland and were ruled legal. It also said that in seven years there had been no substantiated complaints about any sexual wrongdoing at the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, where reports had revealed allegations.
“We are proud to be supporting the government’s test and trace programme with our Tier 3 contact centre team working from pre-approved Public Health England scripts. This is important work and we would like to thank all our teams who have stepped forward. In just four week we mobilised many thousands of people, which is a huge achievement, and we are focussed on ensuring that all our people are able to support the government’s programme going forwards,” a Serco spokesperson said.
Palantir, the $20 billion big data crunching business, also raised an eyebrow. The company, which has secured millions of dollars in contracts to help health agencies manage the outbreak, has come in for criticism for assisting U.S. immigration authorities on finding and ejecting illegal aliens.
Palantir hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
UK’s delayed COVID-19 app
The charities’ warning comes as the U.K. announced its contact tracing app would be shifting to the Apple and Google models, which promise stronger privacy protections than the app being tested by the government. The main difference is in where user information goes. In the government’s app, anonymized phone IDs of both the infected person and the people they’ve been near are sent to a centralized server, which determines who to warn about possible COVID-19 infection. In the Apple and Google model, only the phone ID of the infected person is sent to a centralized database. The phone then downloads the database and decides where to send alerts. The latter means the government has access to far less data on people’s phones, pleasing some critics but aggravating the government.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said on Thursday that Apple’s restrictions on third-party apps’ use of Bluetooth may’ve been one reason the government’s own app wasn’t as successful as hoped. Bluetooth is being used to determine whether an infected person has been in close proximity with another person’s phone.
Earlier this week, Amnesty International cybersecurity researcher Claudio Guarnieri warned that global rollouts of contact tracing apps were a privacy “trash fire.” After analyzing 11 apps, he found many contained privacy shortcomings. So concerned was Norway that it suspended its tool.
Even with lockdowns easing, those who’re infected are still being advised to isolate. However, the NHS guidance says that “the household isolation instruction as a result of Coronavirus (COVID-19) does not apply if you need to leave your home to escape domestic abuse.” That message may not have been amplified as much as it should’ve been.
Twitter Begins Asking Users To Actually Read Articles Before Sharing Them
TOPLINE Twitter announced Wednesday that it will test a new feature that will prompt users to open up a link to an article before sharing it, which appears to be a move to further combat the spread of misinformation on the platform.
- Some Twitter uses may be subject to a prompt to click on a link if they try to retweet without reading the article first, billed by Twitter as a feature “designed to empower healthy and informed public conversation.”
- English speakers on Android devices will be the first to see the tests.Users will still have the ability to retweet a message without clicking the link first if they chose to tap through the prompt.
- According to Twitter Support, an official company account, the platform will only check if a user has clicked the article link recently through Twitter, not elsewhere on the internet.
- Twitter denied some skeptical users’ accusations that the platform is testing the feature to establish a revenue stream via click-through to outside websites, saying the platform is not testing ad products with the prompts.
- Twitter Support told one user it would watch to see if reminding users to read an article before they share it leads to more informed discussion.
“It’s easy for links [and] articles to go viral on Twitter. This can be powerful but sometimes dangerous, especially if people haven’t read the content they’re spreading. This feature (on Android for now) encourages people to read a linked article prior to retweeting it,” Twitter product lead Kayvon Beykpour commented upon the announcement of the feature testing.
The new prompt tests are the latest Twitter effort to curb the spread of misinformation on the platform. Twitter last month displayed fact-check tags on two of President Donald Trump’s tweets that featured misleading information regarding mail-in ballots and voter fraud. Twitter also rolled out testing for a new feature to allow users to limit who can reply to their tweets. The platform has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle in recent weeks, from conservatives over accusations of censorship and from the left for not doing enough to stifle misinformation.
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