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.”
Surge Of Smartphone Apps Promise Coronavirus Tracking, But Raise Privacy Concerns
Topline: A pan-European team of researchers announced Wednesday their plan to release a smartphone app that would notify users if they’ve been exposed to someone infected with coronavirus, the latest example of tech-driven coronavirus solutions that have also raised concerns about user privacy.
- A European project called Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing is working toward releasing a coronavirus tracing app in the next week that would use anonymous Bluetooth technology to track when a smartphone comes in close range with another, so if a user were to test positive for coronavirus those at risk of infection could be notified.
- Contact tracing, or determining people who may have been exposed to someone with a virus, is an established aspect of pandemic control and was used effectively to tackle coronavirus in countries like China, Singapore and South Korea in the form of smartphone tracking.
- University of Oxford researchers and the U.K. government are working on a similar project— but unlike other smartphone tracking systems, the British version in development would be based on voluntary participation and bet on citizens inputting their information out of a sense of civic duty.
- The U.S. government is in talks with companies like Facebook FB and Google GOOGL and other tech companies about tracking if users are social distancing using large amounts of anonymous, aggregated location data— this information is less precise, and more likely to anticipate outbreaks rather than pinpoint individuals who have been exposed to the virus.
- 1.5 million Israelis have voluntarily downloaded a mobile app that alerts users if they’ve come into contact with someone with coronavirus— but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has still ordered that potential coronavirus carriers have their phones monitored, a controversial move the government says is necessary, as the 17% of the population using the app is not enough to fight off the pandemic.
- Moscow , on a city-wide lockdown since Monday, announced Wednesday that a new phone app that will officials to track the movements of people diagnosed with coronavirus in the capital city would be launched on Thursday, saying the government will lend a smartphone to anyone unable to download the app.
Crucial quote: “We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against [coronavirus]. One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps ,” Google spokesman Johnny Luu told the The Washington Post. He made sure to note it “would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.”
Key background: Private and public entities alike are looking for ways to fight off coronavirus as the pandemic continues. On Wednesday, there were more than 900,000 confirmed cases worldwide and nearly 50,000 deaths.Officials told The New York Times NYT that The National Health Service, Britain’s centralized national health system, is trusted by citizens— and paired with the strong data privacy laws in place, said they think people would agree to join the effort to share their private information to help trace infections. However, American tech firms are reported to still be skeptical about sharing substantial data with the U.S. government ever since Edward Snowden revealed the NSA was collecting information from the firms clandestinely.
Surprising fact: The information tech companies have access to data that sheds light on Americans’ behavior in light of the coronavirus pandemic. According to a Facebook analysis, restaurant visits fell about 80% in Italy and 70% in Spain— while Americans only stopped eating out at a rate of 31%.
Apple Is Donating 9 Million Masks To Combat The Coronavirus
Topline: Apple will donate 9 million N95 protective masks to combat the coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday, making Apple one of several California tech companies pitching in as hospitals across the country report a shortage of protective gear.
- Pence thanked Apple for agreeing to donate 9 million N95 respirator masks to healthcare facilities across the country during a press briefing on Tuesday.
- Pence’s remarks come after Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted over the weekend the company was “working to help source supplies for healthcare providers fighting COVID-19” and “donating millions of masks for health professionals in the US and Europe,” but did not offer more specifics.
- N95 respirators are masks that form a protective seal around a wearer’s mouth, filtering out at least 95% of particles in the air, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which makes them necessary to protect healthcare workers from being exposed to the disease from patients.
- Facebook has also said it is donating its stockpile of 720,000 masks purchased during the California wildfires last year, which degraded the air quality in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Forbes asking if all of the donated masks were stockpiled because of the wildfires or if the company got them from somewhere else.
Chief critic: Teddy Schleifer, a reporter at Recode, wrote that health systems shouldn’t rely on the generosity of big tech companies to make up for the failures of the federal government.
“But there is a risk in relying on corporate philanthropy—rather than the government—in solving this problem. For starters, it depends on the voluntary generosity of these companies to deal with an unprecedented emergency, an altruism that could vanish at any time,” he wrote.
Crucial quote: “And I spoke today, and the president spoke last week, with Tim Cook of Apple. And at this moment in time Apple went to their store houses and is donating 9 million N95 masks to healthcare facilities all across the country and to the national stockpile,” Pence said.
Key background: Apple is one of several California tech companies to give away N95 masks. In addition to Facebook, Salesforce, Tesla and IBM have also announced mask donations.
News peg: Doctors and nurses are sounding the alarm that they don’t have enough masks to protect healthcare workers. Not only does inadequate protective gear put important frontline health workers at risk, public health experts say, any situation endangering medical personnel may only further depletes the U.S. health system which already doesn’t have enough capacity to handle a surge in cases. State officials in New York and Illinois have criticized President Donald Trump for not stepping in to force companies to manufacture masks or allocate masks from private companies to ensure that states don’t outbid each other for the same supplies.
–Rachel Sandler, Forbes Staff, Breaking News
Video Games Are Being Played At Record Levels As The Coronavirus Keeps People Indoors
Topline: With school closures, mandatory work-from-home policies and lockdowns taking place in the U.S. as a result of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, gaming has seen higher engagement, especially over this past weekend.
- Steam, the most popular digital PC gaming marketplace, reached new heights Sunday, drawing a record 20,313,451 concurrent users to the 16-year-old service, according to third-party database SteamDB.
- Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, released by Steam-owner Valve in 2012, seems to be the top beneficiary of the increased engagement, breaking it’s all-time peak on Sunday with 1,023,2290 concurrent players, topping its previous peak last month by a million, which itself beat the record set in April 2016.
- Like other esports, CS:GO has had to cancel events due to the virus, particularly the Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice earlier this month, though its peak viewership reached over a million, making it one of the most watched tournaments in the esports’ history.
- Activision Blizzard’s new free-to-play battle royale spinoff Call of Duty: Warzone, launched March 10 on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4, is also likely benefiting, drawing in a staggering 15 million in three days, besting the record 10 million in three days by last year’s battle royale sensation Apex Legends.
- These new heights follows similar effects of the virus on China and Italy: Telecom Italia’s CEO told Bloomberg it saw a 70% increase in traffic over its landline network, with Fortnite playing a significant part, while Chinese live-streaming service Douyu experienced increased viewership of the country’s most popular games, according to market analyst Niko Partners.
- While gaming was considered “recession proof” during the 2008 market crash, stocks aren’t immune to the current historic drops: software developers like Activision Blizzard are facing a 9% decrease in price year-to-date, while hardware companies that rely on Chinese manufacturing like Nintendo are seeing bigger drops of 24%.
What To Watch For: If these records keep rising as the closings and lockdowns continue. Arriving this week is Nintendo’s long-awaited Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Switch console, a relaxing “life-simulator” that’s set to have a big day with many fans not-so-jokingly asking Nintendo to launch early.
Surprising Fact: Plague Inc., a game that tasks players in creating a virus that wipes out humanity, surged in popularity late January, becoming the top-paid game on the Chinese app store at one point, but the game has now been removed in China at the direction of the government.
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