Quantum computing promises to unlock problem-solving capabilities that could change the world. But which parts of the world might it change? And who will be best positioned to gain the most from this emerging technology?
By Amira Abbas, Mmapula Baloi and Ismail Akhalwaya of IBM Research-Africa
To ensure an ethical and equitable future for quantum computing, it is important that voices from all regional, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds contribute to research and development efforts happening today. This isn’t just a philosophical ideal. For members of the fast-growing African quantum community, and for the global quantum community writ large —it’s a mission of critical importance.
Part of that mission has to do with ensuring that quantum computing is used to solve problems and create opportunities that are specific to the African continent. Some members of the quantum community have expressed concerns that this will not be the case, with headlines like “Will Africa miss the next computational revolution?”or will Africa “be ready to take the quantum leap?” However, for the quantum experts who live and work in Africa today, it’s not just a matter of whether the continent will miss out on quantum computing’s enormous promise, but whether quantum computing will miss out on the tremendous potential of African talent. Given the direction the continent’s population is headed, that could be a major loss.
“By 2050, the population of Africa will double,” said Barry Dwolatzky, emeritus professor of electrical and information engineering at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits University) in Johannesburg, South Africa. Current projections indicate that most of this growing population will be young and urban —ideal candidates, in Dwolatzky’s view, for the quantum workforce of the future. “They all will be potential recruits into this new world of technology,”Dwolatzky said, “so I think we are planting seeds now where we will start to see huge numbers come through our universities [to] do quality work.”
From automated soap dispensers that fail to work for darker skin tones to algorithmic bias in the criminal justice system, the history of technology is filled with examples of how things can go wrong when there is a lack of diversity among the people who create that technology. We may not know yet exactly where and how quantum computing will prove its value, but there is one thing that is all but certain: Quantum computing will deliver the most benefit —and do the least harm —when it incorporates perspectives from the broadest possible community of developers.
That’s why contributions from community members on the African continent are crucial, and why Qiskit has spent years working to foster this community. Last year’s Qiskit Global Summer School saw 285 total participants across 26 different countries in Africa, and this year’s event saw 288 total participants across 30 different African countries. In 2019, Qiskit hosted the Qiskit Camp Africa hackathon in South Africa, drawing participants from across the continent.
African participants in these events demonstrated not only the magnitude of their talent, but also the unique insight and creativity fostered by their experience as students, researchers, and STEM professionals living and working on the continent. Notably, many of these participants tackled the kinds of quantum computing problems that are important not just because classical machines struggle to solve them, but also because they are so often overlooked by developer communities in Europe, Asia, and North America.
These events also proved that there is enormous enthusiasm for quantum computing all across the continent. In many cases, that enthusiasm came from some surprising places. “The interest isn’t just from physicists, like we would have expected,” said IBM quantum research advocate Amira Abbas. “It came from people [with] all types of backgrounds, like engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and more.”
Engagements like these are crucial to the further growth of the quantum community on the continent. Mmapula Baloi, an IBM quantum community advocate intern based in South Africa, says she first became interested in the field after attending a Qiskit Global Summer School and a OneQuantum Women in Quantum event. Now, she’s a Ph.D. student studying physics at Wits University. “It was kind of difficult to find a university locally that offered a quantum computing course similar to the one by The Coding School’s Qubit by Qubit course that I attended,” she said.
While universities are doing quantum research in South Africa, Baloi realised that online courses targeted toward global audiences are a must for anyone hoping to enter the field. Now, Baloi herself is working with universities across the continent to spread awareness of quantum computing research and share educational opportunities.
African quantum experts like IBM Research South Africa research scientist Ismail Akhalwaya believe that developing home-grown quantum knowledge on the African continent is crucial. “We’re not traditionally a computer technology economy in South Africa, or even in the whole of Africa, but we need to move that way,” he said.
Akhalwaya argued that educational efforts made today are the only way to ensure that researchers will eventually use quantum computing to tackle African problems, and to ensure that Africans in the future receive equitable access to the potential commercial rewards of a mature quantum industry. “This is the time to earn IP,” he said. “Scientists are securing patents on new inventions around quantum, and we should be a part of that.”
African universities may not have built up quantum hardware infrastructure, but Baloi points out that students have ample opportunity to impact algorithm and application development with the help of Qiskit. Making impacts in this way doesn’t necessarily require formal training, either.
Now, Amira Abbas, Mmapula Baloi, Ismail Akhalwaya and other quantum researchers and advocates from IBM Research and Wits University are working to launch the IBM Quantum Challenge Africa. Developed by African researchers with a particular eye towards engaging African students, researchers, and industry professionals, the challenge aims to grow the African quantum community and boost participants’ quantum computing skills by guiding them through the application of quantum to problems in agriculture, finance, and chemistry. To make the most of that interest, challenge developers like Abbas and Akhalwaya have put in a great deal of effort to ensure that the Quantum Challenge Africa exercises are intellectually stimulating without requiring a background in quantum computing.
IBM Quantum Challenge Africa will run from September 9 through September 20, 2021, and although the event is especially geared toward African participants, it is open to anyone from around the globe.
The challenge will consist of three exercises that demonstrate how researchers may one day use quantum computing to tackle issues that are particularly relevant to the African continent —including problems in crop yield logistics, financial optimisation, and quantum drug discovery. A formal education in quantum computing is not required, and participants who complete all exercises will receive a digital badge that recognises their achievement.