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Africa prepares for quantum leap

IBM and Wits University have partnered to enable the expansion of quantum computing in Africa.

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Now for a computer that gets 200 times colder than outer space. 

In June, IBM announced the expansion of its quantum computing efforts to Africa, via a new collaboration with the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) in South Africa. Wits is the first African academic partner in the IBM Q Network and will be the gateway for academic collaboration across South Africa, and to the other 15 universities that are part of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA).

This week, at Wits University’s Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Johannesburg, IBM physics researcher Dr. Heike Riel demonstrated how the latest in quantum computing manages to cool its processor down to around 15 millikelvin, or -273.135°C. 

“The interior of the quantum computer allows the exponential power to do things that classical computers can’t,” she said. “They perform computations very differently to what we’re used to. They are using qubits, and quantum bit processors, and they are housed at the bottom of the machine.

“Another important part of this system is the cryostat, which is the cooling system. All the shiny metal components are needed to cool down the processor so the processor can do the calculations. On the top layer, it cools down form 300K, which is room temperature, to about 40K. At this point, nitrogen is already liquid. On the second layer, it’s cooled to about 4K, where helium becomes liquid. Then it goes down to 800 millikelvin, then to 25 to 15 millikelvin in its final stage.

“In order to use the laws of physics in this kind of a system, you have to avoid noise. This why we cool it down to this level. The information is very fragile in this processor, and without the cooling, the quantum information will get lost. Apart from the machine that’s here, there is also another machine that interfaces with this machine to control it. That’s how it works”

Quantum computing should help to solve certain problems – such as chemical simulations and types of optimisation – that are beyond the practical reach of classical machines. IBM first made quantum computers available to the public in May 2016 through its IBM Q Experience quantum cloud service. It has doubled the power of its quantum computers annually since 2017.

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Postgraduate Affairs, said: “This is the latest outcome of the joint partnership between IBM Research and Wits, which started in 2016 when IBM opened its second lab in Africa in Wits University’s Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct. To expand the IBM Q Network to include Wits will drive innovation in frontier-technologies and benefit African-based researchers, academics and students who now have access to decades of quantum computing capabilities at the click of a button.” 

It is anticipated that researchers at Wits will investigate the use of quantum computing and machine learning in the fields of molecular biology, with a specific focus on HIV drug discovery and cosmology. The teams will also jointly study quantum teleportation with IBM, a field pioneered by IBM Fellow Charles Bennett.

“For Africa to remain competitive for the coming decades we must get the next generation of students quantum ready,” said Dr. Solomon Assefa, VP of Emerging Market Solutions and Director, IBM Research – Africa.  

IBM’s recently unveiled IBM Q System One is the world’s first integrated universal approximate quantum computing system designed for scientific and commercial use. IBM’s most advanced universal quantum computing systems are available through the premium IBM Q Experience platform.

Prof. Vilakazi said: “Having access to IBM Q is pivotal for Wits University’s cross-disciplinary research program and allows our researchers in quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and in the broad natural sciences, including in laser technology, quantum optics and molecular design, to leverage the next level of discovery research. It’s envisioned that the first results from this collaboration will be forthcoming in the next two years.”

More than 10 million experiments have run on the public IBM Q Experience and users have published over 160 third-party research papers. Developers can work with Qiskit, a full-stack, open-source quantum software development kit, to create and run quantum computing programs.

To further increase skills development, IBM Q is hosting an invite-only Qiskit Camp in South Africa this December for 200 quantum researchers and computer scientists where they will learn in an immersive environment and receive hands-on training.

As part of the partnership between IBM and Wits, scholars from the other fifteen ARUA universities including: Addis Ababa University; University of Ghana; University of Nairobi; University of Lagos; University of Ibadan; Obafemi Awolowo University lle-Ife; University of Rwanda; University Cheikh Anta Diop; University of Cape Town; University of Kwa-Zulu Natal; University of Pretoria; Rhodes University; University of Stellenbosch; University of Dar es Salaam and Makerere University, will have the opportunity to apply for access to IBM Q’s most-advanced quantum computing systems and software for teaching quantum information science and exploring early applications. To gain access to the IBM Q quantum cloud service, ARUA scholars will be required to submit quality research proposals to a scientific committee of Wits and IBM experts for approval. 

For more information about the IBM Q Network, as well as a full list of all partners, members, and hubs, visit https://www.research.ibm.com/ibm-q/network/

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Broadband gets a helping hand

Behind this week’s news that MTN fibre provider Supersonic has launched a fixed LTE service is an effort to rethink home connectivity, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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This week, MTN made its biggest play yet into the market for fibre connections to homes, but its biggest impact may well be within the home.

The mobile operator’s fibre-to-the-home subsidiary, Supersonic, launched a Fixed LTE offering on a month-to-month basis, meaning that homes in areas not yet wired for fibre can receive high-speed broadband. More important, they can get that access at rates that seem unprecedented for mobile data. 

There are two differences from regular packages, however. For one thing, the SIM card that comes with the package only works in specific routers that have to remain plugged into a power supply. For another, the data allocation is split half-half between regular hours and a Night Owl timeframe: the hours between midnight and dawn.

“It just needs users to adjust their internet behaviour a little,” says Calvin Collett, MD of Supersonic. “Conducting massive mobile phone updates or downloading an entire library of Netflix content shouldn’t be prioritised during the day, but should be scheduled for Night Owl data consumption.”

The biggest benefit, aside from pricing, is that one does not have to wait for fibre to arrive in a specific area. While Supersonic’s core business is fixed-line fibre-to-the-home, it is now set to leverage its parent company’s massive mobile data network.

“MTN’s LTE network coverage sits at 95%, after billions of rand was invested in network upgrades in recent years. There is absolutely no reason why those waiting for a fibre connection shouldn’t move to Fixed LTE.”

Collett argues that consumers are far more savvy and well informed of developments in the telecoms space than observers think. They carefully investigate the products and services they choose to spend on, and are looking for the best deals available.

The result is that Supersonic has quietly built up a side business in installing what is called a Mesh Wi-Fi network, consisting of a main Wi-Fi router connected to the standardfibre or LTE or router, and a series of additional access pointscalled plumes, placed in areas of low coverage through ahome.

The plumes – small pods that plug into any power point –connect to one another to expand the network across a wide area. Where traditional WI-FI extenders lose up to half the fibre bandwidth with every extension, the plumes maintain most of the speed regardless of how far the network is extended. All the pods connected to the same router form a single network with the same network name, eliminating the complications Wi-FI extenders usually introduce.

“The traditional Wi-Fi router has replaced the dial up connection, and we’re all happy about this – the infamous dial up tone is ingrained in the brains of anyone over the age of 30,” says Collett. “Wi-Fi revolutionised our way of life as the router gave us access to the internet without directly connecting to a modem. 

“We’ve moved forward, transitioning from ADSL to fibre. While fibre allows for high speed internet access, it is still connected to your Wi-Fi router. Naturally, the further you move away from the hub, the poorer your internet connection will be. Those dead spots around the house can become frustrating when your Wi-Fi signal shows 1 bar and it takes 5 minutes to load a single web page. Mesh Wi-Fi is the solution.”

Collett says he specifically researched a product that looked good, offered app-based management and required no cables. His research led him to Silicon Valley, and the result is the Supersonic Plume Mesh network system.

The drawback is that installation can be complicated for the non-technical consumer. To plug the gap, so to speak, Supersonic sends out technicians who conduct a Wi-Fi sweep of a home and advise how many Plume devices will be needed for 100% coverage. Based on this the technicians make a recommendation for an optimal “smart Wi-Fi”solution. Once installed, though, the network can be monitored and managed from a Supersonic App.

We tried it out and found it was a tale of two experiences. The initial experience was frustrating, as the pods tried to find each other. This is a necessary evil, it seems, as the Plume Mesh network optimises itself over a period of several days. That means the experience at the edge of the network can be very poor at the time of installation. After a few days, however the network was flying.

With a 100Mbps line, the experience next to the main router was around 105 Mbps, both up and down. That in itself was something of a marvel. But the biggest impact was felt at the furthest point from the router: where a Wi-Fi extender had previously delivered speeds of below 10Mbps, download speeds of 80Mbps became not only commonplace, but almost taken for granted.

One of the most useful features of the Plume Mesh is the level of monitoring offered through the Supersonic app. One can observe exactly what devices are connected to which pods – each is given a name, typically of the room, that is visible only through the app.

The biggest surprise of the plume solution is that it has not become a standard solution for Wi-Fi networks everywhere. In an era when we have become deeply dependent on a decent Wi-Fi signal, it has become a necessity rather than a luxury. As a result, home connectivity should be taken far more seriously than merely fobbing consumers off on low-performance extenders. 

MTN seems to have taken this message to heart, rethinking its own approach to home usage.

“Internet access has become the third utility behind electricity and water,” says Collett. “Our goal is to ‘own the home’ but not just by connecting a bunch of devices to a central point. It’s really about how these devices can pioneer habitual change in the home that’s convenient and saves valuable time and money.”

Click here to read about SuperSonic’s pricing.

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Location data key to transforming SA’s transport system

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Location technology can transform South Africa’s transport system – but don’t expect to see self-driving cars on our roads any time soon. What’s more relevant is the need for the public and private sectors to work together more closely to unlock the significant social and economic benefits that more efficient transport and mobility systems would bring to the country, including less congestion and fewer road accidents. 

That was the message from Michael Bültmann, Managing Director, in charge of international relations  atHERE Technologies, a global leader in mapping and location platform services, at an event hosted by the international law firm Covington & Burling in Johannesburg last week, to discuss how digitization could support better mobility, safety and integration in South Africa. 

“Society needs to solve some fundamental challenges, and relevant location data can play a key role in creating a better future for mobility in South Africa. If we know where the goods and people are, and how and why they move, we have the basis for a system that matches demand and supply far more closely, and uses our transport infrastructure more efficiently,” saidBültmann.

“But no company, government or individual can do it all themselves. It’s all about collaborating. If we get real-time data use right, it would have a profound effect on the way the entire economy works: less congestion, fewer accidents, more efficient use of vehicles and public transport, less air pollution, greater quality of life, and potential savings of billions of rands in fuel, time and safer roads.”

Speaking at the event, the CSIR’s Dr Mathetha Mokonyama said that despite the billions of rands pumped into the country’s mass public transport network in recent years, 90% of commuter seats available are still provided by either cars or taxis.

“We have the right to dignity. If you want to see indignity, look at people getting up at 2am to get unreliable transport to a job that only pays R3500 a month. In our country, access to transport is critical for people to make a living, and our focus as a country should be to implement an equitable and just transport system that caters to all sectors of society,” he said.

“It was a pleasure to support the event that brought together so many viewpoints on the question of the effective use of data and location intelligence to enhance the mobility of goods, people and services,” said Robert Kayihura, senior advisor in Covington’s Johannesburg office.  “While the harmonization of regulatory regimes around the continent will take time, a key takeaway from our discussions is the critical need to build a shared vision of the future through consistent public-private dialogue and collaboration in order to accelerate and ensure the sustainable and safe digitization of Africa.”

Paul Vorster, the chief executive of the Intelligent Transport Society of SA (ITSSA), said the effective sharing of data between metros, government and the private sector would ‘go a long way’ to improving the efficiency of existing transport infrastructure.

“The starting point is to improve what we already have. Once we know what we have – that is, data – we can start solving real problems, like knowing where the demand and supply are. But to do this, metros will need to learn from each other, and they often face political hurdles in the process,” he said.

Bültmann said increasing levels of urbanisation across the world were creating the need for cities to better predict, manage and plan future urban movement. Combining and analysing data from different, complementary sources could help South African cities to improve urban planning, relieve congestion and curb pollution for better quality of life.

The event was also attended by Presidential Investment Envoy Phumzile Langeni, the National Planning Commission’s Themba Dlamini; SANRAL’s Alan Robinson; and Dr Rüdiger Lotz, the Deputy Head of Mission at the German Embassy. The guests were welcomed by Witney Schneidman, the head of Covington’s Africa practice and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1997-2001) in the U.S. Government.

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