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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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Did an earthquake take out SA Internet?

Seabed avalanches caused by an earthquake could have cut several undersea cables, leading to one of South Africa’s biggest Internet outages yet, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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Picture by TooMuchCoffeeMan from pixabay.com

There is still no official explanation for freak breaks 11 days ago in two separate undersea cables that provide international access to South Africa’s Internet users. However, as reported in the Sunday Times yesterday, the most common causes of such breaks are damage by ship anchors and earthquakes at sea.

However, the freak occurrence of two separate cables being cut simultaneously far out at sea, as happened on the morning of 16 January, can only be explained by sea-bed activity.  One of the cables was cut in two places, and it is widely believed that a third major cable was also cut.

The cable damage mostly occurred in or near an area called the Congo Canyon, which starts inland and extends 220km into the sea. It is known for having the world’s strongest “turbidity currents”, underwater sediment avalanches over hundreds of kilometers, which are known to destroy undersea cables.

The most likely culprit is a 5.6 magnitude earthquake that struck the Atlantic Ocean near Ascension Island shortly before the cables were cut on the morning of 16 January. The earthquake occurred just before 8am South African time, and local ISPs reported losing international access from just before 10am. The epicentre of the earthquake was more than a thousand kilometres off the coast of Africa, but disturbances caused by seismic activity at sea become more powerful as they approach the coast. Combined with turbidity currents, this could well have taken out all cables in the area.

The West Africa Cable System (WACS) was cut in two places, and the South Atlantic 3 (SAT3) cable in one location. Industry insiders believe that the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) cable was also cut, but it has not been publicly confirmed.

South Africa is connected to the global Internet via seven such cables, with a total capacity of 42.3 terabits per second (tbps).  These cables, in turn, connect to additional cables connecting the West and East coasts of Africa, with a single cable running from Angola to Brazil providing another 40 tbps.

However, it emerged in the past week that smaller ISPs in South Africa had bought capacity on only one or two cables. In a freak occurrence, two of the most commonly used cables, the WACS and SAT 3 cables, were cut simultaneously, plunging millions of Internet users into data darkness.

Customers of the major mobile network operators – Vodacom and MTN – were largely unaffected, as these tend to have both part-ownership and access to most of the cables running up both the East and West coasts of Africa.

Visit the next page to read about how ISPs have battled to reroute access, how massive resources are needed to deal with these kinds of outages, and when the ship will reach the breakage points.

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Lenovo express-delivers new range from CES to SA

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Lenovo has unveiled its new range of ThinkBook laptops, barely two weeks after they were showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. 

The company’s newest sub-brand, ThinkBook, is intended to meet the demand for more aesthetically pleasing, yet agile and powerful devices.

The new range is aimed at small and medium enterprises. According to the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA), there are more than 2-million SMEs in South Africa – although there are only 667,433 in the formal sector. This tallies with estimates in recent editions of SME Survey, produced by World Wide Worx, which suggest 650,000 active, formal businesses in South Africa. These SMEs employ about 14% of the South African workforce. 

Lenovo argues that access to affordable, yet efficient, technology is a crucial factor in aiding business success and contributing towards the success of the nation. The company has found, in its own research, that younger people prefer working, creating and communicating online “with stylish devices that make a statement”. This means they require streamlined laptops which can be used to collaborate from any remote location, to enhance productivity.

Lenovo said in a statement on Thursday night: “Backed by customer research, ThinkBook is specially designed for SMEs, who typically purchase consumer laptops for perceived design and price advantages but can no longer rationalise their lack of extended services and warranties – core needs of any business. ThinkBook allows growing firms to keep a competitive edge in attracting today’s young tech-savvy execs with trendy yet cost-effective devices. 

Thibault Dousson, general manager of  Lenovo for Europe, Middle East and Africa, said at the launch event: “With the capacity, SMEs have to grow and upskill the country’s workforce, they are perfectly positioned to bridge the gap between the public sector and large enterprise. Bearing in mind the demands of the digital economy, this sector needs skills and resources in order to compete, and that is where devices such as the ThinkBook come in.”

In South Africa, ThinkBook laptops are now available in 13-, 14- and 15-inch variants. The flagship ThinkBook 14 and ThinkBook 15 devices are powered by Windows 10 Pro and up to 10th Gen Intel Core processing, which Lenovo says combines high performance with intuitive, time-saving features. Options include Intel Optane memory, WiFi 6, and discrete graphics.

The ThinkBook 15 comes at just 18.9mm thin, while the ThinkBook 14 is a mere 17.9mm, both with FHD displays and two Dolby Audio speakers, dual-array, Skype certified microphones and a USB 3.1 (Gen2, Type-C) port.

Lenovo has also introduced the ThinkBook S series, including an elegant 13.3-inch ThinkBook 13s. The sleek and light device is constructed of a metallic finish on an all-aluminium chassis, alongside a narrow bezel display. As with the ThinkBook 14 and 15, the ThinkBook 13s also features advanced Intel processing and an FHD display, Dolby Vision and Harman speakers with Dolby Audio.

Visit the next page to read about the design and features of the new ThinkBook range.

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