VC hosts the first science of the upcoming webinar

Kicking off a four-part series on “Using the science of the future to shape your present” on Sunday 11 July, University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor (VC) Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng facilitated a discussion about the quantum revolution and advanced artificial intelligence (AI) with Dr Divine Fuh and Professor Francesco Petruccione.

The online science series, which takes place over four weeks in July, is organized together with the Switzerland-based think tank Geneva Science and Diplomacy Accelerator (GESDA). The partnership aims to create a participatory initiative through critical and provocative conversations to help drive UCT’s vision to produce future leaders who are able to tackle social injustice.

GESDA aims to anticipate, accelerate and translate the use of new science-driven topics. Using, among other tools, its Scientific Progress Radar, the body aims to ensure that predictive talent advances can be harnessed to improve well-being and promote inclusive development.

“Often, the voices of young Africans [are] forgotten.”

With Sunday’s sessions, both UCT and GESDA seek to bridge the understanding of how science can shape the future, as well as how these predicted futures can be used to shape the present, ensuring that decisions and discussions of include the voices of young Africans.

“Often, the voices of young Africans [are] forgotten,” noted Professor Phakeng. “We need to seize this moment and invite young Africans to come on board to shape the future to ensure that we start working now to alleviate long-standing and developing humiliations and inequalities.

“By bringing in different voices and ideas, we can ensure we have the best opinion from every part of our society and corner of the world. We need your perspectives in these dialogues and debates. It’s a question of intergenerational justice – young people will inherit the future and therefore they should be involved in shaping how science should be used to influence it.”

The quantum revolution and advanced AI

As the information revolution has transformed the ways in which we live and work, our lives and our understanding of our shared environment have become intricately intertwined with the flow of data. However, with advanced AI and quantum computing, future impacts will be even more profound.

Professor Petruccione, who is a global expert on quantum technology, a contributor to GESDA and founder of the largest quantum technology research group in South Africa, explained exactly how these technologies are changing our present and shaping our our future.

“There are many examples where quantum technology will significantly affect our existence.”

“Quantum computing is a completely different paradigm of computing that is based on the laws of quantum physics. It uses all these crazy properties – some call them spookiness – as a resource to speed up calculations of certain problems,” he said.

“There are many examples where quantum technology will significantly affect our existence. Specifically, at the intersection between machine learning and quantum technology is quantum machine learning. This brings together the two worlds of artificial intelligence and quantum technology.”

One area in which this could have a massive impact is power generation, he noted. For example, using a model similar to photosynthesis to extract solar energy. “We are facing major energy challenges in South Africa and we know that one possible solution – and perhaps the best – is the use of renewable energies.

“We know that plants can do this very well, and there is strong evidence that plants use quantum effects to be efficient at converting solar energy into the energy they need to grow. We can learn from these effects to produce better artificial photosynthesis and produce energy,” he explained.

Interdisciplinary technological advancement

Dr Fuh, who is a social anthropologist and director of the Institute for Humanities in Africa at UCT, spoke about the various ethical and people-centred challenges these advances in technology present. In this regard, he emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary work and cooperation to ensure the best results.

“We cannot produce technology without looking at the ways in which that technology will be deployed in people’s lives. We’ve seen that despite the best intentions to create only positives in society, over time they can create all kinds of dire consequences,” he said.

In addition to mapping the potential positive and negative effects of the technologies being produced, Fuh noted that it is important to focus on who produces the technology and the spaces in which it is produced.

“We need to invest in asking and explaining, and we need a lot of young people to do that.”

“We invest a lot in the humanities in trying to understand who these people are and the kind of ideas that shape the work they do, and, in turn, the kinds of technology that’s being produced. This helps ensure that when these technologies are put into practice, they are used well and are ethical,” he added.

Inviting young people to come on board and explore these issues through questioning technology, Fuh noted, offers an opportunity for Africa to take advantage of the quantum revolution to solve the problems we are facing as a continent.

“We need to invest in asking and explaining, and we need a lot of young people to do that. I think that’s what’s going to change the major infrastructure for the future — that we have young people who are asking questions that make our experiences understandable,” he said.

This is particularly important as it relates to industries and sectors in which machines and artificial intelligence are expected to replace human workers. For example, health care.

“What is done with care? What about the human aspects? Going to the hospital is not just to be treated, but to have human contact to help you heal. So what happens when there’s only one car to treat you and you can’t get a hug?

“These are fundamental questions that we need to ask and why we are finding that there needs to be a deep collaboration between the humanities, the natural sciences and technology,” he explained.

The next Sunday session is scheduled for July 17, with a discussion on human augmentation. Phakeng encourages all young people to watch the upcoming webinars to help them think about how they can use any of the future technologies discussed in the series to help them shape the present.

Young people who join the sessions have a chance to win an all-expenses-paid trip to attend the Science Foresight and Diplomacy Summit in Geneva 2022 from 12 to 14 October. Submission requirements, deadlines and other details will be announced in future sessions.

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