We live in a world characterised by inequality, poverty, economic volatility, globalisation, climate change and ambiguity. In my own country, South Africa, residents have to navigate socioeconomic and political instability, power and water cuts, homelessness, unethical governance and mediocre or no service delivery.
It is a far cry from what the country could be if we brought its best talent and resources to bear for the benefit of humanity.
Innovation will be key to any positive changes – and research-intensive universities have a central to play in that innovation. As the University of the Witwatersrand (or Wits, as it’s commonly known) turns 100, my colleagues and I have been thinking a great deal about the inventions and breakthroughs that have emerged from the university in the past 100 years – and what is coming next.
Great innovations have emerged from the work done by Wits researchers that have shifted the dial in sectors ranging from health to computing to quantum and nuclear physics. These rich seams of knowledge continue to inform policy and daily decisions and are the foundation of cutting edge research the institution continues to produce.
100 years of changes
On 1 September 1939, Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. World War 2 was underway. Barely three months later, the first radar set was tested on Wits University’s campus. Britain and its allies were looking for a way to detect enemy aircraft and ships. A group of scientists – among them Sir Basil Schonland, Director of the Bernard Price Institute of Geophysical Research and another Wits engineer, Professor Guerino Bozzoli – came together to harness the power of radio waves.
Almost a century on, the science of sensors has taken several quantum leaps. Professor Andrew Forbes and his team at Wits are encrypting, transmitting, and decoding data quickly and securely through light beams. He has just secured R54 million for the Wits Quantum Initiative which explores theoretical and experimental quantum science and engineering, secure communications, enhanced quantum-inspired imaging, novel nano and quantum-based sensors and devices.
The university has also come a long way on its computing journey. In 1960 it was the first university in South Africa to own an IBM mainframe computer. Today, in partnership with IBM, we’re the first African university to access a quantum computer.
As the Chair of the National Quantum Computing Working Group in South Africa, this is an area where I see immense potential for Africa. Classical computing has served society incredibly well. It gave us the Internet and cashless commerce. It sent humans to the moon, put robots on Mars and smartphones in our pockets.
But many of the world’s biggest mysteries and potentially greatest opportunities remain beyond the grasp of classical computers. To continue the pace of progress, we need to augment the classical approach with a completely new paradigm, one that follows its own set of rules – quantum computing.
This radically new way of performing computer calculations is exponentially faster than any classical computer. It can run new algorithms to solve previously “unsolvable” problems in optimisation, chemistry and machine learning, and its applications are far-reaching – from physics to healthcare.
Innovative healthcare is sorely needed across the African continent. Here, too, Wits has been able to play a vital role in the research, teaching and learning, clinical, social and advocacy spheres. It was the first university to lead COVID-19 vaccination trials in South Africa.
Our researchers also developed technology to improve the accurate testing for tuberculosis. And the Pelebox, an invention to cut down the time that patients spend waiting for medication in hospitals.
Elsewhere in the institution, researchers have connected the brain to the internet, used brainwaves to control a robotic prosthetic hand and developed an affordable 3D printed bionic hand.
Research intensive universities in South Africa need to ask the difficult questions about their role in a changing society.
How do we serve as a catalyst for social change? How do we best use our intellectual dynamism and work with the public and private sectors to effect positive change? How do we create new, relevant knowledge and translate it into innovation? How do we best develop critical thinkers, innovators, creators and the high-level skills required to advance our economy, and the future world of work?
How do we quantify our social impact and ensure that it is contextually attuned? How do we influence policy change?
These questions are at the heart of the university’s strategy today. And they’re no doubt being considered across the higher education sector as universities work to harness their collective talent and the resources at their disposal to craft a new future and transform society for the benefit of all humanity.
Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal, University of the Witwatersrand