UKZN makes quantum strides

The latest antics between the eThekwini municipality and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) could make even Albert Einstein turn in his grave.

City manager Dr Michael Sutcliffe and his colleagues are taking a quantum leap by using a computer security system that relies on photons — as opposed to algorithms — to encode how data is transmitted. This technology makes it more difficult for hackers to intercept information.

The project, called QuantumCity, is led by the Centre for Quantum Technology and the Innovation Company of the UKZN, in partnership with idQuantique and Senetas Corporation, leading companies in quantum and classical encryption.

It is funded by the eThekwini municipality and the Innovation Fund (an instrument of the National Research Foundation).

Sutcliffe says he believes that quantum information and communication technology will not only boost the transformation of the municipality into a high-tech information-driven organisation, but also turn Durban into an incubator for future technologies.

Headed by UKZN quantum physicist Professor Francesco Petruccione the project was unveiled recently and is part of the municipality’s initiative to make Durban a “smart city”. Durban is the first city in South Africa that owns a quantum network.

Petruccione says: “By using photons, we have come up with an absolutely secure method of transferring information. [It is] a system that provides security with the intrinsic properties of nature and challenges the traditional method of transferring data via computer technology. In principle it is impossible to break the code because of the laws of nature. The system is very sensitive and two people communicating would know if there was interference.”

The system is being used in a small network in Durban which includes two clinics, the civic centre and the fire station. “It’s brand-new technology. We need to gain the trust of the municipality and one day sell it to the financial services sector and the medical sector,” says Petruccione.

He says that the SmartCity project has been beneficial to the Centre for Quantum Physics and for the students as it allowed the team the opportunity to take the technology produced in the lab and test it in reality. “We need to go more technological. The only chance we have to attract more students to quantum physics is to show them that there are jobs available. We must put the theory into practice. The university cannot absorb all the students; there has to be more opportunity for quantum physics in industry.

“Einstein, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, did not believe in entanglement, which he called spooky action at a distance.

“The paradox is that things that he did not like are being used in technology today. He would probably not buy shares in such a company today.”

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