100 years of innovation and inventions: South African Vice-Chancellor reflects on what's next

100 years of innovation and inventions: South African Vice-Chancellor reflects on what’s next

We live in a world characterized by inequality, poverty, economic volatility, globalization, climate change and ambiguity. In my own country, South Africa, people have to deal with socio-economic and political instability, power and water cuts, homelessness, unethical governance and poor or non-existent service delivery.

It is far from what the country could be if we put its best talents and resources at the service of humanity.

Innovation will be the key to any positive change – and research-intensive universities have a central role to play in this innovation. As the University of the Witwatersrand (or Wits, as it is commonly known) celebrates its 100th anniversary, my colleagues and I have given much thought to the inventions and breakthroughs that have emerged from the university over the past 100 years – and to what will follow.

Great innovations have emerged from the work of Wits researchers that have changed the game in areas ranging from health and computing to quantum and nuclear physics. These rich repositories of knowledge continue to inform day-to-day policy and decision-making and form the foundation for the cutting-edge research the institution continues to produce.

100 years of changes

On September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. World War II was underway. Just three months later, the first radar set was tested on the Wits University campus. Britain and its allies were looking for a way to detect enemy planes and ships. A group of scientists – including Sir Basil Schonland, director of the Bernard Price Geophysical Research Institute and another Wits engineer, Professor Guerino Bozzoli – have come together to harness the power of radio waves.

An aerial view of the university’s Milner Park campus, 1930.
university of mind

Nearly a century later, sensor science has made several quantum leaps. Professor Andrew Forbes and his team at Wits encrypt, transmit and decode data quickly and securely using 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, new nano and quantum sensors and devices.

The university has also come a long way in its IT journey. In 1960 it was the first university in South Africa to have an IBM mainframe computer. Today, in partnership with IBM, we are the first African university to access a quantum computer.

Read more: New research proves long-held theory that lasers can create fractals

As chair of the National Quantum Computing Task Force 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. He sent humans to the moon, robots to Mars and smartphones to our pockets.

But many of the world’s greatest mysteries and potentially greatest opportunities remain beyond the reach of conventional computers. To continue the pace of progress, we need to augment the classical approach with an entirely new paradigm, which follows its own set of rules – quantum computing.

This radically new way of performing computer calculations is exponentially faster than any conventional computer. It can run new algorithms to solve previously “unsolvable” problems in optimization, chemistry and machine learning, and its applications are far-reaching – from physics to healthcare.

Innovative health care is essential on the African continent. Here, too, Wits was able to play a vital role in research, teaching and learning, clinical, social and advocacy. It was the first university to lead COVID-19 vaccination trials in South Africa.

Our researchers have also developed technology to improve the accuracy of tuberculosis screening tests. And the Pelebox, an invention to reduce the time patients spend waiting for their medication in hospitals.

Elsewhere at 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.

Difficult questions

Research-intensive universities in South Africa must ask the hard questions about their role in a changing society.

How do we serve as a catalyst for social change? How can we best use our intellectual dynamism and work with the public and private sectors to bring about positive change? How to create new relevant knowledge and translate it into innovation? How do we best develop the critical thinkers, innovators, creators, and high-level skills needed to advance our economy and the future world of work?

How do we quantify our social impact and ensure it is context-specific? How do we influence policy change?

These questions are now at the heart of the university’s strategy. And they are undoubtedly seen in the higher education sector as universities strive to harness their collective talent and the resources at their disposal to shape a new future and transform society for the benefit of all. ‘humanity.

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