We live in a world characterised by inequality, poverty, economic volatility, globalisation, climate change and ambiguity. In my very own country, South Africa, residents must 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 may very well be if we brought its best talent and resources to bear for the good thing about humanity.

Innovation shall be key to any positive changes – and research-intensive universities have a central role to play in that innovation. As the University of the Witwatersrand (or Wits, because it’s commonly known) turns 100, my colleagues and I actually have been pondering a fantastic deal in regards to the inventions and breakthroughs which have emerged from the university up to now 100 years – and what is coming next.

Great innovations have emerged from the work done by Wits researchers which have shifted the dial in sectors starting from health to computing to quantum and nuclear physics. These wealthy seams of data proceed to tell policy and each day decisions and are the inspiration of innovative research the institution continues to provide.

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 in search of a method to detect enemy aircraft and ships. A gaggle of scientists – amongst them Sir Basil Schonland, Director of the Bernard Price Institute of Geophysical Research and one other Wits engineer, Professor Guerino Bozzoli – got here together to harness the facility of radio waves.

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

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 good distance on its computing journey. In 1960 it was the primary 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, that 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 lots of the world’s biggest mysteries and potentially biggest opportunities remain beyond the grasp of classical computers. To proceed the pace of progress, we want to reinforce the classical approach with a very recent paradigm, one which follows its own algorithm – quantum computing.

This radically recent way of performing computer calculations is exponentially faster than any classical computer. It can run recent algorithms to resolve 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 in a position to play a significant role within the research, teaching and learning, clinical, social and advocacy spheres. It was the primary university to guide COVID-19 vaccination trials in South Africa.

Our researchers also developed technology to enhance the accurate testing for tuberculosis. And the Pelebox, an invention to chop down the time that patients spend waiting for medication in hospitals.

Elsewhere within the institution, researchers have connected the brain to the web, used brainwaves to manage a robotic prosthetic hand and developed an inexpensive 3D printed bionic hand.

Difficult questions

Research intensive universities in South Africa have to ask the difficult questions on their role in a changing society.

How can we function a catalyst for social change? How can we best use our mental dynamism and work with the private and non-private sectors to effect positive change? How can we create recent, relevant knowledge and translate it into innovation? How can we best develop critical thinkers, innovators, creators and the high-level skills required to advance our economy, and the long run world of labor?

How can we quantify our social impact and make sure that it’s contextually attuned? How can we influence policy change?

These questions are at the center of the university’s strategy today. And they’re little doubt being considered across the upper education sector as universities work to harness their collective talent and the resources at their disposal to craft a brand new future and transform society for the good thing about all humanity.

This article was originally published at theconversation.com