School of Chemistry & Physics

Ms Amira Abbas with the trophy and the rest of her team.

Master’s Student Returns Triumphant from Qiskit Camp in Switzerland

Ms Amira Abbas, a master’s student in UKZN’s Centre for Quantum Technology, participated in IBM’s first Qiskit Camp Europe, held in Switzerland, where her team achieved first place for a project that aimed to integrate open source quantum computing python package Qiskit with PyTorch, an open source machine-learning framework.

The three-day by-invitation-only event sponsored by IBM saw specialists in quantum computing from around the world coming together to create a new application using Qiskit, an open source programming library.

‘It was an honour just to be invited to the prestigious Qiskit Camp,’ said Abbas, who also said she felt some trepidation since she did not have an undergraduate degree in Physics, nor was she well versed in Qiskit.

‘It encouraged me to brainstorm ideas like creating quantum games, new quantum algorithms, making Qiskit more efficient and so on,’ said Abbas of the challenge set for the 150 participants in the hackathon event. Thirty of the 60 pitches were successful and she joined a team of four others with a coach from IBM to develop their idea.

‘Our team built a machine learning capability in Qiskit by integrating it with another open source library called PyTorch,’ explained Abbas. ‘This essentially bridges the gap between two communities – the machine learning (ML) community and the quantum computing (QC) one. Now, QC people can do ML and ML people can learn about QC!’

With only 24 hours to achieve their goal of integrating the libraries, which were at the time blocked off from one another, Abbas said the approach they took to the formidable challenge was one she would recommend. They spent the first few hours ensuring that the team understood the aim of the project by fleshing out the tasks they wanted to accomplish, from minimal tasks to demonstrations of how the integration could handle more advanced applications, showing why this project was useful. They then divided the work and set about coding.

Abbas said she found the task surprisingly fun, and that she was grateful for a supportive and entertaining team.

Following their 24-hour challenge, teams gave three-minute pitches on projects ranging from the composition of music using quantum computing, to game development illustrating the properties of quantum mechanics, and even a proposed quantum Instagram. Abbas’ team received the first prize of a fully sponsored trip to IBM’s Qiskit Camp New York in 2020.

‘Even though the majority of people there hadn’t even heard of my university, I managed to contribute to the winning project,’ said Abbas. ‘One of the key takeaways from this experience was that Africans (and people in developing countries in general) often feel inadequate when competing globally and we really shouldn’t. We can be good enough, if not better, for any task that comes our way.’

Abbas’ Master’s in Physics involves quantum machine learning, the idea of building machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms that run on an actual quantum computer. She is passionate about science and technology, especially when integrated with African education, and hopes to continue to PhD studies.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied