African Physics Newsletter

Solomon Assefa: "Don’t think local, think at scale"

For Solomon Assefa, Vice President of IBM Research for Africa & Emerging Market Solutions, African should nurture their innovative culture so that it brings real benefit to society.

You are an important role model to countless African scientists and an inspirationto many around the world. When you look back on growing up in Ethiopia, and your high school days, who do you credit for exciting you about the wonders and importance of science?

Solomon Assefa: I can’t point to any one person, but I think a major factor was my insatiable curiosity. Just going outside to play I would look at the trees and question how they seem to lean towards where they can get more sunlight. Or look at the sky and wonder why it is blue except around the sun. I would also often find bits and pieces of things and create my own toys. Eventually, my curiosity caught the attention of my math and science teachers who just kept challenging me.

How did you get to study at MIT and what drove you to study physics, electrical engineering,and computer science? Why do you feel that these subjects are important to you and to the world around us?

I was a scholarship student at an international school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. One of my friends mentioned MIT as a highly competitive and technical school in the US. I believe he also mentioned that no Ethiopian ever got direct admission, which was all the motivation I needed to eventually apply. I took physics because I wanted to establish a firm understanding of the basics of our universe. My thinking was, how can I engineer something if I don’t understand the science from the bottom up? This naturally led to engineering and computer science giving me all the pieces I needed to eventually build electronic devices from the nanoscale up.

Your research interests include high-speed optical detectors, nano-structured platforms for bio-sensing, and quantum information processing, etc., and you have produced several patents. Which of your research or innovation contributions are you most proud of and why?

Definitely my research in nanophotonics because it gave me the chance to apply what I had learned in school, from fundamental scientific exploration to engineering of devices at scale. Eventually, I wrote about the fundamental research in high-impact journals and scaled it up into commercial products.

What are your key responsibilities as VP of IBMResearch - Africa, and what are your main objectives in Africa over the next 3-5 years?

I wear a few different hats. As lab director for our locations in Kenya and South Africa, I lead our teams toward the development of technologies that address Africa’s grandchallenges; promoting Africa’s leadership in science and technology; and fostering local innovation ecosystems. For example, working with the University of Wits we developed a COVID-19 visualization dashboard for the Gauteng government, which is now available for free to all South Africans, to track and predict hotspots of the virus. In addition, I am also responsible for developing strategy for innovative and scalable industry research solutions for the Middle East and Africa across industries such as financial services, healthcare, and the public sector. And finally, I am also directing the worldwide effort at IBM Research focused on developing technologies, platforms, and partnerships for climate change mitigation and adaptation; which spans research topics including accelerated material discovery, AI-driven climate modeling, carbon footprint optimization, and decision support for business and societal resiliency towards extreme climate events.

How can Africa develop a more innovative culture? What needs to change and how?

Actually, I don’t think our problem is a lack of innovative culture – we have gobs of it. I see it every day at our lab in South Africa which shares a campus with start-ups and the University of the Witwatersrand. Citizens see a problem, of which we have many, and they have a pioneering spirit to think about a solution. It can be anything from a new app to report crime to applying AI to automate the reporting of cancer data. I think our real problem is nurturing our innovative culture to help it scale for the benefit of society. We need more successful Africans to mentor and guide our young people with realistic counsel and we need to provide opportunities for our young people to achieve success. For example, the European Union has a funding program with grants of up to 1.5€ million for 5 years for promising early-career researchers with 2 to 7 years’ experience after Ph.D. I would like to see similar programs for African scientists in Africa.

What do you feel are Africa’s scientific strengths, and have the potential for Africa to take a lead in?

I think the most obvious is the Square KilometerArray (SKA). It presents us with a variety of fascinating scientific challenges and it’s in our backyard. Like the impact the SKA had on supercomputing, I predict its impact on quantum computing will be several-fold larger. The reason for this is simple – the timing is perfect. As the SKA ramps up, quantum computing is making tremendous progress. Therefore, IBM Research, the University of the Witwatersrand, and the ARUA Network are actively engaged to make the continent quantum ready through education and training. Prior to the pandemic, we hosted a few hundred students in South Africa for a multi-day camp focused on how to program a quantum computer and we are currently in the process of organizing an online quantum challenge for African developers. By the way, anyone can access IBM’s quantum computer for free. Another strength is our vast data. For example, we have terabytes of data from mobile banking and agriculture. How can we combine these seemingly two unrelated data sets to help unbanked farmers gain access to credit? Or how can we take historical crop yield data and weather data to forecast the upcoming season? We are working with start-ups in Rwanda to achieve these goals. I would love to see an African data lake in the cloud, where open-source data can be made freely available to African scientists and start-ups to apply and use in their research. For example, we used machine learning and publicly available research and models in Kenya to augment the decision-making abilities of officials and explore more effective malaria policy interventions. Lastly, and not to be overlooked is our own DNA. It’s clear that humanity started on the African continent, so it only benefits the medical community to continue to further understand African genetics by studying our gene pool for drug resistance. And who better to do this than Africans?

What is your message to African policy makers and government officials about the importance of science as an instrument for development on this continent?

There is a global effort at IBM right now called the Urgency for Science. To the readers of this newsletter it may seem obvious but believing in science is not something everyone on the planet can say. The Urgency of Science is about implementing scientific thinking at all scales—from ourdaily lives, to corporate innovation, to government policy making. Consider my earlier example with malaria intervention. In the past, the strategy was to use nets or sprays based on previous experience and instincts, but now we should be looking at weather data to tell what strategy will be most effective. I’m very excited about the Africa Continental Free Trade Area implementation that kicked off in 2021. It has the potential to open more doors for science and technology by enabling the free flow of students to foster collaboration and the flow of ideas. I would urge policy makers to think about how this agreement will then drive new science policy, such as the creation of centers of competency in each region where skills and resources are available.

What is your message to any young talented African scientist who has the capability and the desire to make a difference in Africa?

I will share with your readers what I tell everyone of our Africa Lab scientists – don’t think local, think at scale. Whatever you do, if you want to have an impact and change the world, you need to think about scaling whatever you do to reach the millions or even billions. Thankfully, the technologies we have today, like cloud and AI afford us these capabilities, but we have to consider them from the start. Students should also not forget that Africa has contributed plenty to civilization – such as math, language, astronomy, metallurgy, and navigation. This rich history should give our young population confidence that history is on ourside and they can contribute – society is counting on us.

Interview by Nithaya Chetty, Dean of Science, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

This interview has first been published by the African Physics Newsletter - ©American Physical Society, 2021


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