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After the Govt’s Big Allocation on Quantum Technologies in 2020, What Next?

After the Govt’s Big Allocation on Quantum Technologies in 2020, What Next?

Photograph of a quantum computing chip that a Google team used in their claimed quantum computer. Photo: Nature 574, 505-510 (2019).

The Union finance ministry presented the national budget for 2021 one and a half months ago. One of the prime motivations of a nationalist government should be cyber-security, and it is high time we revisited this technological space from the context of this budget and the last one.

One of the highlights of the 2020 budget was the government’s new investment in quantum computing. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s words then turned the heads of researchers and developers working in this area: “It is proposed to provide an outlay of 8,000 crore rupees over a period of five years for the National Mission on Quantum Technologies and Applications.”

Thanks to the pandemic, it is not clear how much funding the government transferred in the first year. The 2021 budget speech made no reference to quantum technologies.

It’s important we discuss this topic from a technological perspective. Around four decades ago, physicist Richard Feynman pointed out the possibility of devices like quantum computers in a famous speech. In the early 1990s, Peter Shor and others proved that such computers could easily factor the product of two large prime numbers – a task deemed very difficult for the classical computers we are familiar with. This problem, of prime factorisation, underlies the utility of public key crypto-systems, used to secure digital transactions, sensitive information, etc. online.

If we have a practicable quantum computer, the digital security systems currently in use around the world will break down quickly, including that of financial institutions. But commercial quantum computers are still many years away.

On this count, the economically developed nations are on average far ahead of others. Countries like the US, Canada, Australia and China have already made many advancements towards building usable quantum computers with meaningful capabilities. Against this background, the present government’s decision in February 2020 to invest such a large sum in quantum technologies was an outstanding development.

The problem now lies with distributing the money and achieving the actual technological advances. So far, there is no clear evidence of this in the public domain.

A logical step in this direction would be to re-invest a large share of the allocation in indigenous development. This is also where the problems lie. One must understand that India has never been successful in fabricating advanced electronic equipment. While we have very good software engineers and theoretical computer scientists, there is no proven expertise in producing chips and circuits. We might have some limited exposure in assembling and testing but nothing beyond that.

So while ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ is an interesting idea, it will surely take a very long time before we find ourselves able to compete with developed nations vis-à-vis seizing on this extremely sophisticated technology involving quantum physics. In the meantime, just as we import classical computers and networking equipment, so should we proceed by importing quantum equipment, until our indigenous capability in this field matures to a certain extent.

For example, demonstrating a four-qubit quantum system or designing a proof-of-concept quantum key distribution (QKD) circuit might be a nice textbook assignment. However, the outcome will not nearly be competitive to products already available in the international arena. IBM and Google have demonstrated the use of machines with more than 50 qubits. (These groups have participation from Indian scientists working abroad.) IBM has promised a thousand-qubit machine by 2023. ID Quantique has been producing commercial QKD equipment for more than five years.

India must procure such finished products and start testing them for security trapdoors before deploying them at home. Doing so requires us to train our engineers with state-of-the-art equipment as soon as possible.

In sum, indigenous development shouldn’t be discontinued – but allocating a large sum of money for indigenous development alone may not bring the desired results at this point.

By drafting a plan in the 2020 Union budget to spend Rs 8,000 crore, the government showed that it was farsighted. While the COVID-19 pandemic has made it hard to assess how much of this money has already been allocated, we can hope that there will be renewed interest in the matter as the pandemic fades.

This said, such a huge allocation going to academic institutes and research laboratories for trivial demonstrations might be imprudent. In addition, we must begin by analysing commercially available products, made by international developers, so we can secure India’s security infrastructure against quantum adversaries.

Serious science requires deep political thought, people with strong academic commitment in the government and productive short- as well as long-term planning. I hope the people in power will enable the Indian community of researchers to make this quantum leap.

Subhamoy Maitra is a senior professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. His research interests are cryptology and quantum computing.

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