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India’s race to quantum supremacy
India’s quantum policies are excellent on paper, but more needs to be done to make them practically relevant.
In September this year, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) launched the ‘Quantum Computer Simulator (QSim) Toolkit’ to provide the first quantum development environment to academicians, industry professionals, students, and the scientific community in India. This is an outcome of the budgetary outlay of INR 8,000 crores to bolster quantum technology development and uptake in the country.
Quantum technology can put the present-day encryption at risk, which can pose a threat to a country’s critical cyber infrastructure, thereby, putting its national security at stake. Confidential military and strategic information can be decrypted easily once quantum computers and their applications become a reality. Considering these potential risks, India needs to ramp up its efforts to match pace the US and China, both of which have achieved quantum supremacy. As countries increase their financial and intellectual resources towards quantum tech, India must ensure it does not lag far behind.
What can quantum computers solve?
In modern day computing, information is relayed and stored in binary digits or bits, that is, 0 or 1. In quantum computing, information sharing, and storage is done in qubits, which exist as 0 or 1 or a combination of both. This allows for a quantum computer to perform a multitude of applications at the same time, at a much faster rate, surpassing the processing ability of a conventional computing system.
"Quantum technology can put the present-day encryption at risk, which can pose a threat to a country’s critical cyber infrastructure, thereby, putting its national security at stake."
Quantum computers will exponentially increase the processing capabilities of a modern-day computer and address impediments linked to combinatorics. Near-term and long-term quantum applications will augment AI solutions, improve financial forecasting, drastically reduce failures in the manufacturing sector, accentuate drug development, and push for better cybersecurity paradigms.
The global quantum supremacy race
At present, quantum technology is in its nascent stage and will take a few years before it can be practically implemented. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) estimates that it will have a value addition of US $5 billion to US $10 billion in the next three to five years. The Group also suggests that this figure is expected to reach US $450 billion in the next fifteen years. Given the scope and potential of this technology, governments, technology firms, and academia have been investing resources into achieving quantum supremacy or quantum advantage. In June 2021, researchers in China claimed this landmark achievement. In October 2019, Google marked this accomplishment. India, Canada, Germany, and France have committed more than a billion dollars each towards its development.
India formally joined the race to quantum computing by establishing the National Mission for Quantum Technology and Applications (NM-QTA) in 2020. However, for India to match pace with China and the US, it must identify and address a few key policy gaps. These will not only make India a competent contender in the global quantum race but also usher a new paradigm of technology policymaking in the country.
Potential gaps in India’s approach
Firstly, the quantum ecosystem in India is loosely built. While India has given a billion-dollar push to quantum computing, a comprehensive multi-stakeholder network is amiss. It is not clear whether India will focus on near-term quantum applications or long-term applications or both. Translating research into real-world applications should be at the core of India’s quantum efforts.
Next, metrics to assess the outcomes of India’s quantum efforts are not clearly defined. Merely achieving quantum supremacy will not necessarily safeguard India’s national interests.
When it comes to capacity and skilled professionals, India has a small talent pool in the realm of quantum computing. At present, there are just a few hundred researchers, industry professionals, academicians, and entrepreneurs in the quantum computing field of the country. Compared to China or the US, India lags far behind.
"A few private companies and startups have started to develop these critical quantum components, but most hardware is still imported. "
Also, quantum application development will require various aspects of the technology, like quantum information theory, quantum communication, storage, quantum computation, and quantum hardware development to come together. India will also need to increase its compute power and work towards developing more complex semiconductor chips to realise its quantum potential. At present, research is carried out in silos and knowledge exchange is not structured. A common platform for all quantum research and development in the country is lacking.
In the last several decades, India has not been able to develop its strength in hardware manufacturing. For developing a quantum computer at home, India will need superconducting materials, physical qubits, a data plane, chips, processors, and fabrication labs. Not enough impetus is given here. A few private companies and startups have started to develop these critical quantum components, but most hardware is still imported.
Lastly, most quantum-related research and development is carried out at university campuses. While academia can provide for well-researched prototypes, industry connect is essential for developing them into scalable applications.
What is the way ahead for India?
India has always been a heavy importer of technology. In 2020, India imported hardware and software amounting to US $10.4 billion, while the tech exports were a mere US $0.3 billion. For India to move from being an importer of quantum technology to an exporter, it needs to revisit and rework its technology policy objectives, frameworks, and deliverables.
"Entrepreneurship, innovation, university courses at all levels, scholarships, fellowships, training programmes, and consulting in quantum technology will be crucial towards developing a knowledge ecosystem and bridging the skill gap."
To address gaps at the policy-level, India should develop metrics to assess the success of its strategy and action plan. The Department of Science and Technology launched the Quantum-Enabled Science and Technology (QuEST) initiative to invest INR 80 crores to lay out infrastructure and to facilitate research in the field. While the plan seems detailed and visionary on paper, a periodic feedback system needs to be developed to map the progress of its objectives. One such indicator could be the number of patents filed. Monitoring and evaluation of the quantum mission must be given a strong thrust.
Entrepreneurship, innovation, university courses at all levels, scholarships, fellowships, training programmes, and consulting in quantum technology will be crucial towards developing a knowledge ecosystem and bridging the skill gap. This will lead to the creation of a dedicated quantum community in India, capable of collaborating with researchers and industry professionals worldwide. Such measures will also promote scholarship and professional expertise in different aspects of quantum technology development.
India must also give a boost to its investor ecosystem which can help amplify production of hardware components of a quantum computer and its applications. As the demand for semiconductor chips goes up with the coming of these computers, India needs to give a push to its semiconductor industry simultaneously. The government has expressed intensive capital support to the industry to encourage design and development of these chips within India. The government can also support them with production-linked incentive schemes and offer support to market players, like Intel and AMD, through initiatives like the Scheme for Promotion of Manufacturing of Electronic Components and Semiconductors.
While India’s quantum technology strategy appears ideal on paper, relevant agencies should ensure that that it acknowledges these policy-level and implementation-level gaps and addresses them in a timely manner, so as to ensure India emerges as a world leader in the quantum technology space.
Prachi Mishra (ORF)
14 December 2021