Quantum technology is likely to make semiconductors obsolete, and India wants to win the race for its IT and security needs, as well as export revenues.
New Delhi: Quantum computers are the next holy grail in information technology, and amid national security threats and the increasing reliance on computers, India has decided it does not want to lose this race.
In late 2017, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) launched mission Quantum Science and Technology (QuST). And it won’t be science for the sake of science.
Informed sources said the DST is serious about making a highly secure communication system and a general quantum computer that could replace the computer we know.
It is learnt that the budget for the mission could be around Rs 700 crore. Worldwide trends, however, suggest that such a mission, which requires extensive research and new equipment, would require about Rs 2,000 crore over the span of five to seven years.
India lost the semiconductor race to the US, Taiwan and China. But the quantum technology race is wide open. It will make computer processors faster, capable of storing more data, and providing unconditional, unbreakable security to communications, far beyond the capabilities of current technologies.
Why it’s important for India
Prof. Anirban Pathak, a theoretical physicist at the Jaypee Institute of Information Technology, Noida, and a leading expert in quantum technology, explains just why this mission is so important to India.
“If India can become the pioneer of quantum computers, it could become a leading exporter rather than be a buyer. It would not have to rely on other countries for the devices, like it is doing now with smartphones, tablets and computers,” he said.
“Semiconductor-based technology (found in integrated circuits that power phones, computers and even elevators) is not expected to be improved further to satisfy our needs,” Pathak said.
Quantum computers can make things 10,000 times faster than semiconductor-based systems, and infinitely more secure.
“Say, an Aadhaar database of 100 crore people has to be searched. A traditional computer would take 10^10 units of time — a quantum computer would take only 10^6 units of time,” said Pathak.
Online banking and payments will also benefit heavily from quantum technology. As of now, security research scientists say none of the Indian banks adhere to even the minimum level of encryption and security recommended by the Reserve Bank of India.
Another reason India is expediting this mission is national security — research scientists say defence personnel in other countries have been using quantum-encrypted secure communication methods for some time.
The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is also interested in quantum cryptography — in fact, Prof. Pathak gets most of his funding from the DRDO for exactly this reason.
US defence personnel have been using quantum-encrypted secure communication methods for about 10 years, but delayed an official announcement. The Chinese have been developing quantum-encrypted solutions for at least five years, say sources, and are now investing heavily in quantum computing. They plan to spend $10 billion on just one research centre dedicated to quantum technology.
At present, it’s not possible to trace via existing technologies whether high-level Indian discussions have been accessed by foreign agencies. But it is very possible, says Prof. Anil Prabhakar of IIT-Madras, another leading figure in quantum technology experiments.
State of the mission
It is rumoured that Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned his attention to this field after his 2015 visit to Canada and the company D-Wave, which is making lots of noise in the field of quantum computing.
After declaring its intentions, the DST sent out an open call for proposals, and received around 150 R&D projects. Of these, about 50 have been shortlisted, the action plan has been readied, and the QuST mission will be launched in next three months.
Pathak’s Jaypee Institute is among those whose proposals have received initial approval — it will collaborate with IIT-Jodhpur and Poornaprajna Institute of Scientific Research (PPISR), Bengaluru, for projects in quantum hacking, quantum cryptography and random number generation.
Pathak said the deliverables of selected projects are to be submitted at initial deadline of three years.
China leads the way
Tech major IBM has made a quantum computer of moderate processing power accessible on the cloud for free. But this is not for general use, only for tasks scientists would be interested in.
According to available information, no country in the world so far possesses a quantum computer that a common individual can use for general purposes. Not even China, which is said to be leading the quantum technology race.
China has laid a fiber-optic cable encrypted with quantum cryptography between Beijing and Shanghai. Now all military and government communications using this cable are virtually unhackable.
A China-Austria team also successfully used a satellite communication link encrypted using quantum cryptography to communicate between Beijing and Vienna.
Asked where India stands in this race, Pathak was sceptical. “It’s already too late. But at least we are researching in mission mode — projects bound by deliverables, targets and deadlines.”
But Prabhakar said India is nearly there. His team at IIT-Madras said within lab settings, they have successfully tested fiber-optic communication over a distance of 40km, encrypted through a form of quantum cryptography called ‘quantum key distribution’.
Indian scientists are also working on technologies suitable for free space communication, and engaging with the Indian Space Research Organisation to design long-distance quantum communication link via satellite.
The snag, says Pathak, is that China has more money, more talent, and more conducive government policies.
“Indian policies don’t allow hiring a Chinese scientist to work here. But many Indian scientists go to China to work on quantum technologies,” he said.
Post-doctoral fellowship in India provides about Rs 46,800 as stipend, but China offers three times more to an Indian.
China even has funds to make token hires of international scientists, just to be able say it has scientists from all over the world working with it.
“A few of my former Indian students work in China. One of them is not allowed to work in the lab because of security concerns,” said Pathak.
In China, one quantum technology research group may have 180 researchers, but in India, the total number of researchers is not more than that.
“Also, we research in disparate silos; there is very little collaboration among institutes. Hopefully the QuST mission will solve that,” said Pathak.