This is the quantum age.
With the diversification of theoretical and experimental forays into realising quantum technology (QuTech), the race to create the first fully functionable and marketable quantum computer has heated up. Today, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Hitachi, Toshiba and various other companies are using everything from superconducting qubits to photonic systems for quantum computation and communication applications. Quantum computers are a million times faster than a regular computer (chip) - with Google announcing that it has a quantum computer that is 100 million times faster than any classical counterpart in its lab, able to withstand cyber attacks better, miniaturized (about 1,500 qubits in Intel’s new qubit D1D Fab chip could fit across the diameter of a single human hair) and more efficient (modern classical supercomputers use between 1-10 mW on average vs a comparable quantum computer would 25 kW).
Nations across the world have been investing in developing quantum technology. Countrywide investments till date, in the realm of quantum technology, include those in China (National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences - $10 billion), United States of America (US National Quantum Initiative Act - $1 billion committed per annum), European Union (Quantum Technology for commercial purposes - $1.1 billion), United Kingdom (UK National Quantum Technologies Programme – $390 million), Netherlands (QuTech Centre for Quantum Computer – $150 million) and Singapore (Centre for Quantum Technologies – Singaporean $29.7 million, in 2008).
The reason for all this is simple.
Quantum technology can spur the development of new breakthroughs in science, and defence (cyber and space security and warfare/deterrence capabilities, particularly with public-key cryptosystems and quantum satellite technology; India is unprepared for any quantum cyber-attack), energy (optimizing power grids, help in monitoring oil and gas deposits, discovering new materials for more efficient carbon capture and efficient data processing in energy sector), medicine (quantum machine learning to diagnose illnesses sooner, clinical trials with virtual humans simulated 'lives', the movement of hospitals to the cloud, predictive health and security of medical data), finances and business (quick development of financial strategies, detection of fraudulent activities, complex forecasting of markets, portfolio optimization, asset pricing and risk analysis) and communication (fast and secure communication, usually using photonics with fiber optical channels, besides quantum RAN (Radio Access Network) deployment and Quantum Internet).
India does not have a concerted initiative on building a quantum computer or central institution for Quantum Technology, such as ISRO is for space research. We have various independent groups working across the country, be it in IISc, TIFR, PRL, IISERs, IITs and JIIT, but there has been little, in terms of implementation of protocols such as those for quantum teleportation. We may have Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) being performed in certain labs, but we are still some way off from realising quantum cluster-states, distributed network protocols and surface-to-space QKD. In the Budget 2020 speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made a welcome announcement for Indian science, saying that, over the next five years, she proposed spending ₹8,000 crore on a National Mission on Quantum Technologies and Applications. India initiated QuEST (Quantum-Enabled Science & Technology) in 2019, with an investment of Rs 80 crore (around $11 million) over the next 3 years to develop quantum technology. As per my interactions with various research groups in the country, the problem with QuEST has been in terms of the money reaching the groups across the country and the implementation of the scheme to the extent that it can be.
Looking at the external threats we face as a country and the myriad ways in which quantum technology can help India, I hope the government makes this a priority, in the upcoming days. I believe the Indian government should aim to build one central quantum computing system in the country, completely developed and constructed with expertise and resources from within the country (as much as possible) and to build one central institute for research on Quantum Technology (along the lines of ISRO). What is also needed is to initiate tie-ups with companies such as Wipro, Infosys and Reliance on QuTech, collaborate on quantum technology with universities, such as IIT Delhi and RRI, as well as unite all venture capitalists (VCs) and industrial stakeholders who may be interested in QuTech.
In the bid to build quantum technology in the country, an important legal barrier for IP in technology R&D, on the software side, is section 3(k) of the Patents Act, 1970, which excludes “computer programmes, per se or algorithms” from patentability in India. The exact words:
3. What are not inventions.—The following are not inventions within the meaning of this Act,—
(k) a mathematical or business method or a computer programme per se or algorithms
If we have to move ahead towards a comprehensive plan for making the situation more conducive for quantum technology, on both the software and hardware side, we will have to remove some of these hurdles that remain. We are making steady and promising progress on this front, and I hope that my country shall be able to move ahead in leaps and bounds, when it comes to QuTech in the days ahead.
(Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar is a scientist, writer, human rights activist and student political leader. He is currently pursuing his postdoctoral studies in physics at the University of Cambridge).