Quantum technologies have vast implications for military, scientific and commercial domains. So much so that in the 2020 finance budget, the Indian government allocated ₹8,000 crores for investment in quantum technologies to be devoted over the next five years under the National Mission of Quantum Technologies and Applications (NM-QTA) project. Moreover, Quantum-Enabled Science & Technology (QuEST) research project has likewise been initiated with the allocation of ₹80 crores to fund an institution in Hyderabad. The missions to be commenced under the scheme are likely to open new avenues for quantum technologies in areas such as quantum materials, quantum key distribution, quantum devices, quantum sensing and quantum clock as well.


Although the government push towards greater involvement in the quantum arena is appreciated, the caveat is that other nations have been investing in quantum technologies for a lot longer such as in China whose 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) specifically focused on quantum technologies and European Union which has been investing in quantum technology since 1998. Private players such as Amazon, IBM and Google have likewise started early but also with significant budgets in stark contrast to Indian companies. This has more significantly resulted in restricted access to human as well as operational capital, which is severely required for quantum technologies advancement in India.


The principles of quantum theory, the foundation of quantum technology, is based at the atomic and subatomic level, and concerned with the nature of energy and matter. Moreover, the leveraging of quantum mechanical phenomena for the purposes of information processing is done through quantum computers. Quantum computing, intermittently referred to as a hyper disruptive technology involves the procession of data at an astonishing pace facilitated through the use of qubit which consists of 0s, 1s, or both at the same time, a phenomenon known as superposition state. Superposition state allows for operations on numerous values to be done together whereas conventional computer required for doing these valuations sequentially. After the calculations are completed, “collapse” occurs to either 1 or 0 to the quantum state. Additionally, quantum entanglement with pairs of qubits can lead to an exponential surge in capability as the state of one qubit is changed in tandem with the other qubit in the pair with implications for quantum teleportation and quantum cryptography.


The projects in India being currently undertaken in the quantum realm are divided into four broad strokes. First is Quantum Information Technologies (QIT) with photonic devices, which exploits India’s expertise in photonics as well as quantum optics to better quantum communication links. Second relates to QIT with nitrogen vacancy and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to better quantum computation. The third is QIT with ion-trap and optical-lattice devices for quantum computation and quantum simulators as ion trap has enormous scale potential. The fourth is QIT with superconducting and quantum-dot devices for the development of chip-based quantum computers.


The importance of quantum technologies cannot be overstated. For instance, in the US, there have been calls for a “Manhattan Project style” investment in quantum technologies. These initiatives could lead to substantial implications of quantum technologies in the arenas of communication, encryption, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) storage, detection of military hardware, 3D printing, blockchain, pharmaceuticals, banking, disaster management, “real-time language translation”, artificial intelligence as well as multiple other arenas not even imaginable yet. The disruptions are even wider with applicability in established fields of chemistry, geology, aero-space engineering such as satellites for enhanced real time battle information, numerical weather prediction, agriculture, and mechanics, as well as a space based quantum internet.


Quantum supremacy refers to the stage where the capacity to do calculations which a regular supercomputer would require a billion years to complete is acquired by quantum computers. If achieved by India, it would give the country a unique competitive edge and significant advantage over its adversaries in the neighborhood. However, talent acquirement and support infrastructure planning requirements points towards countries with bigger wallets and higher standards of living reaping the benefits. Nevertheless, collaboration with countries such as Russia with whom India already has deep defense cooperation is being explored by companies such as SREI Infrastructure Finance for quantum communication equipment. The Ministry of Electronics and IT has likewise been signing agreements with Israel to further joint research in various fields including quantum computing.


Henceforth, the pandemic is likely to put a strain on investment in these very fields. It may even result in the intensification of the race as the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the utilization of technology more than ever before. However, substantial challenges plague  quantum technologies such as quantum computers requiring isolation completely from any electrical interference as well as requiring the operating environments to be colder than outer space. Decoherence, where particles revert to their classical state, can lead to elimination of quantum particles, decay and disappearance of qubits through interaction with environment.


Additionally, other countries are going to be working towards post-quantum cryptography, or PQC. PQC is the enrichment of innovative cryptographic advances that can be executed employing current “classical computers” although these developments can potentially be made vulnerable to future quantum breaches. Further, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology since 2016 has been working on the development of standards for governmental use. Moreover, interagency cooperation has already been implemented with the National Security Agency for national security and commercial cases. Academia and military cooperation has likewise been observed such as in the case of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Israel, which intends to carry out cooperative quantum research and development programmes with the Israel Defense Force (IDF), the US military, and other private players. Consequently, partnership between governmental authorities in different countries with companies from other countries could lead to increase in the geopolitical reach of the former. For instance, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) has broadcasted its involvement in the Microsoft Quantum Computing Programme for optimisation of energy.


India’s pursuit of quantum technology must likewise work towards setting standards and more importantly inter-agency cooperation for better assimilation of technology. This has already started with QuEST. The initiative funded by the Department of Science & Technology (DST) planned to collaborate with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). Government investment as seen in China which led to first entanglement-based quantum-key distribution exhibited employing a satellite and co-operation with private players as observed in Singapore between ST Engineering and the National University of Singapore (NUS) supported by National Research Foundation’s (NRF) Quantum Engineering Programme (QEP) have been slated with the potential to be able to wield results.


The world at large is at a precipice below which rises the phantom of climate change while on the other side stands Cerberus comprised of artificial intelligence, robotics, and quantum technologies. These technologies have the power to exacerbate problems or extinguish them. However, although science and technology revolutionize human lives, memory, beliefs, traditions and myths are still responsible for framing the responses to these revolutionary transformations. If India is unable to properly prosper in this domain and shape it with its own unique ambitions as well as needs, it will be left playing catch-up to someone else’s rules.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.