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A model of the IBM Q System One quantum computer at the 2020 CES in Las Vegas, US. (Photo: Reuters)
A model of the IBM Q System One quantum computer at the 2020 CES in Las Vegas, US. (Photo: Reuters)

Why India is falling behind in the Y2Q race

  • The world faces a new scare around quantum computing, dubbed Y2Q. India’s effort to tackle this is falling short
  • Y2Q can put diplomatic and military secrets, or even sensitive financial and healthcare data, at risk. For now, whatever little is moving on this front in India is mainly through the govt

NEW DELHI : Two decades ago, the world faced its first big computing scare. It was dubbed Y2K, a programming bug which raised widespread concerns that digital infrastructure would crumble at the turn of the new millennium. That moment passed without any major incident, thanks in large measure to work done by India’s software coders.

Now, the world faces a new scare that some scientists are calling the Y2Q (“years to quantum") moment. Y2Q, say experts, could be the next major cyber disruption. When this moment will come is not certain; most predictive estimates range from 10 to 20 years. But one thing is certain: as things stand, India has not woken up to the implications (both positive and negative) of quantum computing.

What is quantum computing? Simply put, it is a future technology that will exponentially speed up the processing power of classical computers, and solve problems in a few seconds that today’s fastest supercomputers can’t.

Most importantly, a quantum computer would be able to factor the product of two big prime numbers. And that means the underlying assumptions powering modern encryption won’t hold when a practical quantum computer becomes a reality. Encryption forms the backbone of a secure cyberspace. It helps to protect the data we send, receive or store.

So, a quantum computer could translate into a complete breakdown of current encryption infrastructure. Cybersecurity experts have been warning about this nightmarish scenario since the late 1990s.

In October, Google announced a major breakthrough, claiming its quantum computer can solve a problem in 200 seconds, which would take even the fastest classical computer 10,000 years. That means their computer had achieved “quantum supremacy", claimed the company’s scientists. IBM, its chief rival in the field, responded that the claims should be taken “with a large dose of skepticism". Clearly, Google’s news suggests a quantum future is not a question of if, but when.

Future danger
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Future danger

India lags behind

As the US and China lead the global race in quantum technology, and other developed nations follow by investing significant intellectual and fiscal resources (see Future Danger), India lags far behind. “Indian government is late, but efforts have begun in the last two years," said Debajyoti Bera, a professor at Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) Delhi, who researches quantum computing.

Mint’s interviews with academic researchers, private sector executives and government officials paint a bleak picture of India’s ability to be a competent participant. For one, the ecosystem is ill-equipped: just a few hundred researchers living in the country work in this domain, that too in discrete silos.

There are legacy reasons: India’s weakness in building hardware and manufacturing technology impedes efforts to implement theoretical ideas into real products. Whatever little is moving is primarily through the government: private sector participation—and investment—remains lacklustre. And, of course, there’s a funding crunch.

All this has left India’s top security officials concerned. Lieutenant General (retd) Rajesh Pant, national cybersecurity coordinator, who reports to the Prime Minister’s Office, identified many gaps in the Indian quantum ecosystem. “There is an absence of a quantum road map. There is no visibility in the quantum efforts and successes, and there is a lack of required skill power," Pant said at an event in December, while highlighting the advances China has made in the field. “As the national cybersecurity coordinator, this is a cause of concern for me."

The task at hand

In a traditional computer—for instance, your phone and laptop—every piece of information, be it text or video, is ultimately a larger string of “bits": each bit can be either zero or one. No other value is possible. In a quantum computer, “bits" are replaced by “qubits" where each unit can exist in both states, zero and one, at the same time. That makes the processing superfast: qubits can encode and process more information than bits.

What’s most vulnerable is information generated today that has long-term value: diplomatic and military secrets or sensitive financial and healthcare data. “The information circulating on the internet that is protected with classical encryption can be harvested by an adversary. Whenever the decryption technology becomes available with the advent of quantum computers, today’s secrets will break apart," explains Vadim Makarov, the chief scientist running Russia’s quantum hacking lab.

From a national security perspective, there are two threads in global efforts. One is to build a quantum computer: whoever gets there first will have the capability to decrypt secrets of the rest. Two, every country is trying to make one’s own communications hack-proof and secure.

The Indian game plan

There are individual programmes operating across government departments in India. “The ministry of electronics and information technology is interested in computing aspects; DRDO in encryption products and Isro in satellite communication," said a senior official at the department of science and technology (DST) who is directly involved in formulating India’s quantum policy initiatives, on condition of anonymity. DRDO is Defence Research and Development organisation, and Isro is Indian Space Research Organisation. DST, which works under the aegis of the central ministry of science and technology, mandate revolves around making advances in scientific research.

To that end, in 2019, DST launched Quantum Information Science and Technology (QuEST), a programme wherein the government will invest 80 crore in the next three years to fund research directed to build quantum computers, channels for quantum communication and cryptography, among other things. Some 51 projects were selected for funding under QuEST. A quarter of the money has been released, said the DST official.

K. VijayRaghavan, principal scientific adviser, declined to be interviewed for this story. However, in a recent interview to The Print, he said: “It[QuEST] will ensure that the nation reaches, within a span of 10 years, the goal of achieving the technical capacity to build quantum computers and communications systems comparable with the best in the world, and hence earn a leadership role."

Not everyone agrees. “While QuEST is a good initiative and has helped build some momentum in academia, it is too small to make any meaningful difference to the country," said Sunil Gupta, co-founder and chief executive of QNu Labs, a Bengaluru-based startup building quantum-safe encryption products. “India needs to show their confidence and trust in startups." He added that the country needs to “up the ante by committing at least $1 billion in this field for the next three years if India wants to make any impact on the global level".

More recently, DRDO announced a new initiative: of the five DRDO Young Scientists Laboratories that were launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January with the aim to research and develop futuristic defence technologies. One lab set up at Indian Institute of Technology Bombay is dedicated to quantum technology.

The DST official said that the government is planning to launch a national mission on quantum technology. “It will be a multi-departmental initiative to enable different agencies to work together and focus on the adoption of research into technology," the official said, adding that “the mission will have clearly defined deliverables for the next 5 to 10 years." While the details are still in the works, the official said equipping India for building quantum-secure systems is on the cards.

The flaws in the plan

Why is India lagging behind? First, India doesn’t have enough people working on quantum technology: the estimates differ, but they fall in the range of 100-200 researchers. “That is not enough to compete with IBM," said Anirban Pathak, a professor at Jaypee Institute of Information Technology, and a recipient of DST’s QuEST funding.

Contrast that with China. “One of my former students is now a faculty member in a Chinese university. She joined a group that started just two years ago and they are already 50 faculty members in the staff," added Pathak. “In India, at no place, you will find more than three faculty members working in quantum."

IIIT Delhi’s Bera noted: “A lot of Indians in quantum are working abroad. Many are working in IBM to build a quantum computer. India needs to figure out a way to get those people back here."

Secondly, there’s the lack of a coordinated effort. “There are many isolated communities in India working on various aspects: quantum hardware, quantum key distribution, information theory and other fields," said Bera. “But there is not much communication across various groups. We cross each other mostly at conferences."

Jaypee’s Pathak added: “In Delhi, there are eight researchers working in six different institutes. Quantum requires many kinds of expertise, and that is needed under one roof. We need an equivalent of Isro (for space) and Barc (for atomic research) for quantum."

Third is India’s legacy problem: strong on theory, but weak in hardware. That has a direct impact on the country’s ability to advance in building quantum technology. The lack of research is not the impediment to prepare for a quantum future, say experts. Implementation is the challenge, the real bottleneck. The DST official quoted earlier acknowledged that some Indian researchers he works with are frustrated.

“They need infrastructure to implement their research. For that, we need to procure equipment, instal it and then set it up. That requires money and time," said the official. “Indian government has recognized the gap and is working towards it."

Bera said that India should start building a quantum computer. But the problem is that the country doesn’t even have good fabrication labs. “If we want to design chips, Indians have to outsource," he said. “Hardware has never been India’s strong point." QNu Labs is trying to fill that gap. The technology it is developing is based on research done over a decade ago: the effort is to build hardware and make it usable.

Finally, India’s private sector and investors have not stepped up in the game. “If India wants something bigger, Indian tech giants like Wipro and Infosys need to step in. They have many engineers on the bench who can be involved. Academia alone or DST-funded projects can’t compete with IBM," said Pathak.

The DST official agreed. “R&D is good for building prototypes. But industry partnership is crucial for implementing it in the real world," he said. “One aim of the national quantum mission that is under the works would be to spin-off startup companies and feed innovation into the ecosystem. We plan to bring venture capitalists (VCs) under one umbrella."

In conclusion

Pant, the national cybersecurity chief, minced no words at the event in December 2019 on quantum technology.

“In 1993, there was an earthquake in Latur and we created the National Disaster Management Authority which now has a presence across the country." He added: “Are we waiting for a cybersecurity ‘earthquake’ to strike before we get our act together?"

Samarth Bansal is a freelance journalist based in Delhi. He writes about technology, politics and policy

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