ABOUT SEVEN YEARS AGO, WHEN THE physicist Rajamani Vijayaraghavan returned to India, from the University of California in Berkeley, where he was a postdoctoral scholar, to Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), he likes to say he got lucky. A grant worth about $1 million to establish a lab that would investigate quantum phenomena in superconducting circuits, his area of research, had come through. And although research in quantum computing was yet to take off—without the kind of governmental support seen in the US, China or Europe or even the kind of resources put in by companies such as Google or IBM—in India, Vijayaraghavan’s return also marked a time when the Indian Government was soon going to turn its focus on this new emerging field.
In the last two years, the Government’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) has organised two national programmes where researchers in this field were brought together, some proposals green-lit for governmental support and a sort of plan chalked out to increase the country’s capacity in this field.
And then the Union Budget happened in 2020. During her Budget speech on February 1st, Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the Government was going to invest Rs 8,000 crore (around $1.12 billion) over the next five years under the National Mission on Quantum Technologies and Applications. This is a considerable investment, comparable to what the leading countries in the field are currently investing. US President Donald Trump, for instance, signed a Bill to invest $1.2 billion over five years in a national quantum initiative in December 2018 and the European Union in 2016 pledged $1.13 billion to this field.
In one of the rooms is the centrepiece. A machine, currently enclosed, which if opened resembles the large machines IBM and Google have displayed—something like a chandelier with an intricate collection of tubes and wires that ends with a small steel cylinder at the bottom. “Ideally, we should be having one more of it here, another there and another there, all being operated simultaneously,” says Vijayaraghavan, as he points to various parts of the rooms to emphasise the need for a large lab to have several more of these machines.
Research in quantum computing, as Vijayaraghavan explains, is expensive, with almost every tiny part or machine in this field currently required to be imported. To cut corners and to reduce the time of sometimes about a month it takes to receive these parts—and even though this doesn’t benefit any of them in the way of having this work published in journals—Vijayaraghavan and his team have now also taken to having some of these parts developed in their own labs.
With the recent allocation in the Budget, those involved in quantum computing research in India like Vijayaraghavan now hope they will be able to scale up their labs and research.
Research in quantum computing is expensive, with almost every tiny part of machine in this field currently required to be imported. Sometimes it takes about a month
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When the breakthrough in quantum computing does occur, it is believed a technological revolution will happen. Everything, it is said, will change. Wonder drugs will be developed and new molecules and novel materials will be discovered. We will design better batteries, better fertilisers, learn to make precise measurements to forecast the weather or predict a volcano eruption, invent a new generation of devices, maybe even solve climate change, or even come up with solutions to problems we haven’t yet considered.
Quantum computing takes advantage of the strange ability of subatomic particles to exist in more than one ‘state’ at a time. In classical computing, a bit is a single piece of information that can exist in either of the two states: 1 or 0. Quantum computing uses qubits (quantum bits), which are quantum systems in two states. So while in classical computing, calculations are performed with bits, which must be either 0 or 1, the qubits in quantum computers allow it to take any value between 0 and 1. When qubits are ‘entangled’, what Einstein called ‘spooky action at a distance’, the value of one qubit is tied to the values of many others, enabling quantum machines to solve problems that would take a traditional computer billions of years.
Last year, Google announced in a paper published in the journal Nature that it had achieved ‘quantum supremacy’. This term, coined by US physicist John Preskill, describes the turning point in computing when quantum computers begin to solve problems a classical machine cannot. Google, comparing this moment to the time humans first successfully built a rocket to reach space, claimed that its Sycamore processor using 53 qubits had rattled through in three minutes and 20 seconds what would take the world’s most powerful supercomputer (at the Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee, US) 10,000 years. This claim has been disputed, with IBM claiming that the supercomputer could have solved the problem in 2.5 days or even less depending on how it was programmed. But the development represented the kind of advancements this field is now witnessing.
As Vijayaraghavan explains, even these machines developed by companies such as Google and IBM are not perfect. They still commit errors and we are some way away from creating a quantum computer.
In India, research in this field began only about five years ago, most of it by individuals in just a few labs and institutes. “So one of the big reasons why we have probably not been able to do more on the individual [level] is the money required. A minimum requirement for a new lab is in the order of a million dollars. With a million dollars, you’re still talking about a small scale, academic lab-kind of level. And in the usual system of funding within India, that’s a lot of money. Very few places are able to commit this kind of money,” Vijayaraghavan says.
He develops quantum processors using superconducting electronic circuits operating at milli-Kelvin temperatures. He is building various types of quantum processors, some of them with four or more qubits, but also working on another method—of building interconnected blocks of three-qubit processors, where each qubit in a processor is successfully connected to each of the other two qubits. This is a tricky field, because for all the advancements in quantum computing research, even in the machines IBM and Google have built, qubits easily give up their special quantum characteristics when in contact with one another.
A lot of people in India believe that since we have missed many boats in the past, “the government doesn’t want to be late to his one,” says Rajamani Vijayaraghavan, a physicist at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research
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Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary, DST, told reporters in 2019 that the Government was investing in this field so that it does not end up depending on other countries. “[The national programme on quantum research] 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,” he told a news portal.
As Vijayaraghavan puts it, a lot of people in India believe that since we have missed many boats in the past, “the Government doesn’t want to be late to this one”.
ACCORDING TO UMAKANT RAPOL FROM THE ATOMIC Physics and Quantum Optics Lab at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune, although the country currently lags far behind other countries, it is not impossible to catch up quickly. “There are still a lot of ifs and buts but if we do things correctly, we should be able to build our own quantum computers,” he says.
Rapol, who spent several years as a researcher in this field in Europe, works on ultra-cold atoms and ions to develop quantum technology in the Pune lab. Among other things, he is working on how to build scalable quantum computers, make quantum processors network and on atom interferometry which he explains would help for instance in developing better sensors for deep space missions.
According to Vijayaraghavan, if things go by plan, we might begin seeing results within five years, where prototypes of the types of machines IBM and Google have built are developed.
“One good thing is that this mission is a different kind of a programme than conventional funding programmes. Once it’s in place, the bureaucracy actually takes a step back. And it’s in the hands of the scientists: so there will be some sort of a governing body, we’re still figuring out the details. So once that takes over it will function, you know, probably a lot more efficiently than under normal circumstances,” he says.
Despite the Government’s proclaimed enthusiasm for research in this field, there hasn’t always been evidence for it. Early last year, the DST claimed it had shortlisted 50-odd project proposals from over 130 submissions it had received for support under the country’s Quantum-Enabled Science & Technology (QuEST) programme. According to media reports, this support was going to be to the tune of Rs 80 crore.
But according to a researcher involved in that programme, the original plan was to allocate between Rs 250 crore and Rs 300 crore. The researcher also revealed that so far about Rs 11 crore has been distributed for only 20 of those shortlisted, each of them receiving only a fraction of the promised fund.
When I ask Vijayaraghavan about this, he agrees that it will be crucial that the allocated money come through. “The funding and the infrastructure currently in place is incapable of operating at that [large] scale. So the hope is that with these new programmes, we can really kick off based on the platform we have set up in the last five to seven years,” he says. “In that sense, it’s super-exciting. I feel that my move to India was timed perfectly. Because I’ve had the time to set things up. And now I’m in a position to really accelerate if the resources come through.”