Part of: GS Prelims and GS-III- S&T (Editorial plus)
What is this technology?
Quantum computers perform calculations based on the probability of an object's state before it is measured - instead of just 1s or 0s - which means they have the potential to process exponentially more data compared to classical computers.
Classical computers carry out logical operations using the definite position of a physical state. These are usually binary, meaning its operations are based on one of two positions. A single state - such as on or off, up or down, 1 or 0 - is called a bit.
In Quantum computers, operations instead use the quantum state of an object to produce what's known as a qubit. These states are the undefined properties of an object before they've been detected, such as the spin of an electron or the polarisation of a photon.
Rather than having a clear position, unmeasured quantum states occur in a mixed 'superposition', not unlike a coin spinning through the air before it lands in your hand.
These superpositions can be entangled with those of other objects, meaning their final outcomes will be mathematically related even if we don't know yet what they are.
The complex mathematics behind these unsettled states of entangled 'spinning coins' can be plugged into special algorithms to make short work of problems that would take a classical computer a long time to work out... if they could ever calculate them at all.
Such algorithms would be useful in solving complex mathematical problems, producing hard-to-break security codes, or predicting multiple particle interactions in chemical reactions.
Types of quantum computers
Building a functional quantum computer requires holding an object in a superposition state long enough to carry out various processes on them.
Unfortunately, once a superposition meets with materials that are part of a measured system, it loses its in-between state in what's known as decoherence and becomes a boring old classical bit.
Devices need to be able to shield quantum states from decoherence, while still making them easy to read.
Different processes are tackling this challenge from different angles, whether it's to use more robust quantum processes or to find better ways to check for errors.
Quantum computing supremacy
For the time being, classical technology can manage any task thrown at a quantum computer. Quantum supremacy describes the ability of a quantum computer to outperform their classical counterparts.
Some companies, such as IBM and Google, claim we might be close, as they continue to cram more qubits together and build more accurate devices.
Union Budget 2020-21 proposed to spend ?8,000 crore ($ 1.2 billion) on the newly launchedNational Mission on Quantum Technologies and Applications (NMQTA). The mission seeks to develop quantum computing linked technologies amidst the second quantum revolution and make India the world’s third biggest nation in the sector after the US and China.
Quantum Technologies not just have ultra fast computing capabilities, but it also has strategic and economic advantages.
What is Quantum Computing?
Quantum Technology is based on the principles of Quantum mechanics, that was developed in the early 20th century to describe nature in the small — at the scale of atoms and elementary particles.
The first phase of this revolutionary technology has provided the foundations of our understanding of the physical world, including the interaction of light and matter, and led to ubiquitous inventions such as lasers and semiconductor transistors.
However, despite a century of research, the quantum world still remains mysterious and far removed from our experiences based on everyday life.
Thereby, a second revolution is currently underway with the goal of putting properties of quantum mechanics in the realms of computing.
Conventional computers process information in ‘bits’ or 1s and 0s, following classical physics under which our computers can process a ‘1’ or a ‘0’ at a time.
Quantum computers compute in ‘qubits’ (or quantum bits). They exploit the properties of quantum mechanics, the science that governs how matter behaves on the atomic scale.
In this scheme of things, processors can be a 1 and a 0 simultaneously, a state called quantum superposition.
Because of quantum superposition, a quantum computer — if it works to plan — can mimic several classical computers working in parallel.
However, the actual realization of this path breaking technology remains one of the great challenges faced in the fields of Quantum Computing. Though, the announcement by Google, in October 2019, where they claimed to have demonstrated the so-called “quantum supremacy”, is one of the first steps towards realization of this goal.
Applications of Quantum Technology
Besides computing, exploring the quantum world promises other dramatic applications. For example:
Secure Communication: China recently demonstrated secure quantum communication links between terrestrial stations and satellites.
This area is significant to satellites, military and cyber security among others as it promises unimaginably fast computing and safe, unhackable satellite communication to its users.
Research: It can help in solving some of the fundamental questions in physics related to gravity, black hole etc.
Similarly, the quantum initiative could give a big boost to the Genome India project, a collaborative effort of 20 institutions to enable new efficiencies in life sciences, agriculture and medicine.
Disaster Management: Tsunamis, drought, earthquakes and floods may become more predictable with quantum applications.
The collection of data regarding climate change can be streamlined in a better way through quantum technology. This in turn will have a profound impact on agriculture, food technology chains and the limiting of farmland wastage.
Pharmaceutical: India’s interest in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry is huge.
Quantum computing could reduce the time frame of the discovery of new molecules and related processes to a few days from the present 10-year slog that scientists put in.
For instance, tracking protein behaviour or even modelling new proteins with the help of quantum computers could be made easier and faster.
Tackling chronic diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart ailments is a big possibility of the technology.
Augmenting Industrial revolution 4.0: Quantum computing is an integral part of Industrial revolution 4.0.
Success in it will help in Strategic initiatives aimed at leveraging other Industrial revolution 4.0 technologies like the Internet-of-Things, machine learning, robotics, and artificial intelligence across sectors will further help in laying the foundation of the Knowledge economy.
The challenge lies in harnessing the properties of quantum superposition in a highly controlled manner. The qubits tend to be very fragile and lose their “quantumness” if not controlled properly. Also, a careful choice of materials, design and engineering is required to get them to work.
On the theoretical front lies the challenge of creating the algorithms and applications for quantum computers.
These projects will also place new demands on classical control hardware as well as software platforms.
Further, Information technology-based security infrastructure would never be the same once quantum systems become a reality, given the ultra fast speed of computing power.
Warfare and conflict strategists will have new challenges to face.
In such scenarios India's current plans may have to be reworked to develop integrated war-theatre strategies factoring in quantum technologies.
Globally, research in this area is about two decades old, but in India, serious experimental work has been under way for only about five years.
In 2018, the government initiated serious discussions in quantum technologies and kick started research projects across 51 organisations under QUEST – Quantum Enabled Science and Technology. However, no significant progress is made in this field until NMQTA.
With NMQTA announcement, the government seeks to provide investment on a massive scale and on a par with similar programmes announced recently by the United States and Europe. However, there is an urgent need to address challenges associated with Quantum technology.Pursuing these challenges will require:
An unprecedented collaboration between physicists (both experimentalists and theorists), computer scientists, material scientists and engineers.
Government needs to partner institutions and the scientific community to work out details of the mission and roll it out quickly.
Private funding, both via industry and philanthropy, can play an outsized role even with much smaller amounts.
For example, unrestricted funds that can be used to attract and retain high quality manpower and to build international networks — all at short notice — can and will make an enormous difference to the success of this enterprise.
This is one of the most effective ways (as China and Singapore discovered) to catch up scientifically with the international community, while quickly creating a vibrant intellectual environment to help attract top researchers.