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.
In last year’s budget session, the Finance Minister of the Government of India proposed that Rs.8,000 crore be set aside to develop quantum science and technology.
The detailed project report for a National Mission on Quantum Technology and Applications (NM-QTA) has been drawn out and finalised, and in the next couple of months, this mission might get approval.
Recognising the importance of quantum technology, the Department of Science and Technology of the Government of India had initiated a programme called QuEST at a modest 200-crore-rupee budget to explore the possibilities and engage with the researchers.
“In the international arena, huge investments, both public and private, are carried out to roll out quantum-based products.
Potential applications include secure communication, fast computers that established quantum supremacy, sensors and quantum inspired devices,” says Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary DST.
“The first mover has the advantage in garnering market share and technology supremacy.”
Knowledge of quantum mechanics is an indivisible part of the electronics industry.
However, in the twenty-first century, the term ‘quantum technology’ refers to something even more disruptive and radical.
It involves exploiting the properties of individual, or a few fundamental particles, to achieve revolutionary changes in technology. One example is the property known as entanglement.
When two objects, say two particles of light, also called photons, are in an entangled state, any changes made to the state of one, for example, its spin, are reflected in the other particle, however far they move from each other without breaking the entanglement.
If developed, this property can be used to transmit a message at a very high level of secrecy from one point to another.
In June 2020, China demonstrated quantum communication technology using the satellite Micius, by conducting a secret conference between two ground stations about 1,120 km apart.
They used the satellite not to transmit the entire communication, but to simultaneously send a pair of secret keys to the two ground stations. Each secret key is one of two strings of entangled photons.
The several areas in which this technology can be applied includes quantum communication, quantum encryption and quantum metrology.
“In the years 1970-1980, people thought photonics would replace electronics, but it has actually augmented the latter.
Similarly, now there is a big drive to look for domains where quantum effects can be harvested.
“NM-QTA is an inter-ministerial mission, and Department of Science and Technology is the nodal department," he added.
The NM-QTA is yet to be approved by the government, and it is under process. “Around 300 scientists, faculty and researchers; 30 institutes and good number of stakeholders were involved in developing Detailed Project Report on NM-QTA. Mostly, these researchers and institutes shall be involved while implementing the mission once approved,”
There has been progress on several fronts as far as quantum technology is concerned, within India.
“There is a good progress in quantum communication, particularly in free space as well as in fibre. Prototypes have been developed and protocols are in place,” Dr. Sharma explains.
“Once satellite-based transponders are available, free space communication could be demonstrated. Work is progressing smoothly and very soon, in less than six months, it will be demonstrated,” he adds.
According to Dr. Sharma, on the fibre front, stretching beyond 150 km is being worked out. This includes development of repeaters so that signals could be boosted at every 150 km so that the desired communication can go for long distances.
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