View from India: Quantum computing’s amazing potential

There is growing interest and investment in quantum computing, but we’ve just about touched the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It could take a while before the potential of this technology is fully harnessed for new drug discoveries, scientific explorations and more.

An image of the penicillin molecule may be difficult to analyse, let alone molecules with over 100 components. This is where quantum computing fits in. It has a unique ability to calculate structures at atomic and subatomic scales and does so with precision. That’s just one of its attributes. No surprise that the technology could find applications in communication satellites that can be beamed to receivers on Earth. This may be used for scientific studies. That’s not all. Quantum computing may be used in healthcare, communication and large-scale optimization like traffic flow, goods delivery and task simulation. It could probably help to sift through large chunks of data related to climate or population.

Given this diversity, the government and private companies are investing in this technology for research and commercial applications. Start-ups too can scout for opportunities in software, hardware and manufacturing of smaller parts. The 2020 Union Budget earmarked 8,000 crore (80 billion) rupees (£860m) for quantum technology research over the next five years.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) had also announced a collaboration with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to develop a Quantum Computing Applications Lab. A quantum computing laboratory and an AI center at a military engineering institute at Mhow, Madhya Pradesh has been established by the Indian Army. Last year, the Indian government launched Quantum Simulator (QSim) devices that are meant for studying quantum effects, which may be difficult to pursue in a lab. This is for developers, scientists and students to research on quantum computing. The platform has been built by Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc), Bangalore, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Roorkee, and the Center for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC). Browsers can sign in from anywhere through qctoolkit.com. Google too has announced a similar QSim last year. IBM has come up with initiatives such as IBM Quantum Challenge, IBM Quantum Summer School and Qiskit Challenge-India. Qiskit is IBM’s open-source software development kit. Honeywell and Boeing offer cloud simulations of quantum computing.

Hopefully these efforts will trigger off new studies in the technology. The next thing that comes to mind is quantum computers, which are far removed from the regular classical computers. Standard computers store information as binary 0 and 1states. The quantum computing analogue of classical computer bits is qubit or quantum bits. A qubit can be in a combination of states. This differentiator gives it an extra mileage which can be used for deducing large calculations.

Quantum computers may not replace the classical ones. They could collaborate with classical computers to solve computational problems. The algorithms from quantum computers could be used to measure and understand the gaps in the classical computers.

An intrinsic feature of quantum computers is that they need to be kept cold, much colder than the surrounding area. It would take a lot of engineering and tweaking to improve the technology and build large-scale quantum computers and implement them to understand the structure of molecules and new materials. “The real challenge today is not to build a quantum computer and show that it can work (it does)…however, to scale up the technology and build large-scale, super quantum computers,” said Shohini Ghose, Wilfrid Laurier University, speaking at the Keysight World Innovate event held virtually.

Not just that, quantum computers are based on quantum mechanics and quantum uncertainty, which can be used functionally. To give an example, it may not be possible to know about every single property, movement and location of an electron or atom. Quantum uncertainty by its very nature can be applied to create a computing model for getting insights into the electron or atom. By doing so, the landscape of computing expands and may be used to tackle security threats. “If you wish to hide information from eavesdroppers, quantum computing can be used to encode information on the quantum data. When one particulate and quantum bits interact, they can get locked together. Jointly they have a connection and their co-relation may be tapped to develop a new kind of compute protocols and calculations,” added Ghose, an award-winning quantum physicist who threw light on the basics of quantum computing, its promise, its dangers, and what to expect from it in the future.

The process of quantum computing involves teleportation. In simple terms, quantum teleportation happens when quantum information is transferred from source to destination through entangled states. “Quantum teleporting is mind-boggling. The teleport qubits may open up avenues in quantum internet, networking and matters related to privacy and confidentiality,” reasoned Jeff Harris, vice president, portfolio and corporate marketing at Keysight Technologies.

Quantum computing can impact various sections of the society, it can be a social impact revolution. But then, somewhere people could make a beginning and this may become a use case for others to emulate. As in the case of other technologies, there are bottlenecks here too. “Performance, scalability and up-time are among the three technical challenges of quantum computing. We design products based on the three parameters to solve various issues. We are in the process of creating the next-gen quantum engineers by grooming them on YouTube and through partnership initiatives,” explained Giampaolo Tardioli, vice president, communications solutions group, Keysight Technologies.

Decades-long hype around quantum systems probably still exists. Yet it could offer near and far-term potential. But then technical challenges may have to be overcome for quantum systems to realize their promise in fields spanning cyber-security, materials creation, financial analysis and military receivers.

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