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August 28, 2023updated 29 Aug 2023 10:09am

How India became the hottest date in quantum computing

India has bold ambitions to harness its latent quantum potential. It’s courting partnerships with nations all around the globe — except China.

By Stephanie Stacey

Professor Bhupendra Dev got an exciting delivery in May: an ultra-low temperature dilution refrigerator built by a Finnish company Bluefors. It suited Dev’s purposes perfectly. The device will, the professor explains, provide temperatures close to absolute zero (−273.15°C) — a stark contrast from the tropical climate on the streets outside the researcher’s lab in Kolkata, India. “People sometimes joke that Finland is a cold country and that’s why they can provide the refrigeration systems,” says Dev.

The icy extremes are essential for Dev’s research at the Centre for Quantum Engineering, Research and Education (CQuERE), where he’s trying to build one of India’s first quantum computers. Most of the electronics are already in place, except for a few couplers, and Dev hopes to begin working with his first qubit — the basic unit of quantum information — in about six months. “We’ll proceed pretty slowly, because at this stage [we] have to train the students,” says Dev. 

Although it’s still in development, quantum computers have the potential to perform complex calculations exponentially faster than their so-called ‘classical’ counterparts. As such, these exotic devices could accelerate scientific breakthroughs and streamline supply chains, as well as enhance navigation and detection systems and offering a fool-proof form of encryption. That’s why there’s such a dash to uncover its secrets: the nations that manage to harness the technology first will, naturally, be the first to reap its promised rewards. 

More ominous, however, is the fact that quantum computers’ speedy mathematical prowess could enable them to completely overwhelm our existing encryption standards — a pivotal event that researchers call ‘Q-Day.’ “If it works, it will change everything,” says Emily Harding, a senior fellow on the CSIS International Security Program. “Anything from secret government communications to bank transactions could, in theory, be decrypted by a functioning quantum computer.”

Quantum, therefore, is increasingly seen as a game-changer — both for economic development and for international security. As such, the latent technology is already turning into a geopolitical minefield, even before many of its ambitious promises come to fruition. India, which has previously lagged behind other nations in the field, is frantically trying to leapfrog its competitors, especially in light of its growing fear of China. The country is charting an ambitious path — backed by a hefty package of government funding and an extensive catalogue of collaborations with researchers scattered across the globe.

The Indian flag, its traditional central wheel and spoke symbol replaced with a representation of the atom.
India has grand ambitions for its quantum computing sector, enlisting the help of nations around the world to expand its capabilities. (Photo via Shutterstock)

India’s National Quantum Mission

On April 19, 2023, India’s federal government approved a $730mn funding package for the country’s inaugural National Quantum Mission (NQM). The project aims to deliver intermediate-scale quantum computers with 50-1,000 physical qubits by 2031 and “make India one of the leading nations in the development of Quantum Technologies & Applications (QTA).” 

India’s government says that the programme – which covers everything from homegrown quantum computing capacities to Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), and quantum sensing – will boost sectors like communications and health. It’s also sure to be harnessed to enhance the nation’s military capacities. Specifically, India is also hoping to enable satellite-based secure quantum communications over a range of 2,000 km, as well as building intercity, land-based, QKD capacities over the same distance. That would be a big advance on the nation’s existing capacities. In 2022, local start-up QNU Labs, which worked alongside the Indian Army on the project, announced it could share encrypted keys over distances of up to 150 km.

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India’s current push for quantum development makes a lot of sense, says Harding. The country has both a wealth of technical expertise and the drive – spurred by concerns about China – to channel this expertise towards quantum innovation. There are also plenty of avenues for international collaboration, including with global leaders like the US, which has been actively exploring numerous avenues to boost its collaboration with India.

Nevertheless, she says, it’s not surprising that it’s taken so long for India to get off the ground with its National Quantum Mission. “It’s very hard to energise a gigantic government towards a threat that’s theoretical,” says Harding. There’s also a pretty hefty price tag on this kind of work, “so much so that you see the huge companies and big wealthy countries being the ones who are really pursuing it.”

India’s goals are ambitious, certainly, but researchers at CQuERE, say they’re also trying to chart their own path. “The important thing is that we are not going to be in a rat race for making a larger computer with more qubits,” says Dev. That would be a losing battle – especially given the mighty advantages of US giants like IBM, which has already set its sights on building a whopping 100,000-qubit machine by 2033. “We are concentrating on making a small computer with fewer qubits,” says Dev.

India is starting on the back foot, so it’ll need to do things differently if it doesn’t want to be stuck forever playing catch-up, agrees Professor Bhanu Das, director of CQuERE. “We will have to think about new problems, novel applications, which will have an impact,” says Das. “If we just repeat what others have done in different countries, that’s not going to be very helpful.”

Jitendra Singh, speaking to media after India's National Quantum Mission was approved.
Science and Technology Minister Jitendra Singh, speaking to journalists following the approval of the National Quantum Mission on April 19. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Making friends 

India has explicitly identified quantum computing as an area for international collaboration and knowledge-sharing. To that end, the country has already forged major partnerships through the US-India Initiative for Critical Emerging Technologies (IcET), and the EU-India Trade and Technology Council (TTC). It has also received individual overtures from prominent figures everywhere from Singapore to Finland

Scientists in India stand to benefit from the country’s relatively friendly relationship with the West, unlike their counterparts in Russia or China. “China may be ahead of India in this field, but China will not be able to collaborate with many countries, especially the US and Europe,” says Das. “The fact that India can collaborate, both in research and education, with the US, Europe, Japan, and Australia is a huge advantage – and in our research centre we will do our best to benefit from this situation.”

Indeed, CQuERE has already built major partnerships with the University of Tokyo and Keio University in Japan, the University of Wisconsin, and Spanish start-up Qilimanjaro. These partnerships, says Das, are “absolutely important” – both because the field is fairly new, and because India has “sort of lagged behind.” By teaming up with teams overseas, Das’s group has already been able to conduct experiments on existing quantum computers in the US and Japan – even before building their own. “We work with people who have actually built quantum computers, so the quantum computer is not a black box for us,” says Das.

India is also being courted by researchers from Russia – many of whom have lost existing scientific partnerships with Europe and the US amid Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine. This isn’t the first time that Delhi and Moscow have joined forces on technology. After the 1971 Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty, India and the Soviet Union cooperated closely on everything from nuclear development to space launches (India’s first satellite, Aryabhata, was launched from the Russian launch complex at Kapustin Yar in 1975.) This technological cooperation hasn’t dimmed in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union – notwithstanding the emergence of some fault-lines in recent years as India has started to draw closer to the US.

Ruslan Yunusov, co-founder of Russian Quantum Centre (RQC), recently told reporters that he’s keen to promote a collaborative quantum lab under the BRICS group of nations, which currently comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (and will soon expand). “There are no signed contracts yet, but India has done a lot of work around quantum technology,” said Yunusov, speaking from the side-lines of the Future Technologies Forum in Moscow, which was attended by President Vladimir Putin. “We are already in talks with some research institutes in India to explore areas where we can use their expertise and also share our knowledge and work in the field.”

Beyond its non-aligned status, which has helped it score a wide array of international partnerships, there are several key factors on India’s side. The country has a large — and growing – start-up ecosystem, so emerging scientific research can quickly find a practical (and profitable) home, says researcher Achyut Chandra. It also has a very large pool of students – a group that, according to Das, could be the country’s greatest asset. “If that can be taken advantage of,” he says, “then I think India has a good future in this field.”

Sharing might be central to India’s growth in quantum computing — but how long can this go on? “Scientists are scientists, and they’re wonderful human beings, and they love to share scientific knowledge,” says Harding. “It’s people like me who are focused on the security aspects of it, who come to the party and say: ‘Now let’s slow down. Let’s not share all our scientific achievements with our potential competitors.’ I tend to get booed out of the room when that happens.”

Booing aside, Harding’s concerns are shared in Washington. Leaders in the US, she says, have already started asking at what point export controls or security classifications might be deemed prudent for quantum devices. “I don’t have an answer to that question,” concedes Harding. Nevertheless, she says, it’s “one that I think governments are going to struggle with mightily in the next couple of years.” 

For now, though, could India’s web of international alliances be enough to help the country catch up with its more advanced competitors — at least in terms of efficiency and innovation, if not in the sheer might of its quantum devices? “I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Das. “I think we have the human power. […] If we plan things well, both in research and education, I think India can be successful.”

Read more: Who are the early adopters of quantum computers? Big banks, that’s who.

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