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Quantum supremacy: The next $100 billion gold mine for Indian IT

A lot of good will come from quantum computing, in better weather forecasting, financial analysis, logistical planning; the search for Earth-like planets; and drug discovery. But it will also open up a Pandora’s Box for security. I don’t know of any company or government that is prepared for it; all urgently need to build defences.

analysis Updated: Feb 22, 2018 11:19 IST
Quantum computing,IBM,Google
These computers are straight out of science fiction. They rely on particles called quantum bits, or qubits, to process data.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The Y2K bug provided a windfall for Indian IT because Western companies had ignored an obvious problem, which if not addressed could have led to catastrophe. Now another catastrophe is looming, one that few people understand, but one that could provide even greater opportunities: quantum computing.

Quantum computers could literally upset the global balance of power and pose a greater burden on businesses than the Y2K computer bug did toward the end of the ’90s. The Y2K bug took years to remediate and created fear and havoc in the technology sector. And for solving that, we knew what the deadline was. Here, there is no telling whether we have five years or twenty, or whether the sirens will start sounding in just 18 months.

These computers are straight out of science fiction. They rely on particles called quantum bits, or qubits, to process data. In classical computers, each binary digit (bit) represents information in a single value, either 0 or 1. In contrast, a qubit can hold a value of both 0 and 1 at the same time. Rather than doing computations sequentially as classical computers do, quantum computers can use this trait to solve a limited set of problems by laying out a set of possibilities simultaneously and measuring the results. This is an oversimplification and the measurements are much more complex, but I see these as being equivalent to opening a combination lock by trying every possible number and sequence simultaneously.

It sounds crazy that an object can be in two states at the same time. I’ll admit that I spent three weeks last year trying to learn quantum mechanics, and became only more confused. The concepts did not make sense. My only consolation was that much smarter people had also struggled with them.

Albert Einstein was so sceptical about entanglement, one of the other principles of quantum mechanics, that he called it “spooky action at a distance” and said it was not possible. “God does not play dice with the universe”, he argued. He was wrong.

IBM, Google, Microsoft, and Intel say that they are getting close to making quantum computers work. IBM is already offering early versions of quantum computing as a cloud service to select clients. There is a global race between technology companies, defence contractors, universities, and governments to build advanced versions, which hold the promise of solving some of the greatest mysteries of the universe—and enable the cracking open of practically every secured database in the world.

Modern-day security systems are protected with a standard encryption algorithm called RSA, which works by finding prime factors of very large numbers. It is easy to reduce a small number such as 15 to its prime factors (3 x 5), but factorizing numbers with a hundred digits or more is extremely hard and could take years using conventional computers. Quantum computers can perform these calculations in hundreds of seconds. They effectively provide a skeleton key to confidential communications, bank accounts, and password databases.

In May 2016, IBM surprised the world with an announcement that it was making available a 5-qubit quantum computer on which researchers could run algorithms and experiments. It envisioned that quantum processors of 50 to 100 qubits would be possible in the next decade. The computing capacity of a quantum computer increases exponentially with the number of qubits available to it, so a 50-qubit computer would exceed some of the capabilities of the top supercomputers in world, giving it what researchers call quantum supremacy.

IBM delivered another surprise only 18 months later, with an announcement that it was upgrading the publicly available processor to 20 qubits — and had succeeded in building an operational prototype of a 50-qubit processor, which would give it quantum supremacy. If IBM gets this one working reliably and exponentially increases the number of qubits even once more, the resultant computing speed will increase by a factor of a quadrillion, giving the company — and any other players with similar capacity — incredible powers.

Yes, a lot of good will come from this, in better weather forecasting, financial analysis, and logistical planning; the search for Earth-like planets; and drug discovery. But it will also open up a Pandora’s Box for security. I don’t know of any company or government that is prepared for it; all urgently need to build defences. It’s as vital for them to upgrade their computer systems presently using RSA encryption as it was to upgrade the coding that incorporated the Y2K bug.

There is substantial progress in development of algorithms that are “quantum safe”, according to Anish Mohammed, who is a security researcher and founder of Ontici. One promising field that he cites is that of matrix multiplication, which takes advantage of the techniques that allow quantum computers to analyse so much information simultaneously. A parallel effort involves developing code-based signature schemes, which, rather than rely on factorizing, as the common public-key cryptography systems do, instead rely on the extreme difficulty of certain problems in coding theory.

I may not be smart enough to figure these out, but there are brilliant mathematicians and scientists in India who are. There is no time to waste; they need to start learning about quantum computing and developing solutions. Every company in the world and every government will soon need their help.

Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University at Silicon Valley and author of The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Feb 22, 2018 11:19 IST