A four-point action plan for quantum technologies

Published on Jan 14, 2022 07:06 PM IST
  • Adequate attention to those who can contribute to developing quantum technology must be the government’s top priority
The establishment of “quantum innovation hubs” in partnership with selected state governments can help direct investments efficiently and build a well-connected quantum research network in the country. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
The establishment of “quantum innovation hubs” in partnership with selected state governments can help direct investments efficiently and build a well-connected quantum research network in the country. (Shutterstock)

In the 2020 Budget speech, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the National Mission for Quantum Technologies and Applications (NM-QTA) with a total outlay of 8000 crore over five years for strengthening the quantum industry in the country. A Lok Sabha question posed in July 2021 enquired about the status and progress of the mission. The reply that was provided by the minister of state for science and technology, Jitendra Singh, mentioned that the mission had not even received approval yet. Singh also announced that no funds were allocated, disbursed or utilised under NM-QTA during the financial year 2020-21.

With no credible advancements made by the government, there is a need to rethink how the proposed NM-QTA will evolve if India plans to harness the benefits of quantum technology. The focus should be to develop an overarching strategy for the next 10-15 years. The strategy must ensure that there is no misallocation of resources and that the efforts put in are concentrated in key areas that provide both economic and strategic benefits. This is needed for India to maintain any comparative advantage it may have in the global quantum playing field.

Adequate attention to those who can contribute to developing quantum technology must be the government’s top priority. In the current scenario, our view is that the government must follow a four-fold path to build a robust quantum ecosystem in the country.

First, the primary focus must be on establishing centres of excellence dedicated to quantum science and technology within academic institutions as well as government research institutes. Quantum technology remains a field highly concentrated in long-term research and development (R&D). Even the famed quantum industry of China started in a university laboratory, led by Pan Jianwei at the University of Science and Technology of China in 2008. In 2022, China boasts of developing the world’s first quantum satellite, creating a quantum communication line between Beijing and Shanghai, and owning two of the world’s fastest quantum computers. This was a result of decade-long research carried out in the hope of achieving critical breakthroughs. Hence, a majority of the Indian government’s outlay has to be pumped into institutions specialising in quantum R&D.

This can pay dividends in two ways: It will help create crucial intellectual property (IP) infrastructure that can be used for the country’s benefit. The focus on research and academia will also improve the talent pool and strengthen the domestic quantum technology workforce. Just a few hundred researchers, industry professionals, academicians, and entrepreneurs are in the field right now. A constant focus on R&D can change that significantly.

Second, there must be effective coordination between the central and state governments in promoting quantum technology projects. The manufacturing and fabrication process of basic quantum devices requires advanced semiconductor materials and chipsets. With state governments playing an integral role in setting up semiconductor fabs in the near future, quantum technology can benefit immensely from these domestic manufacturing facilities and units.

The establishment of “quantum innovation hubs” in partnership with selected state governments can help direct investments efficiently and build a well-connected quantum research network in the country. These hubs, set up with the help of government resources, can serve as centres of collaboration between academia and the private sector. Finally, it is the responsibility of both the central and state governments to establish a conducive fiscal and legal environment to foster innovation. This can potentially attract international firms to conduct their research in the country while involving local talent.

Third, the power of startups and Big Tech corporations involved in developing quantum technology and applications must be harnessed. The minister, in his Lok Sabha reply, stated that no private sector partners had been identified yet and no one from outside the government had been tapped for consultations for the national mission. The government must recognise the leaps made by these companies. While academic institutions are largely involved on the research side, quantum tech corporations and startups are vital in converting and commercialising this research into applications or products that can be of use.

This is buttressed by Google, Microsoft, and IBM. These companies have dedicated programmes for quantum computing and its applications. Similarly, several Indian startups such as QNu Labs, BosonQ, and Qulabs.ai are doing remarkable work in developing quantum-based applications for cryptography, computing, and cybersecurity. Facilitations must be made by the government to connect academic institutions and industry to translate research into real-world applications.

Finally, the necessity of international cooperation cannot be ignored. The quantum value chain remains highly complicated and it will be hard for India to remain self-reliant to build a successful quantum ecosystem. Quantum technology agreements with the United States/Australia/Canada/the United Kingdom and others should serve as a base for India to pursue a joint effort on projects related to quantum technologies. The first step could be for the government to engage with its allies in key groupings such as Quad and BRICS. Technology alliances are gaining traction, and India must look at signing some bilateral or multilateral agreements to leverage others’ growth in the domain. This is imperative for India to win critical technology transfer deals, get external technical advice or mentoring, and establish state-of-the-art facilities for joint R&D on quantum technologies.

The government has taken the first step by acknowledging the importance of quantum technologies through its plan of kick-starting a national mission in the country. The global quantum industry has already taken incredible strides and seen massive investments made by both governments and the private sector in recent years. India, which has fallen behind other technologically advanced states in the field of quantum technology, cannot afford to miss the bus this time.

Arjun Gargeyas is a researcher with the High Tech Geopolitics programme at the Takshashila Institution 

The views expressed are personal

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