India's Minister of State for Science and Technology and Earth Sciences Jitendra Singh making the quantum mission announcement in Delhi. Credit: PIB

The National Quantum Mission (NQM) will focus on quantum computing, secure quantum communications, quantum sensing as well as quantum materials and devices.

Quantum computing deals with using quantum mechanical principles, primarily superposition principle and interference to make exponentially speedy calculations. This ability to calculate very, very fast is going to be useful in many areas like new drug discovery, simulating quantum chemistry, discovery of novel materials, clean energy solutions and in general a better understanding of the underlying natural phenomenon. On the other hand, such high-speed computing will also enable cracking some mathematical problems that were earlier considered unbreakable using conventional classical computers, like the problem of factorising large numbers. This has a strongly negative potential as our most popular public key cryptography protocols are based on difficult mathematical problems.

I am an advisory board member for the GESDA (Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator) Open Quantum Institute (OQI) Initiative whose primary agenda is to make quantum computing available for everyone. One of our mandates is to encourage and develop use cases towards using quantum computing for social good and make it applicable towards the UN’s sustainable development goals. While such focused efforts towards ethical quantum computing are of course desirable, there will always be entities who would try to use the powers of quantum computing for nefarious means and aim to break data security.

If a quantum computer poses a catastrophic threat to data security, we will aim to use laws of quantum mechanics to counter the same. Enter secure quantum communications, more popularly known as quantum cryptography. Here we ensure the security of the key transfer process using laws of quantum physics, which is known as Quantum Key Distribution (QKD). The most common principles used are the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, No-Cloning theorem, as well as quantum correlations like Entanglement. Thus, in QKD, instead of using private trusted couriers or problem difficulty to secure the distribution of the key, we use laws of nature or more precisely, laws of quantum physics.

Security in communication is of primary importance, not only in the strategic sectors like banking, defense but also in inter-government communications, as well as for online commerce and sensitive personal identification information.

Both secure quantum communications and quantum computing are expected to be very important verticals for research under the NQM. Our goals are to create with time, quantum computers with larger and larger number of qubits, with 50-100 qubits developed in about five years, and then increased to 1,000 qubits and beyond within eight years across different platforms. In the quantum security domain, our focus will be on extending distance over which we can transfer data securely. We will have fibre based QKD networks as well as free space satellite-based ones over thousands of kilometres. We will also have entanglement distribution-based networks involving quantum memories and quantum repeaters.

Other than computing and communications, the NQM will also involve significant research in quantum sensing and metrology domains with the aim of a network of atomic clocks that could revolutionise GPS accuracy as well as high precision sensors in different platforms including vacancies in diamond as well as cold atoms. These would in turn have an impact in, for instance, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) that could potentially become more sensitive and affordable.

We will also perform research into novel materials and devices that could enhance the performance of quantum technologies.

What will make the mission a success?

Four thematic hubs will be created in leading research and development and academic institutes. Each hub will be a consortium of different institutes whose combined expertise can aim to tackle the ambitious set of mission objectives and will be led by an institute that has significant prior experience in the domain.

In order to make India quantum ready at the end of the mission, we need to ensure that scientists are empowered. The mission governing board needs to ensure that major resources are allocated to labs with demonstrated excellence and proven competence in each of the four verticals in both the national and international arena. The mission governing board also needs to ensure that they nurture early career researchers by providing timely support. A mission which places importance on capacity building and developing equivalent competencies as other more advanced quantum nations, but also towards novel R&D will enable India to lead in niche areas by the time the mission is over.

The national quantum mission must aim to be competitive, ambitious, further knowledge and develop technologies for societal benefit, while understanding that in the domain of quantum magic, there may not always be miracles.

Urbasi Sinha is at the Raman Research Institute, Bengaluru, India.