Although quantum computing is a fast growing field, skill and expertise in this new area of technology is desperately needed, and leading Indian institutions along with IBM India have been working on a programme to skill India.

Quantum computing has found application across medicine, agriculture, and finance. The government of India launched the National Mission on Quantum Technologies and Applications (NMQTA) stressing the importance of pushing forward the quantum domain in India. IBM India recently collaborated with leading institutions of India to accelerate training and research in quantum computing. Gadgets 360 talked to L Venkata Subramaniam, Senior Manager, AI at IBM Research India, Professor Anil Shaji from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Thiruvananthapuram, and Professor Anil Prabhakar of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras to understand what quantum computing is all about.

Is quantum computing a once in an era sort of change?

The power of quantum computing comes from two basic phenomena of quantum mechanics – superposition and quantum entanglement. While the bits in a classical computer exist as a string of zeros and ones, a quantum bit or a qubit can stay in a state of a combination of zero and one – this is called superposition. Entanglement, the other phenomena that powers quantum computing, is a connection between qubits. “The qubits needn’t be close to each other. One qubit can be in Delhi and the other can be in the other end of the universe. But if they are entangled, then by looking at the state of one of the qubit, you’ll be able to predict the state of the other qubit,” explained Subramaniam. By exploiting these two phenomena, quantum computing can be put into use in a wide range of activities ranging from speeding up the discovery of drugs and fertilizers to solving complex optimisation problems.

The government in its budget last year had announced NMQTA under the Ministry of Science and Technology with a total budget outlay of Rs. 8000 crore for the advancement of quantum technology. IBM’s collaboration with the leading educational institutions in India is aligned with this step by the government. Through IBM’s Quantum Educator Programme, the company will join hands with the faculty and students of Indian Institute of Science Education & Research (IISER) – Pune, IISER – Thiruvananthapuram, Indian Institute of Science Bangalore, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) – Jodhpur, IIT – Kanpur, IIT – Kharagpur, IIT – Madras, Indian Statistical Institute Kolkata, Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology Delhi, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Mumbai, and the University of Calcutta to further research and education in quantum computing.

IBM introduced quantum computers over the cloud almost 5 years ago. The collaborating institutions will get priority access to IBM’s quantum systems, learning resources, and quantum tools over the cloud. Thus the students will get an opportunity to work on actual quantum computers and programme them using Qiskit, a python-based open-source framework developed by IBM.

Skilling India to lead the way?

A 2019 study published by Progressive Policy Institute pointed out that India will overtake the US as the world’s largest developer population centre by 2024. With a bit of training starting at the university level, the STEM students from India could adapt themselves to work and lead in the quantum computing arena with greater efficiency.

Talking about the current state of quantum technology courses in Indian institutions, Subramaniam said, “A lot of the courses are very theoretical in nature, there are no hands-on lab sessions. We are enabling the students and the faculty to get all the materials including the lab materials, the study material, and the start up code which will get them started”.

According to Professor Shaji of IISER Thiruvananthapuram, there is a bit of an issue in managing the expectations of students regarding quantum computing. “A lot of students are really interested in studying quantum computing now because of all the emphasis and also a bit of a hype surrounding quantum computing and quantum technologies,” Professor Shaji said. IISER

Thiruvananthapuram is also a part of the NMQTA. One of the researches that IISER is undertaking involves building a quantum computer using a different technology than that of IBM.

Professor Shaji said that the collaboration initiated by IBM will have a significant cascading effect in the term of five to ten years as the students are getting an early exposure to this up and coming technology. Talking about the student’s response he added, “There is quite a bit of news hype around this subject, so one goes in there expecting miracles to come out of it. It is important that the students understand that the technology is still in its baby steps. It is necessary to understand there are things that you can do and there are things that you would like to do but cannot do yet.”

IIT Madras has a Centre for Quantum Information, Communication, and Computing, where quantum computing is one among the three verticals in quantum research for the institution. Apart from the Quantum Educator’s Programme, IIT Madras has also joined hands with IBM for a course on quantum computing at the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), an online learning platform funded by the Ministry of Human Resource and Development, Government of India which provides free courses on university-level STEM subjects. The quantum computing course on NPTEL which is set to start by late August has already received over 6,000 registrations, a clear indication of student-interest towards the subject.

Professor Prabhakar of IIT Madras said that the institution has priority access to a number of IBM’s quantum machines. “Our students are able to take a quantum computing lab where they are running problems on these machines. Many of the machines are also available to the public, but not with priority. We can also reserve some machines for use for our students. This enables the students to be more focused on what they are doing. Our goal is to be able to train at least 15 students each year at a higher level.”

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