Quantum plan will be ready in a few months; we aren’t irreversibly behind others: Prof Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary, DST

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August 10, 2020 2:00 AM

"Our investment is comparable to what Europeans and Americans are doing. We are not going sub-critical. China, for instance, started a year or two ago. But we are not irreversibly behind."

Quantum technology is emerging and also very disruptive.

A fortnight ago, the US Department of Energy released its blueprint of a quantum internet; earlier this year one of its partnering Universities had set up a quantum loop to transfer protons. Close to Hague, Delft University researchers will be testing a similar project later this year. While India does not have any such groundbreaking research in the field, it is moving towards setting this up.

The FM, in her speech, announced setting up of a National Quantum Technology Mission with an investment of Rs 8,000 crore over five years. Prof Ashutosh Sharma, secretary, department of science and technology, in a conversation with Ishaan Gera, discusses the developments in the field of quantum technology, and how the government is moving towards creating a holistic ecosystem. Edited excerpts:

The US just announced a quantum loop and released a policy document on quantum internet. What has been our progress on quantum technology?

Quantum technology is emerging and also very disruptive. Like all exponential technologies, it would expand rapidly. Department of Science and Technology had started an initiative on quantum technology in 2018. In this, we first did a mapping of researchers in the country. To see who is working on what aspects of quantum technology, what kind of infrastructure or potential we have. And, what kind of human resources are there and how they need to be trained. Being a new area, you need to build from scratch. And, as you know, there are many applications of quantum that have emerged, which is quantum computing, communication, security or quantum key distribution, clocks, sensors, imaging devices, quantum material or superconductivity. And, of course, Quantum algorithms, which are now getting integrated into the new quantum mission.

In 2018, there were nearly 100 research groups in areas and over 100 PhD students. We made a scheme for three years with Rs 186 crore.

Progress has been in smaller-sized areas. Fifty groups have been identified. Meanwhile, bigger interest has developed. Departments like MeiTY, Isro and DRDO have started looking towards this area. Isro, for instance, is looking at satellites for quantum communication. We decided to upscale, and that is what the mention of Rs 8,000 crore in the Budget was all about.

Where are we on the national quantum technology mission which was announced in the Budget?

Consultations have been going on. We have had half a dozen meetings till now. Detailed DPR is nearly drafted, and in another couple of weeks, we will have that ready. Lockdown has slowed down progress, but in another couple of months, we will get started. Now, this mission is interesting in many aspects. One is the content. However, the structure is extremely critical. We have an institute of quantum technologies, which sets up the mission and target. There will be some element of research to it, but its primary job will be coordinating the mission and targets, for example, setting targets like at least a 50-qubit quantum computer within five years. It will also guide the development of sub-systems and sub-technologies required. There will be a national committee chaired by a scientist, someone who knows the domain.

What will be the composition of this apex committee?

The apex committee will have one-third representation from all stakeholders. We are looking to involve the industry right from the beginning so that they will constitute one-third. Academia and R&D will have one-third share, and the ministry will have a third share to present their demands. We need to cover the entire knowledge ecosystem. We will be doing human resource generation from undergrad to PhD and post-doctoral programmes.

We will also have technology transmission and incubation. So, there are enough incubators for start-ups. Funding from start-ups can also come from here. Two-way participation will be flexible. We will either employ the industry or give them money. This usually hasn’t been happening as far as the government is concerned. So, we will be signing MoUs with the industry and international MoUs. As we want to attract the best talent, salaries would be as per industry standards.

The second tier is the hubs, which will function as mini ministries focused on a particular area. These are aggregators and custodians of all activities in that area. Below hubs are centres. Centres will be geographical entities, like IITs. Below centres, we have spikes. This is a hub-spoke-spikes model. These will be one group or two groups which are working on a specific technology. So, we will cover the entire knowledge ecosystem, instead of working in silos.

There is also flexibility in powers given to the mission. They don’t have to come back to the ministry for funds. They will be able to invite people from abroad and send our researchers abroad. We should remain plugged into the global ecosystem. And, we cannot catch up if we don’t have expertise.

Has this model been followed anywhere else?

A similar model was put in place for interdisciplinary cyber-physical systems, started last year at an investment of Rs 3,660 crore. We have established 21 hubs, and we are looking at four research parks. Each hub has an incubator and an integrated process. Because of the coronavirus, we have slowed down, but the project is underway. Hubs are Section 8 companies with an autonomous board, and they are empowered to make all decisions. Apex committee is set up with a top-level vision, and they do not micromanage.

What other missions can go along with the government’s quantum vision?

Supercomputing mission is now fully operational. We are currently assembling and partly producing supercomputers in India; earlier, we had a plan to import. We have set this up in three different phases. Chips we are importing, but board-level integration is done in India. Six supercomputers have been made, three have been installed, and three will be installed within a month; 12 more will come by next year. We will also pick up other things, design and everything will happen here. Another domain is the cyber-physical mission, which caters to technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, IoT, Blockchain, Industry 4.0 and VR/VR/MR. These intersections will provide a lot of muscle.

Any, private partnerships?

Supercomputing mission has a private partnership based on a global tender. We had given the contract to a French company, which has now set up its base in Pune.

Are there any plans to work on policy regulation?

We will also have a hub for policy regulation and ethics. We call it light and shadow of technology. In India, we are developing policy in consonance. Standards are also an important part. No matter what technology we develop, if we can’t figure out standards, we cannot sell it within India or globally. Globally, standards are driven by companies and not by governments.

In Isro, it took decades to integrate private players. You are now changing that model. Will the government handhold private industry?

We are following a model of collaboration and cooperation. If something is high-risk, initially the government will do the funding. As we proceed further, the government will slowly exit and industry will put in more. So, we have a graded approach. We are integrating the industry from the first day. Industry, in our new model, has the same right to make use of resources.

Are we lagging behind other nations in terms of quantum mission?

We are just beginning. Often in these frontier technologies, the nation didn’t invest the kind of resources that were needed. Semi-conductors and processors is one example. We have remedied that here. Our investment is comparable to what Europeans and Americans are doing. We are not going sub-critical. China, for instance, started a year or two ago. But we are not irreversibly behind.

What’s the next step?

New science, technology and innovation policy is in the making. And, by the end of this year, we will have it ready. This policy considers some of the concerns regarding the industry. We need a science technology, and innovation policy and stakeholder consultation has been going on for the last three months.

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