It is just over three years since Google’s India-born chief executive officer (CEO), Sundar Pichai announced to an astonished world that the company had achieved ‘Quantum Supremacy’ — a long awaited milestone in Quantum Computing.
Pichai said they had assembled a machine that performed a test calculation in 200 seconds, that would have taken conventional supercomputers thousands of years to accomplish.
Pichai, standing next to the core hardware of the computer — taller and wider than himself — was one of the most widely circulated technology images of 2019.
Google’s claim was quickly challenged by IBM who said the problem chosen to test Google’s quantum computer had been cherry picked — and that in general a problem of that complexity could be tackled by supercomputers in less than 3 days.
Claim and counter claims notwithstanding, there was no gainsaying the fact that the Age of Quantum Computing had arrived. Many large corporations pumped in millions of dollars to harness quantum computing for internal use — or to offer it as a cloud-based service-on-demand.
Few individual entities, especially academic or research institutions, could afford to buy, let alone build and run a computer of this class.
The quantum computer derived its huge power from replacing conventional computing’s binary states of either one or zero bits with quantum bits or qubits which could be either one or zero, a property called superposition, allowing the computer to explore multiple possible solutions to a problem at the same time.
Indian Efforts In Exploiting Quantum Computing
Then, little happened: Hundreds of institutions worldwide, including many in India — including the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bengaluru, IIT Madras, IIT Jodhpur, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Mumbai, the Quantum Information and Computing Lab at the Raman Research Institute, Bengaluru, the Indian Army’s Quantum Computing Laboratory and dozens of start-ups — began work to harness quantum computing for applications in logistics, weather prediction, cybersecurity, defence and finance to just name a few.
A National Mission on Quantum Technologies was allocated Rs 8,000 crore in India’s 2021 Union Budget to kickstart indigenous applications.
But one major challenge remained: Quantum computers were so thin on the ground that buying computation time was very costly and often meant sending work outside national boundaries — a dicey option at any time.
More seriously, educational institutions in India which wanted to include Quantum computing in the curriculum, had no platform to convert theory into practice.
This was akin to teaching programming without a computer to test the programmes written by students. At best, some institutions ran simulation programmes, mimicking quantum performance on conventional machines… not a very good solution. Till now.
Dramatic Lurch, Akin To First PC
Suddenly this month, a dramatic lurch towards affordable quantum computing platforms has occurred. It is a development that technology watchers compare to the pathbreaking desktop personal computer or PC that appeared forty years ago — from IBM and Apple — exploding its reach far beyond the costly corporate mainframe computer of the time.
A Chinese company based in Shenzhen — SpinQ Technology — and a partner agency in Japan — Switch Science — have put up for sale online three quantum computing platforms that are portable and smaller than many desktop PCs.
The cheapest and latest of these, called Gemini Mini, seems to be targeted as a portable educational platform. It is rated as a 2 qubits quantum computer and the price in Japanese Yen when converted works out to around US$ 8000 (Rs 6.5 lakh).
It is the only model that comes with an integrated display touch screen, which makes it easy to use the 18 in-built algorithms to set up a problem. It weighs 14 kg and requires just 60 watts of power to run.
SpinQ’s vision is to have a quantum computer in front of every student in a smart class, just where laptops are at present.
The next in size is the Gemini, shaped like a tower PC, only much heavier at 44 kg. While more advanced, it is still a 2 qubits machine which the manufacturer suggests can be used to do simple scientific research.
Each qubit is capable of performing some 200 operations compared to around 30 in the Mini. It is priced at the equivalent of US$ 41,000 (around Rs 33 lakh).
The costliest is the Triangulum, a 40 kg desktop model that has a more advanced 3 qubits processor that will set you back the equivalent of US$ 58,000 (Rs 46 lakh).
It needs 330 watts of power and offers double the coherence time of the two Gemini models – over 40 milliseconds.
Coherence time is an important parameter in quantum computing and defines how long a qubit will retain its information. This model seems capable of some serious albeit scaled down, applications.
Workin At Room Temperature!
All three machines work on the theory of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). This takes a molecule and uses the nuclear spin of its atoms as the computing mechanism to read or change the qubit state.
Incredibly these machines do this at normal room temperature unlike the gargantuan quantum computers like the one Google unveiled in 2019, which needs an operating environment close to absolute zero or -273 C.
At two and three qubits capacity, these are still baby machines compared to the industrial grade quantum computers which are typically able to process around 50 qubits.
But the asking price of these desktop machines, while not cheap, is very far from the typical cost of an industrial quantum computer, which can cost in excess of US$ 10 million.
An OS For Quantum Computing?
In a parallel development that dovetails nicely with these hardware advances, a consortium led by Cambridge University in the UK has developed a standard software or operating system (OS) — Deltaflow.OS — to run quantum computers, which they have put on a microchip.
This will allow users of platforms from the smallest Gemini Mini to the largest room-sized quantum computer to run standard software — a key prerequisite if quantum computing is to become as ubiquitous as today’s digital supercomputing.
The OS is being offered by Cambridge-based startup Riverlane.
The manufacturer, SpinQ Technology, was invited by the European Union’s quantum educational programme, QTEdu, to join the development efforts with their desktop machines — and the company has seen interest from many western countries to harness these entry level machines as educational aids and tools for research startups.
The company claims that its development team includes experts on quantum computing from respected US-based institutions like Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
By this simple fact of availability, Quantum Computing has been transformed from a costly experiment affordable only to MNCs, to a tool of tomorrow that start-ups, educational and research institutions worldwide can access today, to build the most meaningful applications that their national priorities demand.
Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.
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