India could lose its best quantum tech talent if the industry doesn’t get its act together.
Quantum technology has the potential to revolutionise our lives through speeds which once seemed like science fiction.
India is one of a few nations with national quantum initiatives and it stands on the threshold of potentially enormous technological and social benefits.
The National Quantum Mission, approved by the national cabinet in April, is a timely government initiative that has the potential to catapult India to a global leader leading in quantum research and technologies, if leveraged correctly.
Its main areas of research are quantum computing, secure quantum communications, quantum sensing and metrology and quantum materials.
The challenge for India is how it ensures it gets the best out of the mission.
The benefits of the technology can benefit many aspects of society through processing power, accuracy and speed and can positively impact health, drug research, finance and economics.
Similarly, quantum security can revolutionise security in strategic communication sectors including defence, banking, health records and personal data.
Quantum sensors can enable better GPS services through atomic clocks and high precision imaging while quantum materials research can act as an enabler for more quantum technologies.
But the Indian quantum ecosystem is still academia-centric.
India’s Department of Science and Technology had set up a pilot programme on Quantum Enabled Science and Technologies — a precursor to the National Quantum Mission.
As a result, India has a large number of young and energetic researchers, working at places such as RRI Bangalore, TIFR and IIT Delhi who have put an infrastructure in place for the next generation quantum experiments with capabilities in different quantum technology platforms. These include quantum security through free space, fibres as well-integrated photonics, quantum sensing and metrology.
Clear career progression would help India’s quantum workforce. The risk of brain drain, where local talent moves overseas for better opportunities, could be a real possibility if different industries which can benefit from the technology fail to recognise its transformative capabilities and how it can help create jobs and opportunities.
While there are multiple labs working in different quantum sectors, the career path of students and post-doctoral researchers remains unclear as there are not enough positions in the academic sector.
One problem is industry and academia are competing with each other for quantum research funding which is why equal emphasis on quantum technology development in the industrial sector could help.
While India does have some quantum start-ups, more lab-to-market innovations which would make the technology practically useful could give the field momentum. Currently, the big industrial firms in India are not yet committed to quantum technology.
The lack of homegrown technologies like optical, opto-mechanical and electronic components for precision research is another impediment. Most of these are imported, resulting in financial drain and long delays in research.
The National Quantum Mission could help fix a number of these problems.
Hurdles could be turned into opportunities if more start-ups and established industries were to manufacture high-end quantum technology enabling products in India.
Another major deterrent is the lack of coordination. Multiple efforts to develop and research the technology, across government and start-ups, does not seem to have coherence and still lacks maturity. People involved in quantum research are hopeful the mission will help address this.
Like most other countries, India has witnessed plenty of hype about quantum research. While this may help provide a short term boost to the field, excessive hype can lead to unrealistic expectations.
Continuing to build a skilled workforce and a clear career progression plan for those involved in research and development of quantum technologies can help secure India’s future in this space.
There is a distinction between magic and miracles and while believing in one, one should not start expecting the latter as that can only lead to disappointment in the long run.
Urbasi Sinha is Professor at the Raman Research Institute (RRI), Bangalore, India. She heads the Quantum Information and Computing (QuIC) laboratory at RRI.