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Quantum education: Are universities gearing up?

Quantum technology will bring more changes in our daily life in the coming decade than what happened in the past hundred years, writes P C Deshmukh.
Last Updated : 17 June 2024, 20:21 IST

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Driverless cars and robotic surgeries are only diminutive indicators of tomorrow’s world. Artificial intelligence driven by quantum machine learning will increase automation that will transform life on Earth. Two-thirds of the skills humanity relies on today to make a living would be obsolete. Tomorrow’s citizens must be schooled in emerging technologies and lifestyles in an environment beyond today’s fiction.

A few hundred years ago, the responsibility for general life preparation shifted from parents to universities. A university is the stage where the scene changes; it must rehearse tomorrow’s citizens to perform on a 3+n-dimensional scaffold. Sustainability, virtualisation of the physical experience, novel sensors, and communication strategies pose unprecedented challenges for university curricula.

Important milestones in developing digital logic include the works of George Boole, Maurice Karnaugh, Claude Shannon, and Alan Turing. This field leapfrogged into the quantum world through the visions of Richard Feynman, Paul Benioff, and David Deutsch over four decades ago. Willfully or unwittingly, (i) Quantum Computing & Simulations, (ii) Quantum Communications, (iii) Quantum Sensing & Metrology, and (iv) Quantum Material & Devices have crawled into our lives. These are the four verticals of the Titanic National Quantum Mission undertaken by the Indian government.

Explaining the unexplained

Even though Newton’s laws describe most of the everyday phenomena, they cannot explain all natural phenomena in the physical world, including some involving macroscopic objects. One needs the quantum theory, developed by Planck, Einstein, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Dirac and others.

Quantum theory is over a hundred years old. Along with its heroes mentioned above, distinguished scholars from Bharat, like Satyendranath Bose, C V Raman, and Meghnad Saha, made outstanding contributions to develop it.

Their works led to developing and understanding semiconductors and lasers, laying the foundations of a societal revolution. However, certain aspects of the quantum principle of superposition, which produce the entanglement of objects, are only beginning to be exploited. It is this developing scenario that is called the quantum sciences and technologies. 

An algorithm is a set of rules that produces an output for an input. It performs computations involving decision-making and data processing; essentially, it solves problems of our interest. Current computers are built using quantum devices (such as semiconductors). Still, the calculation algorithm is driven by classical (Boolean) logic, using bits (0 or 1, i.e., a switch that is ‘off’ or ‘on’). Quantum computers employ quantum logic; they use quantum bits or qubits (quantum superpositions of 0 and 1).

Quantum computing employs abstract mathematics but is highly successful in describing nature. It produces exceptional power to implement computations. Quantum computers are, however, not expected to replace classical algorithms. They will nonetheless be able to outperform classical machines unimaginably, addressing the mounting demands of our changing world.

The earliest schemes that used qubits are the Deutsch-Jozsa algorithm (1992), Shor’s factorisation scheme (1994), Simon’s algorithm (1994), and Grover’s search algorithm (1996). Now, quantum computational schemes have advanced to address extremely complex problems.

Wide-ranging applications

The quantum future began a century ago, but the present is incubating unprecedented technology driven by quantum entanglement, which gives us a new sense of the physical reality. Wide-ranging applications include the development of efficient algorithms for drug discovery, indissoluble encryptions for information and wealth management, secure communication, the development of ultrafast sensors and metrology that would trigger a rapid response to unforeseen adversities, etc. Encryption standards would be revolutionised under Post-Quantum-Cryptography (PQC), though challenges remain in developing practical protocols. 

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are already pushing technologies; the AI-ML tools would be supercharged when driven by quantum entanglement. Only a few quantum computers are available today, but there will be thousands in another decade!

The changes in technology these computers will produce in the coming decade will surpass the number of those produced in the past hundred years. Quantum algorithms will drive supply chain, travel, healthcare, financial services, entertainment and media, information processing, buildings and infrastructure, telecommunication and networks, determining optimum routes amid multiple nodes in a complex environment, and whatnot!

Emerging quantum technologies are intrinsically interdisciplinary. Expertise in mathematics, physics, and all specialised engineering domains will continue to be needed, but in increasingly novel ways. Universities must reinvent the curricula since tomorrow’s workers will use different tools and extraordinary ideas. Education has to begin with familiar and intuitive ideas, but it must gently and swiftly ramp up today’s students to be prepared for tomorrow before it becomes yesterday.

(The author is a professor at the School of Computer Science and Engineering at a university in Bengaluru)

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Published 17 June 2024, 20:21 IST

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