Quantum Communications: ISRO Makes Progress, But China Is Ahead
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Quantum Communications: ISRO Makes Progress, But China Is Ahead

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The only downside for India is whether states in the EU find it to be a sufficiently attractive actor with which to collaborate

by Kartik Bommakanti

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in a breakthrough technological development has tested a free space quantum communication over a distance of 300 metres. Quantum communication is based on the principles of quantum mechanics. Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) is the most promising field in terms of practical application of quantum science. QKD has become absolutely essential because of some very important reasons. Global electronic commerce has expanded significantly over the last several decades requiring extensive protection. Consequently, data used in global electronic commerce is normally encoded in bits using a very big binary number called a key. To ensure that the keys are securely distributed, quantum keys become very important. Currently, electronic commerce occurs using computational complexity. These public keys and conventional encryption mechanisms become a liability after a point due to loss of security. Since in electronic commerce, numbers are publicly declared and even if they are large, they cannot be insulated from eavesdropping and tampering. In due course computational power and algorithms render the keys insecure. If long-term security is to be guaranteed for cryptographic keys have to be made absolutely secure, then QKD becomes inevitable and indispensable. With the development and emergence of QKD technology, no amount of computational improvements can break the code secrecy and keys of quantum cryptography. QKD communication is not just essential for commerce, but equally for military communications.

If long-term security is to be guaranteed for cryptographic keys have to be made absolutely secure, then QKD becomes inevitable and indispensable.

ISRO is only the latest among a long list of space agencies and scientific entities which are already pursuing the development and application of QKD technologies. Although an important step, ISRO demonstrated with the latest test carried out between two nodes over a distance of 300 metres that quantum communications are possible. ISRO, however, is only in the incipient stages of QKD technology. The space agency is a long way from demonstrating the QKD over greater distances and quantum communications between satellites and ground stations. In theory, the QKD technology promises highly secure communications over vast distances. However, in practice, the QKD technology has been and was effective only over a few hundred kilometres.

There are some other notable examples where QKD technology has already undergone some degree of testing and development beyond what India demonstrated. For instance, European Space Agency (ESA) and the University Science and Technology of China have in fact demonstrated capacity in this area of quantum information science. The ESA has conducted experiments and test in quantum communications for almost two decades. The Chinese, although more recent entrants to the quantum communications, have also made progress in the area. The Chinese demonstrated through a test the execution of a quantum encrypted teleconference between Vienna and Beijing. A team of space scientists and researchers from the University of Science and Technology of China developed and launched a satellite called Micius which is widely considered to be the world’s first quantum communications satellite. This satellite, which was launched in 2017, in a breakthrough development released two entangled light particles known as photons. The satellite transmitted these photons despite being in an entangled or “intertwined” state regardless of how far apart they were. The manipulation of one photon can impact the other. Fundamentally, in an entangled state it can be used to create a key that encodes message, which can be decoded only by the second particle. Indeed, entanglement driven quantum cryptography is a highly secure form of quantum communication. The Chinese for their part showed how to ensure encrypted communications between Vienna and Beijing without the help of Micius. This was done by getting Micius to distribute the cryptographic keys to the ground stations close to Vienna and Beijing in an entangled state as they are in orbit, enabling communications between the Chinese and Austrian science academies that were separated by a distance of 7,400 kilometres. Micius, the quantum communications had no role in serving as a communications intermediary between the Austrian and the Chinese ground stations. All that Micius did was to produce quantum keys, but the actual relay happened independent of it.

Unlike China, India is a more transparent in its collaborations with other states and must work intensively to solicit closer science-based and technology-related partnerships with the EU as China is making an effort to do.

This is one area where the Chinese are ahead of the Indian space agency in testing satellite-based quantum communication. At least notionally, the Chinese have certainly demonstrated a hack-proof quantum capability. Although the advances made by the Chinese in quantum communications are impressive, they should not be overstated. The Chinese, apart from native development are also working intensively to collaborate with other countries where research into quantum science is fairly advanced such as in the states of the European Union (EU). For more than two years, the EU and China have engaged in negotiations to collaborate in highly sensitive areas such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), quantum science, and 5G, which testifies to the fact that the Chinese see promise in quantum science and view the EU as an opportunity to leverage or extract gains from the progress the latter has made in the field of quantum science. Indeed, Beijing has been resistant to making reciprocal concessions to the European scientific community for full access to the research it conducts, even as it seeks to extract the maximum out of the Europeans. Since negotiations at present are deadlocked between Beijing and Brussels over the collaboration in cutting technology and science due to Beijing’s lax attitude towards Intellectual Property (IP) regulations, there is no guarantee that an agreement will crystallise any time soon. As Jean Eric-Paquet the EU’s director general for research and innovation conceded that the Chinese do not want to collaborate in areas where they perceive themselves to be in the lead and want partnerships in areas where they are weak and perceive the Europeans to be strong. Unlike China, India is a more transparent in its collaborations with other states and must work intensively to solicit closer science-based and technology-related partnerships with the EU as China is making an effort to do.

The only downside for India is whether states in the EU find it to be a sufficiently attractive actor with which to collaborate. The recent milestone achieved by the ISRO might not convince the Europeans yet, but it represents progress and further indigenous advances in quantum science will make India a more attractive partner.

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