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What have researchers at Google achieved? How are quantum computers different from regular personal computers? How will it impact the technology world?

The story so far: Tech websites and theoretical computer-science outlets were aflame earlier this week after a story in the U.K.-based Financial Times said Google had claimed to have achieved ‘quantum supremacy’. In a line, it means that researchers at Google had solved a really difficult problem in seconds with the help of quantum computers which a supercomputer could not. The research paper is yet to be formally vetted by peers in the field and became public after having appeared briefly on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) website — apparently some of its researchers were involved in the project. It is likely to reappear soon in a complete form.

What are quantum computers?

Quantum computers work differently from the classical computers we work on today. Exploiting the principles of quantum mechanics, they can easily tackle computational problems that may be tough for the classical computer as the size of the numbers and number of inputs involved grows bigger. Quantum computers do not look like desktops or laptops that we associate the word ‘computer’ with. Instead (and there are only a handful of them) they resemble the air-conditioned server rooms of many offices or the stacks of central processing units from desktops of yore that are connected by ungainly tangled wires and heaped in freezing rooms. Conventional computers process information in ‘bits’ or 1s and 0s, following classical physics under which our computers can process a ‘1’ or a ‘0’ at a time. The world’s most powerful super computer today can juggle 148,000 trillion operations in a second and requires about 9000 IBM CPUs connected in a particular combination to achieve this feat. Quantum computers compute in ‘qubits’ (or quantum bits). They exploit the properties of quantum mechanics, the science that governs how matter behaves on the atomic scale. In this scheme of things, processors can be a 1 and a 0 simultaneously, a state called quantum superposition. While this accelerates the speed of computation, a machine with less than a 100 qubits can solve problems with a lot of data that are even theoretically beyond the capabilities of the most powerful supercomputers. Because of quantum superposition, a quantum computer — if it works to plan — can mimic several classical computers working in parallel. The ideas governing quantum computers have been around since the 1990s but actual machines have been around since 2011, most notably built by Canadian company D-Wave Systems.

How will it help us?

The speed and capability of classical supercomputers are limited by energy requirements. Along with these they also need more physical space. Looking for really useful information by processing huge amounts of data quickly is a real-world problem and one that can be tackled faster by quantum computers. For example, if we have a database of a million social media profiles and had to look for a particular individual, a classical computer would have to scan each one of those profiles which would amount to a million steps. In 1996, Lov K. Grover from Bell Labs discovered that a quantum computer would be able to do the same task with one thousand steps instead of a million. That translates into reduced processors and reduced energy.

In theory, a quantum computer can solve this problem rapidly because it can attack complex problems that are beyond the scope of a classical computer. The basic advantage is speed as it is able to simulate several classical computers working in parallel. Several encryption systems used in banking and security applications are premised on computers being unable to handle mathematical problems that are computationally demanding beyond a limit. Quantum computers, in theory, can surpass those limits.

What has Google achieved?

Quantum supremacy refers to quantum computers being able to solve a problem that a classical computer cannot. In the research paper, Google used a 53-qubit processor to generate a sequence of millions of numbers. Though these numbers appeared randomly generated, they conform to an algorithm generated by Google. A classical supercomputer checked some of these values and they were correct. Google’s quantum computer, named Sycamore, claimed ‘supremacy’ because it reportedly did the task in 200 seconds that would have apparently taken a supercomputer 10,000 years to complete.

Is this an important achievement?

Impressive as this may sound, experts caution that this does not imply that the quantum computer can solve every challenging problem thrown at it. The number-generating task was the equivalent of having a Ferrari and a truck compete in a race and, on the car’s predictable victory, declare that the Ferrari could do everything that a truck did. While IBM and a few other private establishments also have quantum computer prototypes, a common ailment is that they have their own unique propensity to errors and are not as amenable to executing real world problems as super computers.

Then again, nothing yet rules out the creation of new mathematical methods or techniques that would allow classical computers to execute the same task faster. Some experts even question the term ‘quantum supremacy’ coined by theoretical physicist John Preskill of the California Institute of Technology, United States. However, the Google feat shows that quantum computers are capable of a real world task. It gives confidence to private entrepreneurs and even academics to invest time and money to improving them and customise them to real world problems. In terms of the number of qubits, D-Wave Systems says it is ready to commercially launch a 5000-qubit system by 2020. It already has a 1000-qubit system at NASA. D-Wave claims that car maker Volkswagen used its quantum computers to figure out how best to control a fleet of taxis in Beijing relying on data from 10,000 cars, but the research paper describing this experiment does not quite explain how the proposed solution is better than algorithms that are currently used to optimise traffic flow.

What will it mean for online banking?

A question critics raise is how the use of quantum computing and its ability to break encryption codes will impact online banking. Breaking banking grade encryption is far away. Scott Aaronson, a theoretical computer scientist who has written on Google’s feat, opines that current encryption standards would require a quantum computer to have “several thousand logical qubits” working in tandem perfectly. It requires millions of qubits of the kind that powers Sycamore to make ‘logical qubits’ and the 53 at Sycamore’s disposal does not quite cut the ice. However, there are other approaches to designing quantum computers and with it there may be cleverer ways to solve problems using them. Moreover, if technological breakthroughs were to pose a real threat to banking or financial operations, it is likely that banks will harness quantum computers themselves.

Is India working on quantum computing?

There are no quantum computers in India yet. In 2018, the Department of Science & Technology unveiled a programme called Quantum-Enabled Science & Technology (QuEST) and committed to investing ₹80 crore over the next three years to accelerate research. The ostensible plan is to have a quantum computer built in India within the next decade. Phase-1 of the problem involves hiring research experts and establishing teams with the know-how to physically build such systems.

What can policy makers do to address weakness in consumer sentiment? Why are tax sops not enough?

The story so far: A worryingly persistent slowdown dragged economic growth in India down to 5% in the fiscal first quarter, its weakest pace in more than six years. And while the recent weeks have seen the possible reasons for the slowdown, as well as the government’s policy measures to ostensibly help revive the economy being put under the spotlight, the missing demand is yet to be addressed in a direct and concerted manner. As data from the National Statistical Office show, private consumption expenditure, which contributes more than half the gross domestic product and is the mainstay of demand, has decelerated so sharply that at 3.1%, the expansion is at an 18-quarter low. Automobile sales continued to plunge in August, posting their worst drop since the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) started collating wholesale vehicle sales data in 1997-98. The absence of demand pervades almost every key sector: from consumer durables to biscuits and housing.

How did we get here?

Multiple factors have contributed to the demand drought. A lack of jobs, or even where jobs are available — like in the new or digitally enabled “gig” economy — a tenuousness about the incomes from such work, the abiding rural distress, widening inequality and, interestingly, in the opinion of some economists, even the Reserve Bank of India’s successful targeting of inflation are all cited as contributors. The view on inflation is compelling as its proponents contend that for an economy such as India’s, the central bank’s remit of containing consumer price index based inflation within a 2-6% band may be proving less than ideal, especially if monetary policy makers fix their sights on trying to peg inflation at or less than 4% — even it means retarding growth as a fallout. Low inflation extracts costs in the form of lower nominal growth (growth measured in current prices) that could crimp tax receipts and in turn lead to cuts in government spending, these economists assert. Also, with wage/salary increases most often linked to inflation, slower price gains would result in smaller annual increments that would leave the earners more wary of spending on discretionary or non-essential purchases. The crisis of demand in the rural hinterland has snowballed to the point where sellers of consumer goods including Hindustan Unilever (HUL) and ITC have seen appreciable slowing in sales growth in recent quarters. Rural growth rates — which were almost double those in urban areas earlier — have eased to the point where they are now almost at par with those in urban areas, according to HUL’s first-quarter results statement.

And it is not just consumer goods makers that are hurting from lack of rural consumption. In a research report earlier this month, CRISIL Ratings forecast weak growth in rural income and moderation in rural infrastructure spending would lead to de-growth in tractor sales volume by 5-7% this fiscal. “Rural wage growth was lower at 3-4% [last year] compared with an average 6% in the preceding two fiscals,” the ratings firm’s research group wrote.

What can be done to revive demand?

Consumer sentiment is a key ingredient affecting consumption and it is vital for policy makers to address weakness in consumer sentiment through a mix of measures in the economic realm, both monetary and fiscal, as well as ensuring a congenial socio-political climate that enhances the ‘feel-good’ factor. As the RBI had pointed to in its last policy announcement in August, consumer confidence has worsened appreciably, with 63.8% of respondents in its July survey expecting discretionary spending to stay at the same level or decrease one year ahead. In June 2018, only 37.3% of those surveyed held such a downbeat view.

On the monetary side, ensuring lower borrowing costs as well as adequate availability of credit are crucial to helping create an enabling environment for consumers to consider taking out loans to fund their purchases.

However, fiscal measures are in many ways far more crucial. Targeted tax breaks or non-tax sops that incentivise consumption is one option and the U.S. ‘cash for clunkers’ or Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) programme of 2009, which provided economic incentives to U.S. residents to purchase a new, more fuel-efficient vehicle when trading in a less fuel-efficient vehicle, is a classic example.

The government’s latest decision to cut baseline corporate tax rates is certainly a good move, aimed at incentivising and spurring sluggish capital investment by businesses. However, companies may balk at adding capacity when demand for their manufactured goods is still weak and it is therefore imperative that the revival of demand stays front and centre of any new policy measures.

As far as rural demand goes, the government must go beyond the Pradhan Mantri KIsan SAmman Nidhi, or PM-KISAN income supplementing scheme and tackle the crisis of low real farm incomes by radically recalibrating its approach to the agrarian economy. As an immediate and necessary measure, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme needs to be reinvigorated by ensuring timely and adequate funding and the fixing of appropriate wage levels. As studies have shown, in its first five years, the scheme gave a big fillip to rural incomes and consumption in the hinterland.

What, if any, are the risks?

Any economic stimulus package that the government may come up with would necessarily assume a short-term loosening of the fiscal deficit goals, whether from enhanced spending or from reduced tax revenues as the corporate tax cut may engender. If the stimulus also entails a large expenditure component, there could also be second-order inflationary consequences. However, the risks of failing to revive demand, at a juncture when the economy is heading for a stall, are far greater in the long run. Once, the economy has been reflated and demand revives, revenue buoyancy is bound to return and prudent management can ensure a gradual return to normal service on long-run fiscal goals.

How likely is U.S. President Donald Trump to get impeached over the Ukraine episode?

The story so far: Even by the standards of his rambunctious term in office so far, U.S. President Donald Trump has found himself in the cross hairs of a political-existential challenge — the prospect that he might be the fourth American President in history to face impeachment proceedings, after Andrew Johnson in 1868 (violation of the Tenure of Office Act), Richard Nixon in 1974 (Watergate), and Bill Clinton in 1998-99 (high crimes or misdemeanours). Mr. Trump’s troubles mounted after his telephonic conversation/s (on July 25, 2019) with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, about the former U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden (Mr. Trump’s potential 2020 opponent). These were allegedly done in a bid to influence Mr. Zelensky to investigate the business dealings of Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter Biden (in relation to links to a Ukrainian natural gas company). Subsequently a whistle-blower, believed to be an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), filed a formal complaint outlining alleged improprieties that the call entailed, as well as broader hints about potential compromise of national security in the White House. As news of a whistle-blower complaint outlining such alleged improprieties reached the U.S. Congress, pressure began to mount on the White House to release the edited memo — not a full call transcript — of the discussion between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky. In a rare show of bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate voted and passed unanimously earlier this week a resolution calling for the White House to release the whistle-blower complaint. The White House had no choice but to accede, and on Thursday, Capitol Hill had in its possession both the complaint and the edited memo on the call.

What are the specific allegations of wrongdoing?

First, Mr. Trump is said to have “personally ordered” his staff to freeze more than $391-million in military aid to Ukraine, a short while before the incriminating call with Mr. Zelensky. Given that such aid is considered to be essential for Ukraine to purchase Javelin anti-tank missiles potentially for use against Russia-backed rebels, anything that Mr. Trump demanded in return for releasing these monies would imply that his conditions represented an outright quid pro quo involving a questionable use of taxpayer funds. Second, Mr. Trump went on to say, “I would like you to do us a favour though…” and then mentioned two “favours” relating to his personal political interests — not national security. In the view of Democrats on Capitol Hill, this would constitute a betrayal of Mr. Trump’s oath of office. The first favour related to asking Mr. Zelensky to help him “get to the bottom of” the dealings of a prominent U.S. cybersecurity company called CrowdStrike, the firm that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) called in 2016 after discovering a hack of its server leading to email and other data theft. This is widely believed to be based on Mr. Trump’s erroneous belief that there was a “missing server” in CrowdStrike’s possession that held some undefined but incriminating evidence against the Democratic Party.

The second favour related to Mr. Trump’s belief, again not supported by any known facts, that Mr. Biden stopped the prosecution of his son (relating to his role on the board of Burisma Holdings Limited, a Ukrainian gas company. Mr. Trump appears to not attach importance to Ukraine’s (now former) public prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, saying on the record that he had no evidence of wrongdoing by the younger Biden. Third, Trump administration officials may have overreached their authority when they sought to block that complaint from reaching the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, despite Michael Atkinson, Inspector General of the intelligence community, saying that he considered it a credible matter of “urgent concern” that merited notifying the U.S. Congress.

What do Democrats consider “explosive” in the whistle-blower’s complaint?

The complaint, that some media reports said were authored by a CIA analyst stationed at the White House, not only references Mr. Trump’s telephone call with Mr. Zelensky, but also alleges that Mr. Trump used that phone call to “solicit interference” in the 2020 election, and that the White House then intervened to “lock down” the transcript of the call. Indeed, the whistle-blower added that this was “not the first time” that Trump administration officials placed presidential call transcripts in a separate, classified system that was intended for national security, not political protection. This protocol may also be investigated by Congress.

It was in this backdrop that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an inquiry into impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump, which is set to begin after she meets with her colleagues next week.

How likely is Mr. Trump to be impeached?

A majority of House members have now said ‘they support an impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump’. One media report has the figures as 225 being in favour (223 Democrats, 1 Independent and 1 Republican) while 155 are undecided; a response is waited from 54. ‘If the House votes on articles of impeachment, a simple majority, or 218 votes, would be needed to impeach’. The success of the inquiry would depend on whether there is a “smoking gun” to be found, of the kind that brought down President Nixon.

In U.S. history, impeachments have tended to pick up momentum in the House, but a conviction, which is necessary for the impeachment to succeed, has depended on which party controlled the Senate. In this case, the Republican Party’s control of the Upper House might just be the lifeline that rescues the Trump presidency if the inquiry moves forward as planned.

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