Let’s start at the beginning. What is quantum computing? Today’s computers work with data represented by 1s and 0s—either on or off. This binary computing is the basis of technological marvels from massive supercomputers to desktops, smartphones and IoT devices. But hovering on the horizon is a new form of computing built upon quantum mechanics. This technology, utilizing subatomic particles known as qubits, can simultaneously represent three states: 1s or 0s, both 1s and 0s simultaneously, and also every possible point in between 1 and 0. Perhaps Wired magazine explains this difficult idea most clearly: “A qubit can be thought of like an imaginary sphere. Whereas a classical bit can be in two states – at either of the two poles of the sphere – a qubit can be any point on the sphere.”
What does it mean?
Quantum computing -promises computation capabilities orders of magnitude beyond today’s binary systems. Calculations that would take today’s supercomputers years to resolve will be solvable in days, if not hours, when true quantum computing comes online. Yet for all its benefits, this incredible increase in computing power also comes with major security implications. While hacker-thwarting encryption that’s in use today depends on algorithms that would require prohibitively massive amounts of computer time and power to decrypt, quantum computing has the potential to drastically change that equation.
And it appears that the current equilibrium will be upended in the not-too-distant future. Virtually every major university, technology company and nation state with an interest in cybersecurity has some effort focused on advancing quantum computing. And this technology is much closer than you think. Rudimentary quantum computers have already been developed and at least one version is commercially available. Not yet powerful enough to break current encryption, they nevertheless demonstrate that it’s just a matter of when, and not if, this technology becomes available. And when it does, everything from emails and passwords, to financial transactions and critical state secrets, will be open to decryption unless counter-efforts are made.
According to documents leaked by WikiLeaks mastermind Edward Snowden, as far back as 2014 the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had targeted $79.7 million towards building a quantum computer able to crack virtually all type of encryption currently in use. According to the same documents, such is the potential power of quantum computing that the NSA is already storing a huge trove of currently unbreakable intercepted communications in the expectation that at some future point, they’ll have the necessary power and efficiency to decrypt them. Obviously, the government is taking this technology seriously.
“For public key cryptography, the damage from quantum computing will be catastrophic,” says Lily Chen, mathematician and leader of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Cryptographic Technology Group, “We must look for quantum-resistant counterparts for these cryptosystems.” Fortunately, the same technology that’s creating the nightmare possibilities of quantum decryption is also enabling the potential for quantum-proof encryption methodologies.
A 2018 report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine highlights our need to prepare for the onslaught of quantum supercomputers that will have the ability to overwhelm and render useless current cryptographic methods. The authors stress that the widespread adoption of these new technologies “will be a long and difficult process” that will take 20 or more years to complete, but they’ll impact virtually all existing encryption technology.
Is anyone paying attention?
Thankfully, governments and industry players are not sitting still. At the end of September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Quantum Initiative Act (NQIA) to allocate funding for public quantum computing research.
And, elsewhere, the Chinese government is investing heavily in quantum research as it is with other cyber technologies. Being built right now is the $10 billion Chinese National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences, a center for quantum applications that’s slated to open in 2020. This follows on the heels of a Chinese satellite that in the summer of 2017 successfully sent a message encrypted with “quantum key distribution” over 1,200 kilometers from space to earth.
Private companies are not taking a back seat, either. Those involved in quantum computing research span from long-time computing industry heavyweights such as Intel, IBM, and Google to university-sponsored startups like some at the University of Texas and University College, London. Work is ongoing globally, in such widely separated places as the Netherlands, Canada, England, Germany, Taiwan, and France, in addition to the U.S. and China.
As a first step in creating quantum-proof computing, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is working on a set of standards for quantum-proof cryptographic algorithms. Much of this work will involve “hardening” existing cryptologic algorithms by using enhanced binary technology, while other avenues will involve using quantum computing itself to create new, unsolvable quantum-based algorithms. Another, more theoretical focus is addressing the use of quantum computing to create new quantum-resistant algorithms— basically fighting fire with fire. It’s a perplexing, perhaps never-ending loop: while this new technology will make it easier to crack today’s encrypted messages, it will also make it make it harder to crack tomorrow’s.
It’s coming—we just don’t know when.
This technology will no doubt be available in the foreseeable future. However, as the Academies report suggests, the biggest challenges might not be the science and engineering aspects. Rather, the difficulty will be getting buy-in to these new standards. The financial impacts of revamping processes, designing new hardware and software, and upgrading from obsolete technologies will be enormous and take years, perhaps even decades to accomplish.
Quantum computing is real. It’s here to stay and it’s just a matter time until it comes to a computing device near you. One, two, maybe three decades from now, quantum computing will be as widespread as today’s smartphone. It’s the wave of the future and like many innovative technologies, could have disruptive powers on a scale rarely seen.