Quantum computing is not an incremental improvement on existing computers
It’s an entirely new way of performing calculations, and can solve problems in a single step that would take traditional computers years or even longer to solve. While this power is great in a number of fields, it also makes certain types of computer security techniques trivial to solve. Here are a few of the ways quantum computing will affect cybersecurity and other fields.
Cryptography powers many of today’s security systems. Although computers are great at solving mathematical problems, factoring especially large numbers can be effectively impossible for even the most powerful computers, with modern algorithms requiring decades or even longer to crack. The nature of quantum computing, however, means that cryptography based on factoring numbers will be effectively useless.
Fortunately, many cryptography approaches in use today are designed to be safe from quantum computers that haven’t yet been built. Business, governments agencies, and other entities that place a high priority on security don’t necessarily need to switch to quantum-safe approaches just yet, but it’s important that organizations are able to make the transition promptly should quantum computing technology develop faster than anticipated. It’s also worth noting that other forms of security won’t be affected by quantum computing. Two-factor authentication, for example, will be just as effective.
The basics on quantum computing sound almost unbelievable, but they’re based on well-established science and mathematics. Modern computers rely on discrete values; a bit is either a 0 or a 1. Quantum computers, on the other hand, are able to store both of these possibilities simultaneously in what are called qubits, and the value only truly forms when it is observed.
Combined with the equally baffling concept of quantum entanglement, which allow qubits to be bound no matter how far away they’re located, and quantum computing can open the door to cryptography techniques that are theoretically unbreakable. No matter how much computing power is dedicated to solving quantum-based security implementations, they’ll still provide a safe conduit to send data through. With certain implementations, keys used to encrypt data will instantly stop working if anyone attempts to uncover them, leading to inherent security.
Quantum Arms Race
The ability to defeat common security implementations makes quantum computers a goal for intelligence agencies. Anticipating their eventually invention, many intelligence agencies are believed to be intercepting traffic that can’t yet be cracked but that may be vulnerable in the future if it can be decrypted. The first agencies to gain access to quantum computing power will have a substantial edge on their counterparts in other nations, and news of quantum computing success will spur further investment in other nations.
Unlike the development of weapons, however, there are also commercial and academic interests in quantum computers, so developing an arms treaty seems unlikely. Furthermore, non-government entities can likely gain access to quantum computers as well, presenting even more risk for compromising data. These threats underline the importance of ensuring new security measures are able to handle existing computers as well as potential quantum computers.
Who Will be the First?
The first intelligence agency with access to a quantum computer will gain a significant edge, and the first company with quantum computers for sale will stand to gain tremendously. Some of the names are long-time staples, including IBM, which has made slow but steady progress toward quantum computing over the years and expects major advances during the next decade. Another big name is Microsoft. We recently spoke to their senior technologist Rob Fraser about the transformative impact of quantum computing.
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While other companies are attempting to build quantum computers, IBM seems most likely to be the first to succeed.
However, it’s important to appreciate the role academia is playing. The concept of quantum computing is built on quantum mechanical theory, a field where typical hardware engineers have no experience. Contributions to the field have come from academic institutes with a strong history in technology, including MIT and Harvard. The perplexing nature of quantum mechanics, which is difficult to comprehend even for the world’s leading researchers, means that development will always be largely based on theory and not just engineering.
What to Expect
Although quantum computing can perform some tasks impossible or impractical on standard computers, they may never replace the typical computer architecture we’re used to. Quantum computers in development now are incredibly sensitive, and there doesn’t seem to be an engineering solution to this sensitivity. Furthermore, the calculations quantum computers excel at aren’t especially useful for standard computer tasks.
However, quantum computing will lead to scientific advances that can benefit society at large. Furthermore, they may play a role for internet infrastructure, potentially improving performance. Although there may not be a quantum computer in every home, the impact of quantum computing will be substantial if, much like quantum mechanics itself, unpredictable.