Should We Worry about the Quantum Apocalypse?
By Fay Capstick
The BBC recently ran an article about the risk of a future quantum apocalypse https://bbc.in/(3GwapMg). This week we shall look at what quantum computing is, how far progress has come developing quantum computers, what a quantum apocalypse could be and whether we can do anything to avoid it happening.
What is quantum computing?
Quantum computing is the idea of using quantum theory principles to develop computer technology. So what is quantum theory? Quantum theory is a branch of physics that attempts to explain the behaviour of energy and material on the atomic and sub-atomic levels.
Instead of encoding data using bits with a value of 1 or 0, quantum computers encode in qubits (quantum bits). Subatomic particles can exist in more that one state, so they can be a 1 and a 0 simultaneously. This is called superpositioning. The power of quantum computers grows exponentially as more qubits are added, something that does not happen when more transistors are added to traditional computers.
Quantum computers use quantum entanglement. This enables them to carry out calculations much faster while using less energy. This has profound implications for what it is possible to achieve with quantum computing.
Why aren’t we using quantum computers at home?
To harness the power of qubits, quantum computers need quite specific conditions to operate. A qubit is unstable and they are only in their simultaneous state until they are vibrated or disturbed, at which point they become set in their state.
Quantum computers also need to be kept in a temperature similar to deep space to operate. This means that a way to have quantum computers in our laptops or other mobile devices has not yet been found. It also means that quantum computing as a field has been largely theoretical.
Do we have quantum computers yet?
Google, as of 2019, have a quantum computer, called Sycamore, with 53 qubits. The power of this is such that in 200 seconds it can perform calculations that would take a traditional computer 10,000 years (https://bit.ly/35WYr1B). This is a huge leap forward and gives Google ‘quantum supremacy’, but as yet it has no practical use (https://bit.ly/3GCzLIq).
IBM are hoping to have a 1,000 qubit quantum computer running by 2023 (https://bit.ly/3LlEtOd).
What is the quantum apocalypse?
When you send secure data over the internet, such as a WhatsApp message or click ‘buy now’ on an order, you are being protected by essentially a mathematical puzzle. Encryption means that only the machine at the other end can correctly decode the transmission and not any other machine that is eavesdropping.
A modern supercomputer could attempt to decode your message, but it would take millions of years of processing power. This means it is easier for hackers to try and guess your password than bother trying to decode your messages. Quantum computers will change this.
Quantum computers mean that encryption keys could be cracked in seconds. Stopping to think about this is truly terrifying. Data would no longer be safe. Everything from your text message to your mum, to your recent amazon order, to more scary things like your online banking, essentially become wide open to interception and with the associated loss of privacy and sensitive data. And this is just the personal side. Business data would also be at risk, and perhaps the most troubling of all, government and military communications.
The end of our ability to encrypt our data transmissions is the quantum apocalypse.
Is the quantum apocalypse a problem yet?
Thankfully not yet, no. As far as we know, the quantum computers that exist aren’t yet able to break modern encryption. However it is possible that the military or government have this capability. Indeed there are signs that the US and China are in a race to develop quantum technology. The victor will gain huge strategic advantages.
The scary thing is that our data is being harvested ready for a time when it can be unencrypted, unlocked, and then used. Nothing we have transmitted online previously will be safe.
What benefits could quantum computing bring?
Quantum computers could bring massive advantages to society. For example in medicine, drug development, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. They can run complex simulations and perform data analysis at hugely increased speeds.
What can we do about the quantum apocalypse?
It is possible that once we have quantum computers we will be able to use more secure encryption methods. This would mean that we get around the problem by shifting all our encrypted data transmissions to a new method, thus solving the problem.
Of course, this is a longer term solution and unless we can bring any new methods in as soon as quantum computers become accessible, then we will still have a problem until then.
The UK government is well aware of the potential threat from quantum computing and they have established a National Quantum Computing Centre (NQSC) to assess this threat, discussed in a whitepaper (https://bit.ly/35Ux8EZ). They want to develop quantum safe methods of cryptography.
The NQSC are also suggesting that larger organisations ‘should factor the threat of quantum computer attacks into their long-term roadmaps’ (https://bit.ly/35Ux8EZ). Other users are encouraged to simply follow best cybersecurity practices and wait for the development of suitable references.
The BBC (https://bbc.in/3srLrbQ) reports that the UK government is already using new forms of encryption that they hope will be quantum proof for their most sensitive data. Further, they report that companies such as Microsoft and IBM are currently working on solutions.
Quantum cybersecurity will be a fast growing field in the decades ahead and one that is already being established by governments, military and big tech. At Parker Shaw we have over thirty years experience in our industry, IT and Digital recruitment. We can advise you whether you are a cyber security expert looking for your next role or a client looking for the perfect candidate in this exciting field.