I recently stumbled across encryption experts Arqit, and was truly immersed by the issues they have identified and addressed with regards to the security of our new digital world. Although I regularly read about cybersecurity, this is the first I have heard of the true potential of quantum computing technology in the industry. After a lot of research (and a bit of an emotional breakdown) I am shocked that this is not a far more widely discussed topic. So, in an attempt to kickstart what I see as a vital conversation in the world of cybersecurity, I decided to write this blog.
Here are some facts that will get you caught up with me on shock factor:
- Quantum computers could literally change the world in all industries from politics to healthcare
- Quantum computers can tackle problems in seconds that would take even the most advanced supercomputers tens of thousands of years to work out
- Quantum computers can allow us to do things we wouldn’t even dream of doing with supercomputers, and have the ability to rapidly accelerate the development of artificial intelligence
- Quantum computers could literally tear apart all modern cyber security methods with practically no effort
OK, so now you’re as shocked as me. Let’s take a little look at what quantum computers are, how they work, and what we can do about them…
Quantum Computers: The Facts
To understand how a quantum computer works, first you kind of need to understand how an ordinary computer works. An ordinary computer chip uses bits. These are like tiny switches, that can either be in the off (or ‘0’) position or the on (or ‘1’) position. Everything you do on a computer, phone, or tablet is ultimately made up of millions of these bits in some combination of ones and zeroes (hence the fin binary code you seen on lots of techy images).
The problem with this ‘binary’ language is that, in nature, things aren’t just on or off. We have a great deal of uncertainty to deal with, and our classic computational language does not account for this. Even our best supercomputers aren’t very good at dealing with uncertainty, which can be a problem.
Instead of bits, quantum computers use qubits. Rather than just being on or off, qubits can also be in what’s called ‘superposition’ – where they’re both on and off at the same time, or neither, or somewhere on a spectrum between the two. This is a bit like spinning a coin on its edge. It is neither heads nor tails at that point, or it is both, or somewhere in the middle, depending on how you look at it… that’s superposition.
Here’s a really useful explanation I found from the guys at Wired:
If you ask a normal computer to figure its way out of a maze, it will try every single branch in turn, ruling them all out individually until it finds the right one. A quantum computer can go down every path of the maze at once. It can hold uncertainty in its head.
It’s a bit like keeping a finger in the pages of a choose your own adventure book. If your character dies, you can immediately choose a different path, instead of having to return to the start of the book.
The truth is, even the geniuses behind quantum physicists don’t fully understand how or why the concept actually works. But it does.
Quantum Computers: The Application
Quantum computers take the aforementioned spinning coin (or ‘qubit’) and use it to perform complex calculations. By stringing together multiple spinning coins, they can tackle problems that would take even the most complex supercomputers tens of thousands of years to solve.
The potential applications of quantum computing stretch across almost every industry imaginable. Here are just a few of the things they could do for us:
- Advance artificial intelligence to introduce reliable self-driving cars, robotics, and other automated systems
- Improve the efficiency of batteries (from the kind in your phone/tablet/laptop to the kind that powers your car or holds the energy in a solar panel)
- Increase the efficacy and reduce the cost of medicine
- Help us to find a cure for currently incurable diseases like Alzeimers
- Predict future weather patterns with greater accuracy
- Provide reliable information on other potential outcomes such as the winner of a sports game or the time at which a specific stock will be at its highest price
Quantum Computers: The Problem
BUT with great power comes great responsibility, and thus the potential implications of quantum computers are not all good…
The reality is that, with the potential to test millions of possibilities at once, comes the potential to break through literally any of the complex encryption techniques we currently use to keep ourselves and our private information safe online. Whilst the computers that cybercriminals have access to right now can’t break through the current methods of certification and encryption we use to communicate (known as Public Key Infrastructure or ‘PKI’), quantum computers will be able to crack these codes in seconds.
And, while we don’t expect quantum computers to be safe and accessible for another 5-10 years, the mere potential they hold makes them dangerous right now. This is because, as word gets out about the hacking abilities of this incredible technology, there will be people recording, saving, and purchasing data today that they intend to decode in the future. In fact, there are already organisations stockpiling information right now for this very reason.
Quantum Computers: The Solution
Although this all sounds quite frankly terrifying, there is a solution.
Remember that company I mentioned earlier? Well they’ve found an encryption method that they call “completely unbreakable”.
Instead of relying on public-key cryptography (the cryptography behind PKI), Arqit’s method sends out a series of long, randomised numbers (called “symmetric encryption keys”) via satellites to encrypt our data. They call this “quantum key distribution.” The randomisation of these keys ensures that even a quantum computer cannot crack the code, because there is literally no logic for the computer’s system to follow.
I hope you found this topic as interesting as I have, and that you are at least a little relieved to hear that there is a solution to the incoming storm of quantum technology!