The bits, the bytes and the quants
Quantum computing has been an infant technology for a while now, and it would take more time for it to become an inseparable part of our lives with the intensity of technologies like smartphones or the Internet of Things.
Before going into the nitty-gritty of quantum computers, we need to set straight the difference between them and the computer you are now using to read this article. For one, your laptop work process depends on alternative states of ones and zeroes, while the quantum state combines both of them and uses them simultaneously.
We need a bit of computer history background to properly set how incredibly different quantum computing is from the computing we are used to seeing for decades now.
Your brand new iMac or PC looks like it is running like a dream – the nifty Solid State Drive boots and runs fast, and leaves no noticeable delays when recalling data and bringing it up on display. This tech works at a speed that matches our human brain – how we register and perceive the changes we initiate on the machine.
But let’s face it. Your iMac works the same way computers do for several decades now – by using electrical circuits which either switch on or off. The reason this technology starts hitting its limits is that an improvement dictates a size reduction. We must force electrical circuits to become smaller and smaller, but this reduction process does not go up to infinity, and progress inevitably brings us to rock bottom. Quantum computers are one possible solution because, with them, size does not matter.
For decades scientists are trying to figure out how to use the enormous potential of quantum mechanics to build a new generation of computers. The good news is that scientists have recently figured out all the building blocks to make quantum computers a reality.
According to Microsoft’s computer research lab, quantum computing code could be working within the next decade, so it’s about time that we get a better understanding of it.
Our current computers run on bits, that’s the smallest unit, while quantum computers run on quantum bits or qubits.
Unlike electrical circuits, qubits are quantum particles that are magnetically charged in an extremely cold environment, close to the absolute 0K temperature, in other words, close to −273.15 °C. The intriguing thing about particles in such low temperatures is that it keeps them in a state of superposition. It means that particles simultaneously can be both the 0 and the 1 – the binary system regular computers use to operate and process input.
Superposition describes the unique potential of quantum computing as an alternative solution to classical computing. In classical computing, a problem can be reduced to what we can refer to as a wave of probabilities. While classical computing is more relatable to common sense, this does not apply to quantum computing. In contrast, the latter involves many different changes of many different probabilities. And yet, probabilities do not even begin to explain the quantum world. In probabilities, the range of possible outcomes ranges from zero to one, while a quantum state is more about amplitudes. What this means is that quantum computing follows rules that are vastly different from what we are used to when dealing with the probabilities framed between the ‘zero’ and the ‘one’.
While classical computing deals with the familiar bits, and you can measure either one of the two values – one or zero. Quantum computing uses units called qubits which, before measured, exist in a state that is a linear combination of both values. Qubits are comprised of subatomic particles that are governed by a different logic than classic bits. They are not the natural upgrade of our current system – they are a different system entirely.
This is where the real magic of quantum computing happens. Each particle can take indefinite states and what happens is the so-called “quantum speed-up”. Quantum speed-up sees each qubit increase computing power exponentially, so if you pack enough qubits into a computer, you could outrun anything and any computing technology available today.
While none of us need our emails to load many times faster than they already do, researchers who rely on computing time and processor power while processing Big Data could make perfect use of quantum computing.
A Canadian company named D-Wave has already sold quantum computers to several labs around the globe. Google and NASA Quantum AI lab have one but Google researchers say that these D-Wave machines haven’t really demonstrated the quantum speed-up effect as of yet. D-Wave, however, disagrees with this Google Statement. IMB is also gearing up for the chase for quantum power with their ‘Q System One’. The US and Chinese efforts have been concentrated on developing this computing technology for years and seem to be much ahead of their European colleagues. This inspired companies from the old continent to seriously enter the competition: ten innovative German companies —including Bosch, Siemens, Volkswagen— are now jointly working on developing applications for quantum computing called QUTAC.
Despite the heavy investments pledged to quantum computer technology — about €2 bln for the next few years pledged by Germany alone— we eventually come back to the original question: Why is quantum computing a security risk for internet security?
Encryption algorithms used to encrypt web browser connections with servers, data, or whatever else I can think of, are secure. With the current computing technology, encrypted packets would need over 200 years to be decrypted by using brute force. This means that even if the information encrypted with these algorithms gets decrypted, none of us will be alive, including the decrypters. But what happens when quantum computers unleash their power? They are a thousand times more powerful than anything we know today. To put it into a perspective, the data contained in just 5 qubits will have to take eight thousand bits. Raise the bar to 500 qubits, and we are going to need more classical bits than there are atoms in our visible universe (that’s 1080, or — if put into mathematical terms even mathematicians rarely hear or use — at least ten quadrillion vigintillion). This example is solid proof that quantum computing will have a tremendous effect in solving industrial tasks in the future.
Compared to the 200 years needed to solve our current algorithms, quantum computers need less than a month to achieve the same. And if we exponentially grow qubits, we can narrow this time frame further down to mere seconds. Although quantum computing is still a subject more exciting for physicists, it is just a matter of time we start using it as computing power.
Wow. Secure things do not seem so secure anymore, you’ll say. And you will be completely right!
Our research lab is constantly exploring new encryption algorithms which increase encryption durability and – if not entirely preventable – keeps decryption times, made possible by quantum computers, sufficiently high. For now – our research lab is already deeply engaged with technology providers and helps them stay on top of our data and customers’ data. Now – and in the future!