Quantum Computing: can we plan to have the gain without the pain?

If we’re serious - really serious - about fixing digital, we need to do more than just fix the mistakes of the past. We need to make sure we don’t repeat those mistakes into the future.

If we’re serious – really serious – about fixing digital, we need to do more than just fix the mistakes of the past. We need to make sure we don’t repeat those mistakes into the future. And that means being excited about the possibilities while keeping a wary eye on the potential drawbacks.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the field of Quantum Computing. This is a whole new branch of computing which takes advantage of the quantum nature of reality. In traditionally binary computing, each bit exists in one of two states: 1 or 0. All computing activity is about exchanging those states.

Quantum Computing turns those bits into qubits, with a third possible state – a superposition which is essentially “maybe”, only converting to a 1 or 0 when examined for its state. This, when coupled with the ability of two qubits to be entangled – connected so whatever state one collapses into, the other will do the same too, creating effective communication between qubits – opens up the potential for certain sorts of calculations to be in a fraction of the time it takes a traditional computer.

Calculations, like, say decrypting an encrypted file. And yes, that includes breaking encryptions. Yes, if Quantum Computing carries on its current rate of progress, we only have years until all existing encryption standards fall before it. This is, to put it mildly, terrifying.

Quantum decryption could change the world

The US government started taking the threat seriously two years ago:

“There is growing research in the area of quantum computing, and enough progress is being made that NSA must act now,” says a new Q&A-style document on the problem. It’s aimed at companies and government departments working with sensitive data.

The threat here is asymmetry. Quantum Computers are hard and expensive to build, and that’s not likely to change any time soon. They require extensive cooling systems to make them work, because otherwise the data stored in the qubits easily gets corrupted creating “noise” that degrades their performance compared to traditional chips. In short, don’t expect to see one in your Android Phone anytime soon.

That means that Quantum-derived encryption won’t be available for a while – and in the meantime, a single well-resourced bad actor – like a hostile government or large criminal organisation – only needs access to a single Quantum Computer to start easily decrypting data that was safe before.

Given how much of the infrastructure of our lives and cities is dependent on encrypted data – this is something that nations and companies need to be planning for now.

And there are solutions. Scott Aaronson, the David J. Bruton Centennial Professor of Computer Science at The University of Texas at Austin outlined them on his blog:

And it’s also important to understand that a quantum computer wouldn’t mean the end of online security.  There are public-key cryptosystems currently under development—most notably, those based on lattices—that are believed to resist attack even by quantum computers; NIST is planning to establish standards for these systems over the next few years.  Switching to these “post-quantum” systems would be a significant burden, much like fixing the Y2K bug (and they’re also somewhat slower than our current systems), but hopefully it would only need to happen once.

Ethical quantum computing

As those working in the field are quick to point out, there are more issues that just the big, scary decryption race here, too. The interest in Quantum Computing is so strong because the speed advances in traditional computing are beginning to slow down. If this new approach proves as viable as many are predicting, those who get there first are likely to have a massive advatage in a digitally-driven society.

As Marco Cerezo, a Ph.D student who is working in entangled physics wrote last year:

It is quite obvious that whoever wins the “race” and has the ability to harness the power of quantum computers will hold an incredible advantage over those who don’t have access to these new technologies. The issue of cryptography is only one of many that arise when considering that a scalable quantum computer might be developed in the nearby future. How do we handle the intellectual property of scientific discoveries? What could happen if a government acquires a quantum computer and has the ability to decipher private messages? What if a company manages to construct one? Who could they sell it to? Won’t their profits margins bias their decisions?

For example, one of the companies leading the way in research in this field is Google. If they crack it first – will that give it a power level of our information and computing infrastructure over and above their near-monopolistic control of some fields?

However, we probably have a decade to deal with this – and it’s important we get it right, rather than acting in a knee-jerk way to a misunderstanding of the potential and risks. Aaronson again:

But part of me is worried by how much of the current boom I know to be fueled by misconceptions, among policymakers and journalists and the general public, about what quantum computers will be able to do for us once we have them.  Basically, people think they’ll be magic oracles that will solve all problems faster, rather than just special classes of problems like the ones I enumerated above—and that they’ll simply allow the continuation of the Moore’s Law that we know and love, rather than being something fundamentally different.  I’ve been trying to correct these misconceptions, on my blog and elsewhere, to anyone who will listen, for all the good that’s done!

Technologies like this can no longer exist solely as the preserve of academics and corporations pursuing their research. Given the fundamental existence of our digital lives, law-makers, ethicists and security experts need to be paving the way for as smooth and adoption of this technology as they can, allowing us to get as much of the upside as we can, without suffering too much from the downsides.

Photo by John Doyle on Unsplash