Medical advances, industrial optimization,
 ultrafast calculations: quantum computers mark the next revolution in computer technology. Yet the faster their development progresses, the clearer the danger becomes: today’s internet encryption methods are at risk.

Text Tino Scholz

Every sip from a cup of coffee contains a secret. This is more or less what Jerry Chow is trying to get across during his talk; he’s standing on stage in a large hall in San Francisco, hundreds of rapt audience members seated before him, the chemical symbol for the caffeine molecule projected on a screen behind him. Chow, an experimental researcher for quantum computing at IBM, says: “The complexity of this molecule goes far beyond the computational possibilities of today’s compu-
ters. We can’t analyze or simulate it.” There’s a short pause. “No computer using today’s technology will ever be able to do that.”

Caffeine is just a representative example of numerous mole-cules that humans would like to better understand for research purposes—right up to DNA, the carrier of genetic information for every living thing. Chow believes it is time for a paradigm shift, “equivalent to taking us from the horse-and-buggy all the way out to the warp drive of the starship Enterprise.” He’s holding the solution in his hand in the form of a small processor. It’s supposed to be able to decipher caffeine and other molecules in the future. And there’s more: it will be able to revolutionize medical research and also substantially optimize industrial processes.

The processor is part of a quantum computer—a new generation of supercomputers that will be able to carry out computational operations at tremendous speeds. Specifically, what it means is this: if a computer today theoretically requires millions of years for a particular calculation (which de facto corresponds to an unsolvable problem), a quantum computer would be able to solve it within a week. Or perhaps a day. Or possibly even faster.

Simply put, the quantum computer’s superiority results from its flexibility. A standard computer calculates using bits, which can have just one of two values: either 0 or 1. In contrast, quantum computers work with what are known as quantum bits, or qubits, that are realized with physical particles, for instance an atom, an electron or a photon.

 

TEMPERATURES LIKE THOSE IN SPACE

Qubits are governed by the laws of quantum physics, so along with being able to take on the states of 0 and 1, qubits can also take on both states at the same time. This special property is called superposition. On top of all this, various quantum particles can be brought into quantum entanglement, which means that the number of combinations—and thus the computing power—grows exponentially with the number of qubits. However, to achieve this, the processors must be completely isolated from any outside influences. They usually work in a vacuum and in special cooling chambers, where the prevailing temperature is close to absolute zero (-273° Celsius)—about the temperature of outer space.

That’s the theory, but the first marketable quantum computers are still years off. Microsoft, which is energetically driving these developments, wrote on the company blog about it being a risky bet for the future. The years 2030 or 2035, which are sometimes mentioned as target dates, should instead be understood as rough goalposts.

But what else is clear is that the dynamic of this market has rapidly increased—not least since Google, in cooperation with NASA, announced in December 2015 that they had built an experimental prototype quantum computer that worked “a hundred thousand times faster” than a normal computer “under certain laboratory conditions.” IBM has been investing millions of dollars a year in this new technology. Intel is also conducting research, while Microsoft promotes the issue with its super team led by Todd Holmdahl. He’s feeling optimistic: “I think we’re at an inflection point in which we are ready to go from research to engineering."

“There’s currently a global technology race between Europe, the United States and China to develop the first quantum computer,” notes Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs Henk Kamp. And all three are making massive investments in research: over the coming years the European Union is putting one billion euros into a flagship research project on quantum technology. China’s government sent the world’s first quantum satellite into orbit last year, which purportedly enables interception-proof communication and data exchange. The American intelligence organization NSA is also supposedly pushing forward with its own development project—according to documents released by whistle-
blower Edward Snowden.

0 and 1 become one

DECODED SECRETS

The intensity with which the development is being advanced is really not all that surprising—at least not for Michele Mosca, an important representative of the field. Among other things he is one of the co-founders of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Canada, and a special advisor on cyber security to the Global Risk Institute. “Many countries and regions around the world want to be the home of this revolution, this new industry,” Mosca said during a telephone interview. “They want the economic benefits.”
Although he was in a hurry, Mosca took almost a full hour to talk about quantum computing. He was heading off to Munich to give a talk on quantum computing and questions of security at the Digital-Life-Design Conference. “We’re still in the early days of this technology, and not a lot of work has been done on the tangible benefits and business models,” he says, “but that’s normal.”

What Mosca means: right now, there is only speculation about the future effects quantum computing will have. What is generally agreed is that they won’t be replacing conventional computers, but are much more likely to supplement them. And that they’ll be used only where exorbitant amounts of computing power are necessary to get the job done. Simulating entire chains of molecules is considered one of the greatest allures of quantum technology. New medications or materials could be designed and tested without the need for expensive trial-and-error testing, as is currently required in the pharmaceutical industry.

Researchers are also excited about the potential optimization of logistics and industrial processes, imagining for instance superconductive metal alloys that could be used to transmit electricity with no energy loss—with immense potential savings. Furthermore, quantum technology could also lead to adaptive artificial intelligence, capable of learning, which might even surpass the human brain; theoretically, all approaches to a solution could be examined at the same time. It seems that a lot could be possible, some of which we can’t even imagine today.

Sensitive Technology

Sensitive Technology

Numerous globally operating IT corporations such as Google, Microsoft, D-Wave and Intel are researching quantum computers. It’s become a race that has one goal above all others: who will be the first to manage to develop a widely usable quantum computer?

Rainer Seidlitz, an expert for IT security at TÜV SÜD, is very familiar with the uncertainties of technical and digital innovations. And quantum computers interest him as well, although he admits, “It’s more of an issue for the longer term. Quantum computers will impact many other areas, such as Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things,” Seidlitz explains. “Processing capacity is the crux of the matter in all of these areas. We see enormous potential here.”

And great peril: encrypting data, the field of cryptography, is of utmost importance for IT security. “Information represents important assets that must be protected. And that’s why we’re already dealing with matters of cybersecurity that we and our customers will be facing in the future.”

Security for data transmission in the era of quantum computing will increase dramatically—particularly because encryption between quantum computers is extremely safe and any attack can immediately be traced. But as for current data encryption methodologies, quantum computers represent a danger—these potentially superior computers could completely override much of today’s common cryptography for protecting internet-based communication due to their vastly accelerated computational capacities.

OPPORTUNITIES AND RISKS 

Mosca calculated the following in 2015: if the development of quantum computing continues at the same pace as it has thus far, there is a “one in seven chance that the common security tools will be broken by 2026. In 2031 the odds rise to 50 percent.” Today he says: “I’ve updated the numbers and figures and will be publishing them eventually. What I can say right now is that they haven’t significantly changed, and that there remains a non-trivial risk for 2026 that cannot be ignored.”

This is why researchers have been working for years on developing encryption techniques that cannot be broken, even by quantum computers. There are a few secure algorithms, but these are often impractical for everyday use. There’s still a lot of research that must be done before post-quantum cryptography becomes established in common encryption protocols. Mosca thinks that it will also require support from users. “Organizations and companies have to understand the risks and should put together plans. What information must be protected in 2026, for instance? You can’t just hope for the best, you have to be preparing right now.” Because even internet connections that are encrypted today could be saved and then possibly decrypted several decades from now.

Mosca sees three scenarios that he thinks could be realistic with respect to developing secure cryptography. The first one is the worst-case scenario: “We don’t have any operational security tools by the time quantum computers begin to come on line. Our cyber systems collapse.” Variations number two and three: “Things move along kind of slowly, then there’s a rush to build the fundamental tools and cyber systems. Ultimately everything comes together just in the nick of time. But the rushed deployment means that there are a lot of bugs to quash, work that takes years. For the best-case scenario, without rushing, we develop functional cryptography, with good standards and secure tools. In some cases it will be too late, but critical infrastructure and systems will be protected. There won’t be any systemic collapse.” The sooner society becomes aware of the issues, the fewer negative effects there are likely to be.

Michele Mosca naturally hopes that the best-case scenario proves to be the correct one, that the danger that quantum computing represents can be addressed in a timely manner. “Honestly, we don’t want a cyber Pearl Harbor,” he says. “We’d all much prefer to be able to benefit from the many advantages this technology offers.”


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