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It might not seem like it, but today’s computers have fundamental limitations. Despite the speed and fluency with which we can “multitask” – typing on a Word document while we respond to incoming emails and jam to our favorite playlists – or the speed with which we can run complicated programs – like neural networks or virtual reality games – computers are still storing data in 1s and 0s.
“Quantum computing” aims to change this. Whereas modern computers are limited to the computation of a 1 and 0 (binary bits), quantum computers promise the ability to have many values in betweenthat can occupy the same space at the same time. This, along with other properties, will exponentialize our current computing power. Technologies that use (or could use) complex calculations will gain an enormous processing boost from quantum – potentially allowing 3D animation, virtual reality, medicine, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and other areas to climb to entirely new heights.
Naturally, this begs the question: Why don’t we use this now? Answer: quantum computing is based on physics theories of quantum superposition and entanglement, which are still, rudimentarily, being put into practice. Their end goal is challenging and thus requires significant time and effort (not to mention money), which is perhaps why estimates on the arrival of a powerful quantum computer vary so greatly.
But when (not if) scientists do build a powerful quantum machine, the results could be catastrophic.
Virtually all public key encryption relies on computers not being able to efficiently factor large numbers (to break encryption keys like those used in RSA). Once quantum computing becomes viable, this safeguard will collapse. And nothing that uses public key encryption – namely, the Internet – will be safe.
Banks. Hospitals. Insurance records. Government databases. Top secret intelligence. Critical infrastructure. Everything, literally everything, that uses public key encryption will be utterly exposed to those who control the first quantum machine.
Sure, quantum computing holds a lot of promise for the world; we shouldn’t misunderstand that. But we also must understand that a critical transition period will occur. There will be a window of time in which the majority are using “normal” computers, and only a select few have quantum computers. There will be an enormous power imbalance.
This is why we need to upgrade our encryption to protect the world. Theories of quantum cryptography vary in approach: lattice-based cryptography relies on the complexity of solving lattice problems in linear algebra (e.g. the shortest vector problem), which locate the nearest point in a lattice with many spatial dimensions and thus take far longer to solve than the prime-number factorizations that underlie current encryption; hash-based cryptography leverages pseudorandom hashing on a quantum-strength level to resist sophisticated attacks; and multivariate cryptography (somewhat similarly to lattice-based cryptography) relies on the difficulty of solving multivariate polynomial equations, which are nonlinear and thus incredibly computing-intensive. Debates still occur as to which should be built first, although many experts argue lattice-based cryptography is hardened best against quantum attack. Meanwhile, pioneering research in quantum key distribution (QKD) currently holds promise for many of these different techniques – all of which could protect us against cyberattacks by a quantum computer.
By globally upgrading current public key encryption (i.e., RSA) to quantum encryption, we can secure banking systems and hospital machines; we can protect military secrets and national archives; we can prevent takeovers of weapons systems and critical infrastructure. The very future of our world is at stake, so it’s imperative we develop this technology now. This is our call to arms.
- Tech Leaders: Realize the serious danger at hand. Discuss quantum encryption with other leaders and visionaries, and communicate its necessity. Actively support (and even fund) initiatives to fully develop QKD, as well as full-blown quantum cryptography protocols. Educate your employees on the issue. Urge everyone in technology to educate themselves as well. Work with policymakers to support quantum cryptography research, and collaborate with educators to bring the public up to speed.
- Policymakers: Verbalize and explain the imminent global security crisis – a world with quantum computing, but without quantum encryption – to fellow policymakers and military leaders. Create, support, and raise funding for quantum research projects in the public and private sectors. Actively seek out technology leaders, pushing them to pay attention to this quantum threat. Work with educators to create more responsive technology curricula – and a more comprehensive technology education that weaves in with science, history, law, and other existing areas of study.
- Educators: Make quantum computing a part of your science classes (i.e. physics!), rather than continuing to segment technology. Also educate on its dangers alongside classes on politics and policy. Invite tech leaders to speak about quantum, for the benefit of your fellow educators, your students, and the community. Provide resources for students who want to learn more or get involved. And support quantum cryptography initiatives as best you can.
Quantum computing, while largely discussed in the context of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and other economic- or entertainment-oriented objectives, in reality poses a massive global security threat – regardless of country or nationality. It’s time we pay attention to it. Starting with education and continuing with public advocacy and the construction of quantum cryptography itself, it’s imperative we all take action to protect our world. Global catastrophe could be upon us much faster than we realize.