Quantum computing could break the internet. This is how
Quantum computing has the potential to revolutionize our world, but it also poses significant risks to online security. The day when a powerful quantum computer can crack the most commonly used encryption methods is known as Q-day. This event would have massive implications for internet companies, banks, governments, and personal privacy. While quantum computers are currently too unstable to perform complex operations for extended periods, researchers are working towards developing more robust machines.
In 1994, mathematician Peter Shor devised an algorithm that, when run on a powerful quantum computer, could crack the RSA encryption protocol used to secure online transactions. The RSA algorithm takes advantage of the fact that multiplying two large prime numbers is easy, while reversing the calculation is computationally difficult for classical computers. Shor demonstrated that a quantum computer could perform this reverse calculation with relative ease. Researchers are also exploring hybrid classical-quantum computing approaches to tackle encryption methods.
The world’s leading powers are engaged in a race to develop quantum computers due to the potential benefits and the fear of falling behind. Quantum computers not only have the capability to break existing encryption methods but also offer possibilities for securing communications in a quantum world. Governments, corporations, and venture capitalists are investing heavily in the commercialization of quantum technology. Companies like IBM, Google, Microsoft, and Honeywell, as well as numerous startups, are actively involved in quantum research and development.
To understand quantum computing, it’s essential to grasp the functioning of classical computers. Classical computing relies on bits, which can be in one of two binary states: off or on (0 or 1). A sequence of eight bits forms a byte, capable of storing more data than a single bit. However, the reliability of individual bits is crucial for the integrity of computer systems.
Quantum computing operates using quantum bits, or qubits, which exist in a quantum state where they can be simultaneously considered both on and off until measured. Qubits can be arranged in ways that maximize the probability of finding the correct answer to a problem. Quantum algorithms are at the core of quantum computing, allowing the exploration of multiple paths simultaneously. However, maintaining the stability of qubits is a major challenge. Quantum computers require a cryogenic environment near absolute zero to minimize interaction with the surrounding environment, which can disrupt the quantum state.
Despite the progress made in quantum computing, there are several hurdles to overcome. The fragility of qubits and the resulting noise from the environment limit the time they can stay in a quantum state. Decoherence, the loss of quantum coherence, reduces the reliability of quantum computers. This limitation necessitates the use of large and sophisticated machines to house just a few hundred qubits.
The race to develop quantum technology is driven by the economic potential and geopolitical rivalry. Quantum computing could bring significant advancements in various fields, such as materials science, drug development, financial trading strategies, and secure communication methods. Governments recognize the strategic importance of quantum technology and are increasing investments in research and development. While the first company to develop a reliable quantum computer could generate billions in revenue, the security implications of quantum computers also concern governments. The RSA encryption method, widely used to secure digital data, becomes vulnerable to quantum machines.
Efforts are being made to develop new cryptography systems that are secure against both quantum and classical computers. However, implementing these systems will take time, and companies with sensitive data should begin preparing for Q-day today. Despite the challenges, researchers are confident that with ongoing innovations, scalable quantum computers with a million qubits could be achieved within years rather than decades.
While private sector investors may experience uncertainty and a potential quantum winter, the competition between the US and China will continue to drive the development of robust quantum computers. Neither country wants to fall behind in this race. As the world progresses towards a quantum future, it is crucial to balance the opportunities and risks associated with this transformative technology.