There is a definite indication of public ignorance regarding quantum computing when entering the word ‘quantum’ into Google. The search reveals suggestions for ‘physics’, ‘leap’, and ‘of solace’ before the word ‘computing’ appears. This is partly because quantum-mechanical phenomena such as entanglement and superposition only make sense to those who understand the mathematical equations in The Big Bang Theory. But mostly, it’s because scientists haven’t explained to the public what quantum computing could mean for them.
A quantum leap forwards
Quantum computing involves adjusting the state of binary bits: the smallest units of data used by computers. In what are (perhaps rather prematurely) known as classical computers, binary bits have two states. A zero represents off, and a one represents on – a simple distinction which underpins everything that happens in electrical devices and appliances around the world.
A quantum computer is able to create bits which are in superpositions or multiple states between zero and one. Because each bit offers more than the classic two states, a processor is able to process data in different ways simultaneously. This makes them much more powerful, tackling data volumes every computer currently in existence couldn’t collectively process.
One of the biggest opportunities presented by quantum computing involves using algorithms to solve problems. A tidal wave of additional processing power could enable a quantum machine to model climate data in currently unachievable ways or to disentangle the minutiae of molecular and chemical processes to establish new treatments and medicines. It’s already been used by Volkswagen to conduct traffic flow modeling using ten thousand GPS-equipped taxis. It’s worth noting, however, that there are only around a dozen quantum computers currently in existence, so using one requires deep pockets and high-level contacts.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is growing at an exponential rate, and an estimated 75 billion devices will be distributing and receiving information six years from now. That’s almost ten devices for every man, woman, and child. Quantum computing is being hailed as the only way to make sense of this data tsunami. After all, without being properly processed and interpreted, IoT devices become pointless, with generated data amounting to nothing more than background noise.
Down on the upside
As with all technological advances, there are risks as well as benefits. Quantum computing currently has to be conducted at cryogenic temperatures, requiring highly specialist cooling equipment. The bits themselves are in a constant state of flux, with trace amounts of thermal or electromagnetic interference enough to affect data processing. Harnessing the sheer power of this technology also requires a level of expertise and scientific awareness few IT professionals today can lay claim to. Even basic terms like Y2Q (Years to Quantum) presently require explanation.
A greater concern involves potential risks to existing online security. Where brute force attacks would currently fail to crack today’s 256-bit encryption keys, a quantum processor could brush it aside with ease. Indeed, the NSA expects quantum processing to effectively render public cryptography (and all related security protocols) redundant one day. Proposed solutions include 2688-bit supersingular isogeny key exchange, whose mechanics are beyond the scale of this article (and author).
Scientists are trying to develop ‘quantum-resistant’ algorithms, but this is new science with few precedents or definitives. From a consumer perspective, the cost of acquiring a quantum computer is likely to be prohibitive for many years, meaning both cyber-attack and cyber-defense will be focused at the state level. By the time quantum processors are being fitted to domestic devices, we’ll likely have a whole new system of data protection and security solutions in place.