The quantum revolution: Who, what, when, where, why and how?
National Cybersecurity Awareness Month
'Quantum' is steadily becoming a buzzword in modern technology, hitting headlines as much as 'AI' and 'blockchain.' Yet it remains far behind in public understanding and widespread applications.
DC CyberWeek gave the technology an entire day of attention with the accurately named conference, "The Coming Quantum Revolution," bringing together public, private and academic quantum experts to discuss the technology's place in the enterprise. The implications of quantum computing for modern encryption schemes and security, the need for investment now and the pace of development drove discussions.
Here are CIO Dive's key takeaways of the state of quantum computing:
WHO will drive this technology?
Quantum computing is in the midst of an important transition. The technology's infancy was primarily fostered by government and academic investment and development, but the onus has steadily transitioned to industry, according to Michael Brett, co-founder and CEO of QxBranch.
Public and private entities are still far from the stage Brett imagines, where quantum computing will underpin systems like credit cards without users even realizing it. Yet these early stages are some of the most important because early innovators have the ability to influence its development and implementation.
Tech titans including Microsoft, Google, IBM and Intel have long led quantum research, but smaller and younger companies are carving a hold in the market, challenging quantum hegemony.
WHAT is quantum?
The question of what quantum computing entails, especially as it relates to the enterprise, has many answers. Dr. Aaron VanDevender, chief scientist and principal of the Founders Fund, quipped early on that "quantum mechanics is a little bit like alcohol in this sense, in that it is both the cause of and solution to all of life's problems," and this sentiment was echoed by experts throughout the day.
Experts noted that quantum is generally defined by whatever word comes after it. A quantum bit, or qubit, is a concept that can be understood in various ways, according to Altaf Carim, physicist at the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.
Brandishing a water bottle in the air, Dr. Christopher Monroe, professor of physics and chief scientist at IonQ, Inc., said, "this is quantum mechanical." So what is the enterprise to make of this oftentimes vague technology, and when is a quantum computer or algorithm relevant?
Quantum computing can entail a host of applications, from quantum encryption to quantum money to quantum communications. The form is less important than the benefits, and hopeful users first need to see if the application is functional, let alone practical, according to Monroe.
The funding that goes out into these projects, most of it is never going to see the light of day. You have to be willing to accept that risk, that some of your money is going to go down the drain, but you're also going to have big winners at the end.
Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute
The first quantum revolution has already taken place, and the technologies that came with it — such as semiconductors, GPS, MRI and lasers — are already integrated into society, said Dr. Jane Melia, VP of strategic business development at QuintessenceLabs.
She said the second revolution — that of quantum computing, sensors, simulation and security and communications — is yet upon us.
Harnessing quantum computing can bring about unhackable computer systems, quantum GPS with accuracy beyond current capabilities and AI advances, among other breakthroughs, according to Warner Miller, physics professor at Florida Atlantic University. Information is physical, and quantum computing's ability to store information in multiple states has matured the technology enough that the enterprise can now stake its bets upon it.
The most wide-reaching and immediate impact of quantum computing will occur in cryptography. "We do know that the public key infrastructure, that underlying cryptography that we have built our entire technology industry on since the '70s, is going to be broken, and we need to do something different than we are doing today," said Scott Totzke, CEO of ISARA Corporation.
WHEN will the enterprise see quantum technology?
Dr. Lily Lidong Chen, project leader and mathematician at the NIST Cryptographic Technology Group, laid out an XYZ timeline of quantum computing, where Y is the for standardization, X represents "backward security" time — or time spent ensuring previously encrypted information remains secret — and Z is the time until quantum computers become available:
If X + Y > Z, then people should be worried, Chen said, because there will be a lack of standardization and/or older information will not be encrypted under a quantum scheme.
Because cryptography is the cornerstone of cybersecurity, Chen echoed the sentiments of many other panelists in calling for standardization of the technology as soon as possible.
There is a one in two chance that public key cryptography will be broken by 2031, so the race is on, according to Chen. Post-quantum cryptography — or quantum resistant cryptography — needs strong investment and development now.
WHERE is development happening?
The major players in quantum computing today are the United States, China, Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union, according to Brett. U.S. contributions over the last three decades were significant, especially in terms of research funding mechanisms.
American dominance, however, is taking a hit from international competitors. Whereas the U.S. once held the top eight spots of the world's quantum systems, today it holds spots four to six, nine and 10, according to René Copeland, president of D-Wave Government Inc. China claims the top two spots and Switzerland the third.
In terms of size, China's No. 1 and 2 systems are larger than all the rest of the top 10 systems combined. Furthermore, the east Asian powerhouse is set to build the world's biggest quantum research facility with a price tag around $11 billion, according to Copeland.
China's progress has not gone unnoticed. The House of Representatives held its first quantum computing hearing in two decades on Tuesday, and Scott Crowder, VP and CTO of IBM Systems Group's quantum efforts, made clear that the country's current investment would not be enough to remain competitive against foreign countries committing more, reports The Wall Street Journal.
Quantum may come with a hefty price tag, but experts agree that is a pill countries will just have to swallow. "The funding that goes out into these projects, most of it is never going to see the light of day," said Arthur Herman, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. "You have to be willing to accept that risk, that some of your money is going to go down the drain, but you're also going to have big winners at the end.
WHY now, why this quantum?
To understand the implications of quantum applications, one might do well to first take a look at another lucrative advanced tech: blockchain.
The distributed ledger technology has been hailed by some as the solution to data security and encryption problems, but many experts have expressed reservations that other technologies can offer the same end goal without as much development and investment up front.
Quantum computing is even more immature than blockchain and has a longer journey until widespread application in the enterprise and cybersecurity landscape is possible.
Google, Microsoft, IBM and other tech giants may have the luxury of investment and development efforts in blockchain and quantum, but many companies do not. When making a choice between one or the other for a long-term investment, quantum applications are the obvious future for many.
We do know that the public key infrastructure, that underlying cryptography that we have built our entire technology industry on since the ‘70s, is going to be broken, and we need to do something different than we are doing today.
CEO of ISARA Corporation
Quantum information cannot be duplicated, divided or re-read, and its security is based on the fundamental laws of physics, said Dr. Raymond Newell, research scientist at the Applied Physics Group at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The no-cloning theorem, the principle that quantum states cannot be copied, is especially noteworthy for data protection as it can limit what is knowable, according to VanDevender. Based on this theorem, October's WPA2 KRACK vulnerability disclosure, which allows hackers to copy a key, would be a non-issue if quantum computing were already in place.
HOW can we translate this to security?
The very status quo of classical computing and encryption technology are staring straight into the face of obscurity with each step quantum computing makes, and experts are readying themselves for a full revolution. Van Hipp, chairman of the American Defense International, said cyber is the fifth dimension of war, and whoever wins the quantum race will have the upper hand.
Quantum random number generation (QRNG) is the key security application for the enterprise for the next five years, according to Newell. Classical computing can only create pseudo-random number generators, which translates to a shortcoming in existing cryptosystems.
The basis of security for cryptography under classical computing is a reliance on computational difficulty, according to Newell, and the pseudo-random shortcomings mean it will be easy for quantum computers to crack current schemes. This weakness is where quantum mechanics, the only truly random computing system, will find application.
Quantum mechanics is a little bit like alcohol in this sense, in that it is both the cause of and solution to all of life's problems.
Chief Scientist and Principal of the Founders Fund
Quantum random number generation (QNRG) stands alongside quantum key distribution (QKD) as a safe pathway for quantum applications. Quantum key distribution allows for secure communication between two parties by means of a secret key.
The intelligence community has been one of the largest U.S. government investors and purveyors of the technology, according to Monroe. Such involvement is mandated by the security implications. If a foreign country develops quantum computing first, the U.S. — and all other countries — could face a national security nightmare.
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