Dec 7, 2017

Why is Quantum Computing a Big Deal?

Quantum computing is a futuristic way of computing.  Presently in its infancy, the technology involves the use of qubits which are atomic sized memory units.  Qubits can hold multiple values simultaneously and enable efficiencies in parallel computations.  With a sufficient number of qubits working together as part of a quantum computing device, some believe that such a device will obtain quantum supremacy.   In other words,  a device that has an ability to solve problems which classical computing practicably cannot.  Presently, a target for quantum supremacy is a system utilizing at least 49 cubits.  Leadership in quantum computing is considered important in areas of medicine, manufacturing, artificial intelligence and defense.  Recognizing potential advantages of developing quantum computers, the commercial and academic worlds have been in a race to reach quantum supremacy.  In 2017 alone, for example, Google developed a 20 qubit system which is presently under test and is targeting a 49 qubit chip for the end of 2017.  In October, IBM simulated a 56 qubit system on a classical computer, Intel announced a 17 qubit chip, and Alibaba announced $15B investment in quantum research.  In September, Microsoft announced that it was developing a quantum computer language and simulator.  In July, a Harvard University team announced a 51 qubit system it had built.  In May, IBM had a 16 qubit system available for public use and a 17 qubit commercial prototype.  In January, Dwave announced a special type of quantum computer utilizing 2000 qubits.

Governments are also interested in the development of quantum technologies and are working to obtain a leadership role.  The European Union, United Kingdom, China,and the United States each have significant efforts underway that focus on quantum information sciences to include quantum computing.  One of the areas that the United States has a particular interest in is the impact of quantum computing on national security.  In 1994, a mathematician named Peter Shor developed an algorithm, Shor’s algorithm, for integer factorization that could run on a quantum computer.  At least some are looking at using recent quantum computing innovations to implement Shor’s algorithm.  The algorithm implemented on a quantum computer of sufficient strength could be used to break commonly used cryptography.  RSA asymmetric cryptography is one example.  It is based on the impracticality of classical computers to factor large integers and is used in many health care, financial, communication, and national security systems to protect secrets and verify data integrity. In August 2015, the US National Security Agency (NSA) provided guidance that asymmetric cryptographic algorithms like RSA and Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) would provide diminished security as quantum computing capabilities advanced.  In April 2016, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) provided more insight with NISTIR 8105 Report on Post-Quantum Cryptography which includes the following table showing the future impact of quantum computing on common cryptographic algorithms:

Source: NISTIR 8105 Report on Post-Quantum Cryptography, 2016

On 20 December 2016, NIST announced a Request for Nominations for Public-Key Post-Quantum Cryptographic Algorithms.  The closing date for proposals was 30 November 2017.  It is hoped that this effort will lead to post-quantum cryptographic algorithms and their deployment before a quantum computer is used to compromise data and systems -- especially in health care, financial, communication, and national security environments.  This latter concern is twofold.  First, post-quantum cryptographic algorithms are needed within the next 10 to 15 years when some believe the breaking of some cryptographic algorithms would be possible by quantum computers.  Second, post-quantum cryptographic algorithms are needed to protect the privacy and integrity of information in the near term that may be stored today by a bad actor for later decryption or digital signature compromise once quantum computers are available.   Early decryption of today’s secrets (e.g., health care information, banking information and proprietary or sensitive information) or the potential compromise of digital signatures (e.g., digitally signed contracts and digitally signed blockchain/Bitcoin entries) sometime in the future can be problematic.  

Quantum computing is a technology in its infancy that once matured can be used to advance innovation in medicine, manufacturing, artificial intelligence and defense.  Commercial and academic worlds and governments are racing to obtain leadership in this space.  However, quantum computers could also be used to break encryption used to protect secrets and verify data integrity.  The US Government is working to develop post-quantum cryptographic algorithms to replace today’s vulnerable cryptographic technologies before their breaking becomes a significant risk.  

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Ron Sulpizio is an engineer and lawyer with 25 years of information technology experience, specializing in identity and access management, policy writing, cryptography systems, cybersecurity, information sharing, export regulation, privacy and patent prosecution. Ron has been part of the PKH Enterprises team since 2016.