Quantum Computing- Race to the Edge

While Moore’s Law or the exponential growth of integrated circuits refers to the fifth paradigm of computation, Quantum Computers may well be the sixth paradigm, given that they work in a fashion that is entirely different from “classical” computers. Why is this technology key to data protection and research?

Background

We are poised at the threshold of yet another generational shift in technology which has the potential to change long-held fundamentals in commerce, intelligence, military affairs and strategic balance of power. Since 2013, scientists have been working on processors using quantum physics for superpositioning and entanglement that could process more values simultaneously.

While a classical computer performs operations using “bits” -0 or 1- a quantum computer uses “quantum bits,” or “qubits”. Thanks to quantum superposition, these qubits can have a value of “0 and 1″ or “0”, “1,” or both at the same time. Problems that are unsolvable by conventional computers can be solved with this capability of quantum computers. 

The power of qubits is that they scale exponentially. A 2-qubit machine permits four calculations, a 3-qubit machine eight calculations and a 4-qubit machine 16 calculations, all simultaneously. At 300 qubits, a computer that can do more “calculations” than there are atoms in the universe.

Analysis

Quantum computing holds the key to future suzerainty over the cyber world, for the country that is able to grasp its complexities. 

Chinese research institutions and US technology companies are in a race to develop quantum computers. Chinese initiative such as quantum enabled Micius satellite, and the establishment of national network infrastructure are at the forefront. It is also building the world’s largest and most advanced quantum research facility to develop “revolutionary” forms of technology that can be used by the military for cryptology, stealthy submarine navigation and “un-hackable” quantum computing. While the Chinese budget for quantum projects remains a closely guarded secret, the fact that they are opening a National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences in 2020, indicates that they are planning big.

US, which too has been spending millions on this cutting edge technology is naturally worried. Congressman Will Hurd, known for his computer science degree and career at the CIA, underlined US concerns when he said “The impact of quantum on our national defence will be tremendous. The question is whether the United States and its allies will be ready.”

In an attempt to drive America’s return to high-performance computing supremacy, the U.S. decided that it would build an exoscale computer, 30 times more powerful than the Chinese Tianhe-2, by 2020. The challenge is that it would cost a billion dollars and will require a nuclear power plant to run the supercomputer. These machines have a 5-qubit processor. A single chip with 50 to 60 qubits would be more powerful than the entire Tianhe-2, a half-a-football-field-sized machine. 

US companies like Microsft and Google have set up dedicated quantum computing initiatives. There was an internet leak, perhaps inadvertently, which said that physicists at Google have used a quantum computer that would overwhelm the world’s best conventional supercomputer, to perform a calculation. This milestone is being called “quantum supremacy.”

Quantum Computing will revolutionise business in many fields. Financial service providers acknowledge its ability to enable new application options, from portfolio optimisation to fraud detection and new payment systems to high-frequency trading.  

On the flip side, Quantum computing will penetrate the most secure encryption codes rendering them defenceless in a flash. Tony Trippe, managing director of Dublin, Ohio-based Patinformatics, said that “An organisation or a nation that had quantum computer technologies would have a significantly easier time of wreaking havoc on other systems“. Divesh Aggarwal in an MIT Technology Review noted that “The elliptic curve signature scheme used by Bitcoin is much more at risk, and could be completely broken by a quantum computer as early as 2027,”  

 Assessment 

  • As per early signs, the odds for winning the race are skewed in favour of China. They have not only taken an early lead, but their campaign is also more focussed, better organised and well-financed.
  • The US appears to be trailing because of its budget cuts and loss of focus. It had shut down large scale strategic technology and manufacturing initiatives after the Reagan Administration. Cutting budgets for the National Science Foundation was itself a self-defeating move.
  • Although many companies in the US are independently pursuing the research on Quantum computing, their priorities and incentives do not align with those of US government and military. Whereas in China, there is a military-civil fusion and a closeness between industry, academia and military. 
  • The global IT industry is due for a rude wakeup call soon as many of its established processes and systems do not match up with the threat posed by quantum computing. Algorithms such as Rivest Shamir Adleman (RSA) and Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) will be rendered useless.
  • Digital transactions, including cryptocurrencies, will also require redesigning. In this context, the Chinese Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) merits closer examination as it is a post-quantum computing innovation. Also, the protection of commercial transactions and data transmissions would likely be redesigned. 
  • The potential convergence between artificial intelligence and quantum computing could constitute a promising synergy. China intends to leverage its strengths in these technologies, which will help determine the global balance of power. 

Image Courtesy: flickr.com

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