SF Technotes

A Quantum Timescape

By Michael Castelluccio
November 10, 2021
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When Inside Quantum Technology (IQT) opened its weeklong conference on November 1, 2021, in New York City, it had 650 attendees from 33 countries and more than 140 experts to discuss quantum hardware, software, impending standards, markets, and quantum-safe strategies going forward.

 

The first keynote speaker was the chief quantum exponent at IBM, Robert Sutor. He began with an optimistic progress report on IBM’s quantum computers. Using three measurements—the number of quantum bits (qubits), the quality of those qubits, and the speed of the circuits—Sutor compared IBM’s machines from 2019 to 2021.

 

In the last two years, the number of qubits went from 27 to 127, and he said IBM team expects a machine with 256 qubits by the end of the year. Quality, measured in quantum volume, went from 32 to 128, and circuit speeds jumped from 200 to 1,400 circuit layer operations per second. Today, IBM has 20 of its quantum computers deployed around the world, and the company is in year six of quantum computing on the cloud.

 

Beyond the numbers, Sutor not only set an optimistic tone that was repeated often in the following days, but he also implied that a race is on, a race to quantum that has been called by others the 21st Century’s space race. And he emphasized, as would many of the other panelists, the time to get engaged and informed is now.

 

FOUR QUANTUM DOMAINS

 

Quantum computing inspires images of chandelier-shaped golden computers with protected inner chambers holding captured qubits suspended in near-absolute zero temperatures. In actuality, there are four dimensions to the current adoption of some very odd properties of quantum physics that allow particles, atoms, or photons to be in two places at once, be entangled with other particles at great distances, and exist in three states simultaneously. All four of these quantum domains were covered in detail at the conference:

  1. Quantum computers. The kind of machines that resemble classical computers that use binary bits to carry and manipulate information but these use qubits instead.
  2. Quantum sensing networks. These are measuring tools that take advantage of quantum characteristics in devices like atomic clocks and equipment that measures gravity.
  3. Quantum safe devices. These use quantum hardware and algorithms to create secure communications. They include quantum key distribution (QKDs) and post-quantum cryptography (PQC).
  4. A quantum internet. In the early stage of development, this network will work alongside the classical internet.

 

Quantum networks are in an initial developmental stage with several already operating over limited distances. Two pieces of hardware still largely missing are quantum repeaters and quantum memory. Reports at IQT detailed the state of development of q repeaters. The components to build these network amplifiers are already available from existing off-the-shelf components.

 

Using satellites to extend the range of quantum networks has already been demonstrated with the Micius satellite. The quantum space satellite was launched on August 16, 2016, by China’s Quantum Experiments at Space Scale group, and it created the world’s first quantum communication network operating over 700 optical fibers on the ground and the satellite that exchanged quantum keys over two links covering a distance on the ground of 4,600 kilometers.

 

The race to quantum isn’t being held in a single venue on a single track. Major companies are developing different quantum systems based on the kind of qubits they have chosen to use in their machines. There’s more than one kind of particle that can be central to your system, and the likelihood of one system prevailing is less than different kinds of quantum computers emerging with varying shares of the market. Here are the four current systems, and companies involved in them. Numbers one and two are currently favored for adoption.

  1. Superconductive technology (IBM and Google)
  2. Topological qubit systems (Microsoft)
  3. Trapped ions for qubits (Honeywell and IonQ)
  4. Quantum dot technologies that are similar to transistors (Intel)

 

The same question was asked of almost all the panels and participants: When will this happen? One reason for the question had to do with the race and how much time everyone has to prepare for this. And the second, darker reason had to do with another recurring theme throughout the five days—the quantum threat to current digital security.

 

QUANTUM SAFE

 

The threat posed by quantum computing resembles a blade with two honed edges. The first problem is that once fully functional quantum computers are online, the most widely used forms of public key cryptography will be compromised. The second problem is that if and when we’re able to create quantum cryptography that’s sufficient to harden information against the power of a quantum attacks, it has to be deployed and in place. It took companies about 10 years to adopt the classical cryptography and key systems we presently have standing between hackers and our data, our bank accounts, our essential infrastructure, and even our computerized cars.

 

This creates a second quantum race, one with a potential catastrophic finish. Harvesting is going on right now as hackers collect troves of encrypted data that they will store and wait for the kinds of machines that will be able to crack present encryption. If the lifespan of your data exceeds the time it will take to develop a fully functional quantum computer, you have a problem.

 

And if, while waiting for new quantum security methods to appear, you seek some consolation in the thought that quantum computers are incredibly expensive to buy and run, consider the reach of hostile nation states or international syndicates. At the IQT conference, there were several discussions of the pursuit and deployment of quantum secure measures. But there also was the report of progress one computer builder is making toward developing a room-temperature desktop-size quantum computer.

 

The critical factor in all of this is when. Google predicts there will be sufficient qubits to crack digital encryption standard in 2029. John Prisco of Safe Quantum Inc. said he thinks it’s more on a five-year range than the eight years to 2029.

 

Michele Mosca, physics researcher and cofounder of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, Australia, formulated an inequality theorem that visualizes the problem (x + y > z = current risk). Cathal Mahon included it in his presentation at IQT. The PQC Cathal included here is the one currently in development.

 

 

To summarize the quantum threat problem, consider the following. Richard Feynman, legendary theoretical physicist, assured us, “There is nothing in the laws of physics that would prevent quantum computing.” Currently, we are partway there with noisy intermediate-scale quantum devices that don’t have full-blown error correction, so there is time to prepare. A number of companies are working on quantum random number generators, QKD, and post-quantum encryption. With Y2K, we knew the doomsday date to the hour. With Y2Q, the key unknowns x and z remain uncharted.

 

National Institute of Standards and Technology began a PQC standardization project with a call in 2016 for candidates to develop PQC. Fifty-nine public-key encryption and key establishment algorithms were submitted along with 23 digital signature algorithms. The field of finalists has seven key algorithm and six digital signature candidates. The announcement of final selections is due at the end of this year or the beginning of 2022.

 

Mahon explained the key markets for PQC will be:

  1. Financial services,
  2. The Internet of Things universe, and
  3. PQC cybersecurity services.

 

And he predicts it will be a multibillion-dollar market.

 

On Friday, November 5, the convention ended with a repeated call to put quantum on your agenda, and to get engaged and informed now.

 



Michael Castelluccio has been the technology editor for Strategic Finance for 26 years. His SF TechNotes blog is in its 23rd year. You can contact Mike at mcastelluccio@imanet.org.


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