Cutting Through the Hype Around Quantum Computers and the Quantum Threat

If quantum computers are at least a few years out, can leaders ignore the hype for now?

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There may be no technology more overhyped and underestimated today than quantum computing.

While getting to commercially relevant quantum computing will be challenging, today even the most conservative experts are no longer debating if it will happen, but rather when these large-scale quantum computers will be realized. Sundar Pinchai, the CEO of Google, estimated in 2019 that we will have a Cryptographically Relevant Quantum Computer (CRQC — a quantum computer with enough power to break our current cryptography) in five to ten years. Not knowing when, though, means it could also happen sooner than we think.

We do know this: Commercial, scientific and military powers have dedicated billions of dollars to make large-scale quantum computers a reality, and in the meantime, independent hackers and nation states alike are intercepting and storing private encrypted data to decrypt when a CRQC will be available. Cybercriminals are getting ready. Leaders in tech and throughout other industries need to prepare as well to avoid getting caught flat-footed.

The Race Beyond 'Quantum Supremacy'

Scientists have worked for years to achieve "quantum supremacy." While it may sound like something akin to world domination, it simply means using a quantum computer to solve a problem that classical computers — the kind in use today — can't (at least not within a reasonable timeframe).

In 2019, Google reported that it hit the quantum supremacy milestone using its quantum computer to solve a problem in 200 seconds that reportedly would have taken a supercomputer 10,000 years to work out. Some 50 technology companies and 15 nations were already competing to be the first to reach quantum supremacy by the time Google hit the mark. While there has since been some debate over how much computational advantage Google actually gained over classical implementations, last year Chinese researchers stole the show when a team reportedly used quantum processing to accomplish the same task 1 million times faster than Google.

A renewed outpouring of funding has followed to support what comes next — quantum advantage and quantum computers demonstrating significant speedups on specialized tasks. Goldman Sachs anticipates practical quantum computing to be available by 2025 or even sooner, and has said it expects to begin using quantum algorithms to gain an advantage in financial modeling by 2026.

The Quantum Threat — Hype or Happening?

Practical commercial uses for quantum processing will likely begin emerging in the coming years. Researchers envision it performing tasks that even the most powerful supercomputers cannot, including energy grid optimization, climate change modeling, and solutions, complex market analytics and predictions, the development of new battery technology, manufacturing materials, and pharmaceuticals.

Like most powerful technologies, quantum computing has the potential to be used for both good and bad. For example, it will take a quantum computer with around 4,099 error-corrected qubits using Shor's algorithm to break the encryption that protects data as it travels across the internet. Algorithms like Shor's will be capable of deciphering the toughest encryptions in use, including RSA, which protects our data in transit, and Elliptic Curve Cryptography, which is used for blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies.

Dr. Michele Mosca, one member of a two-person team that implemented the first quantum algorithm in 1998, estimates a one-in-seven chance of quantum breaking RSA-2048 (the public-key cryptography most commonly used today) by 2026 and a 50% chance by 2031.

If quantum computers are at least a few years out, can leaders ignore the hype for now? Unfortunately, no. Due to the way the public internet was architected — and the cybersecurity protocols around it — it is now a common practice for hackers to intercept and record encrypted messages in what is known as a store-now-decrypt-later (SNDL) attack. When they have access to a quantum computer, they can decrypt these messages. If data will still be sensitive in a number of years (bank accounts, SSNs, military and government secrets, electronic health records, national security data, legal and HR records), this represents a real risk to the privacy and integrity of your data.

So while Pinchai's and Mosca's predictions may give the impression that leaders have up to a decade to act, for organizations entrusted to safeguard encrypted data that will be valuable beyond 10 years, any chance it will be decrypted in the next 10 years is a fundamentally unacceptable risk.

It's for this reason that the White House released two executive memos this year mandating agencies upgrade to quantum-resistant encryption. The message is clear — the time to act is now.

Better Quantum-safe Than Sorry

In its recent report "Facing tomorrow's quantum hackers today," MIT advises government agencies and private companies alike to ward off complacency and start engaging with quantum security specialists to sift through the hype and implement quantum-resistant measures since a CRQC could emerge at any time. "Enterprises that work with sensitive and valuable information must act with a sense of urgency," the report states, or risk getting "caught in the crossfires of sophisticated cyberwarfare."

With all that's going on in the digital world and the world at large, it's tempting to bury your head in the proverbial sand and ignore the quantum threat by calling it "hype." While we will not wake up next week to find quantum computers developing personalized pharmaceuticals and cracking our electronic health records, we are moving slowly and steadily down that path.

Let's be direct and hype-free. Quantum hacks will come with little warning and will be devastating. Organizations and governments can't afford to be reactive.

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