A recent article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek highlights the role that quantum mechanics will likely play as it comes to dominate our next generation of computing. As Carl Sagan once observed regarding quantum phenomena, “common sense is almost useless in approaching it.”
Matter simply behaves differently – often far differently from what’s expected – at the atomic level. And that’s an area that scientists are attempting to exploit for new applications in computing. While a full-scale quantum computer is “years off” in Bloomberg’s view, a lot of progress is being made already in materials and designs – with potentially striking benefits.
The uniqueness of the quantum environment lies in the very properties of subatomic particles that can be simultaneously on and off. That a thing could be in two states virtually simultaneously opens up a host of possibilities. Those properties might well be exploited by chemists and drug designers, or by folks who try to solve ‘optimization’ problems – like air traffic control, improved artificial intelligence, better sensors and so on.
Big business, intelligence agencies and government have taken an interest for yet another reason: the breaking of codes. Put simply, today’s cryptographic programs that protect our data are often derived from relying on very difficult math problems, like factoring large integers, that today’s computers can’t solve in a reasonable timeframe. But with quantum computers, the speculation is that those codes might be cracked very quickly.
As a result, the underlying security of nearly everything from phones to e-commerce might be in jeopardy. The Cloud Security Alliance, concerned about quantum computing’s ability to “break all public-key encryption now in use,” notes that “The impact on the world economy could be devastating.”
But let’s not panic just yet. Because of course, other scientists are already working on “quantum-resistant” encryption. Google is already on it, although more research is needed.
Businesses will continue to be warned about “being vigilant.” Many files of a legal or business nature must be stored for a long time, for legal or commercial reasons. Few businesses have a long-term strategy for protecting them, notes Bloomberg. They urge greater cooperation between Silicon Valley and the government in laying the groundwork for cloud protection against such quantum crypto-vigilantes.
One could be forgiven for being skeptical of either the promise for cooperation or the technical abilities of the good guys to stay perennially ahead of the bad guys. It’s bad enough now, what with cyber-crime at an all-time high. One shudders to think what adding the new “quantum” dimension will do to add to our security woes.
[Dilbert Cartoon copyright 2012, Scott Adams, Inc.]