Posts Tagged ‘quantum computing’

Quantum computing encryption is secure, fast, hack-proof so far, and getting big in China.

We’ve written here before about quantum computing, the latest leap in computer technology.  Those of us involved in the industry since the dawn of the PC can only marvel as the technology keeps marching forward, beyond even the tacit bounds of Moore’s Law, and into the realm of quantum physics.

That branch of physics, often typified by the Heisenberg Principle which states, in simple terms, that at the very sub-microscopic, atomic-small level of physics, one can know a particle’s position or direction of travel, but never both simultaneously.  In quantum computing terms, this means that, unlike a normal ‘binary’ computer transaction in which a switch is either ‘on’ or ‘off,’ that instead, a particle (or a bit) can be both on and off simultaneously.  That new realm of multi-state properties defies our logical, if somewhat limited, knowledge of the larger world, but it opens up a lot of new possibilities.  And quantum computing is already beyond the theoretical stage; it’s already operational.

A physics professor at the University of Geneva, Gregoire Ribordy, has developed something called quantum key distribution, using the unique properties of quantum computing technology to create a data encryption system so secure that he says it can’t even be deciphered by an advanced quantum computer (and as reported recently in a Focus/Security special section at Bloomberg BusinessWeek).

Ribordy, formerly a researcher at Nikon in Tokyo, believes “our challenge is to help governments be ready.”  His company ID Quantique SA is based in Switzerland, and recently signed a joint venture agreement with a Chinese company.  As a result, sales of his quantum key equipment – whose quantum servers sell for about $100,000 a pair – are said to have surged at Chinese banks, government agencies, and even the China Railway Corp.

Ribordy reports he’s sold fewer than 100 servers in the U.S., but predicts the growing interest in China will spur interest elsewhere, and notes, “If China’s doing it, maybe it’s a good idea to look at why.”  Recently the Chinese claim to have launched a quantum-enabled satellite to securely transmit data.  Ribordy’s Chinese partner has built the world’s first commercial network secured by Quantum technology between two major cities, according to Bloomberg.

Quantum key does have one drawback, it is reported, in that there is a limit to how far about the machines can be from one another.  According to BusinessWeek, “quantum computers communicate by firing photons over fiber-optic lines, which become unreliable at distances beyond a few hundred miles.”

Still, the transition is beginning, and the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre predicts the cost will drop rapidly which, along with the highly secure nature of quantum encryption is bound to increase its popularity everywhere.  Recently, China has begun to pull ahead of the U.S. in some key quantum areas according to industry insiders, while the level of investment there continues to grow.

And of course, just to square the circle in a world in which hackers are always looking to leapfrog the security teams, Richard Murray of Innovate U.K., a government agency that helps foster new technologies recently noted, “The reason there is a market for this now is to prepare for the threat of a quantum hack in the future.”

And the beat goes on.

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The idea of “quantum computing” has been around for a while, but lately, some very blue-chip sorts of companies have begun investing in it seriously.  Names like HP, Google and Microsoft, to name a few.

Quantum computing is best thought of as the ‘next generation’ of computing technology, in which the weird and dazzling properties of the atomic and sub-atomic worlds govern what a computer is capable of.  Quantum theory was born about a century ago, but its practical use has long been out of man’s reach.  But the day is coming. Everything in the natural world can be described by quantum mechanics – but it operates on a very different plane from the natural order of things we humans have come to know.  And sometimes, quantum properties can act downright… weird.

For example, in computers, the fundamental notion of a “bit” of information is defined by a flow of electric current that, like a switch, is either “on” or “off.”  There’s no confusion, and that foundation allows computers to work from flowing electrons, and software programmers to create code that depends on it.  But in the quantum world, things aren’t so simple.

Without veering off into strange properties and the famous Heisenberg Principle which says that the mere observation of an atomic particle or event can change its very nature (you can determine a particle’s direction of movement or its location, but not both at the same instant)… the bottom line is that a quantum bit can be both on and off simultaneously.  As scientists learn to harness the power of this notion of a ‘qubit,’ it promises to unleash phenomenally more powerful hardware and software than ever seen before.

Which brings us to the future of computing.

One of the most promising possibilities in quantum computing is that of unbreakable security.  The unique properties of this on-while-off status of a qubit gives it the capability of working out prime numbers that, when multiplied together make up ridiculously large primes whose reverse uncoupling (or “decomposition”) is mathematically extremely complex, and is the basis of most modern cryptography in use today.

The new algorithms produced by quantum computing promise to deliver cryptographic solutions that quantum computers can crunch through, but which are well beyond anything that even today’s supercomputers are capable of.

Meanwhile, companies like those mentioned earlier all have research programs for determining how best to harness these quantum capabilities in software and applications.  Early interest has come from governments and defense contractors, not to mention the NSA, as well as a growing number of startups.  These efforts are based on the work of Dr. Peter Shor who, at Bell Labs in 1994, first showed how a quantum computer would be capable of solving the prime riddle.

In the future, that capability would be useful “for all manner of currently intractable problems” notes a recent article in The Economist (March 11, 2017).  Applications including those requiring extremely precise timing, perfectly accurate GPS triangulation and massively complex encryption will likely be among early efforts.

While these machines and software are ultimately among mankind’s greatest engineering challenges, one tends to believe that in the long history of computing, they’re simply the next step on the trail, in the seemingly never ending evolution of the computer.

(Note: In our next post, we’ll present a counterpoint to our “unbreakable security” thinking above, courtesy of the editors at The Economist. Stay tuned…)



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quantum_dilbertA 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.]

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