Inside the stark and sweeping Eero Saarinen-styled exterior of the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, IBM’s blue jeans-wearing boffins are assembling a new generation of super-powered computers built on quantum mechanical principles. These otherworldly machines dangle from sturdy, metal frames, looking like golden chandeliers, or robotic beehives. The devices perform their magical-seeming operations inside vacuum-sealed, super-cooled refrigerator encasements. It’s a technology that combines both brains and beauty.
Future iterations of these quantum computers will be able to solve mathematical problems ordinary computers have no hope of computing. They will vastly speed up classical calculations, accurately model complex natural phenomena like chemical reactions, and open as yet unexplored frontiers for scientific inquiry. Despite seeming arcane, machines like these will touch every aspect of our lives—from drug discovery to digital security.
This latter area presents significant challenges. One advantage quantum computers have over traditional ones is a knack for factoring large numbers, an operation so difficult for present-day computers that it has become the foundation for almost all today’s encryption schemes. A sufficiently advanced quantum computer, on the other hand, can chew through these math problems with the destructive force of that metal-melting Xenomorph blood in the Alien film franchise. The prospect of quantum computing necessitates a complete rethinking of cryptography.
Today’s encryption may be rendered obsolete sooner than most people anticipate. As Adam Langley, a senior software engineer at Google, has pointed out in a recent blog post, some experts predict this latter-day Y2K could occur within the decade. Michele Mosca, cofounder of the Institute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo, Ontario, has estimated a 1-in-7 chance that quantum breakthroughs will defeat RSA-2048, a common encryption standard, by 2026. If that’s true, then the time to begin reengineering our digital defenses is now. As Langley writes, waiting around for guidance on standards “seems dangerous”; there’s no time to lose.
Buttressing Langley’s view is a recent paper out of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The research organization determined that, while the advent of an encryption-busting quantum computer is unlikely within the decade, preparations to defend against one must be undertaken as soon as possible. Since web standards take more than a decade to implement, a press release accompanying the paper warned, developing new, attack-resistant algorithms “is critical now.”
The era of quantum computation fast approaches. Fortune 500 companies like IBM, Google, Microsoft, and Intel, are plugging away on the tech alongside smaller startups, like Calif.-based Rigetti. Nation states like China are, meanwhile, dumping billions of dollars into research and development. Whichever entity achieves so-called quantum supremacy first will find itself in possession of unprecedented power—the equivalent of X-Ray goggles for the Internet.
That is, unless we act with urgency to armor up.