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CIOs need to understand where quantum technologies will excel — and how they pose a security risk to today’s systems, says 1QBit’s Andrew Fursman.
A growing number of companies are getting ready to test the industrial potential – and understand the challenges — of quantum computing. And for two paramount reasons.
Moore’s Law, that has fuelled the performance growth of IT for three decades, is reportedly running out of steam. The doubling of the number of transistors that can be crammed onto an integrated circuit is reaching its physical limitations. But it is the huge leap in processing power that quantum will deliver that is sharpening interest. The promise of exploiting the omni-state processing capability of quantum bits (qubits) means organizations will be able to scale application to almost-unimaginable heights and address problems that have been well beyond the reach of classical computers.
“What’s really exciting is that now that technology companies have started to get to the point where they can produce larger and larger numbers of qubits, the scaling that we’re seeing for quantum computers seems beyond the exponential scaling of Moore’s law,” says Andrew Fursman, CEO of quantum computing software specialist 1QB Technologies (1QBit). “It is challenging to know where this incredibly steep scaling will end and what the current limitations are for any particular method of building and connecting qubits together.”
As a result, “we’re going into an unknown era,” he says. “This year we’ll probably see small quantum computers answer exactly the kind of problems quantum is designed for, answers that would never really be possible with a classical machine.”
That excitement is vident in the activities of many major companies. DowDuPont, for example, has been working with 1QBit to develop quantum computing tools in the areas of chemicals and materials science technology. And biotechnology company Biogen has been exploring quantum-enabled methods that could accelerate drug discovery for diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
The real low-hanging fruit for quantum computing – and the forte of quantum annealers – is in optimization. In logistics, that could mean optimizing complex delivery routes; in finance, it could mean optimizing the management and performance of investment portfolios. That opportunity alone would explain the involvement of UK bank RBS and German financial services group Allianz in a recent venture funding round at 1QBit led by global ICT company Fujitsu.
Fursman is not expecting a huge avalanche of applications quite yet. “We are not at a stage today where we’re seeing tons and tons of applications that are just blowing away classical machines. So the question is, why should I, as an IT leader, be paying attention?”
He argues that CIOs in many industries need to understand where quantum computers — and machines such as digital annealers that are pathfinders to that future — will excel. If the scaling of qubits continues as it has in recent years, there will only be a fleeting point when the exponential curves of Moore’s law and quantum will cross, he says. “But once they cross over, there’s never going to be another time when we expect that classical machines will be the way to solve problems [such as computational optimisation],” says Fursman.
He continues: “It’s exciting because even though the problems that people are working on with these quantum devices are not yet industrially relevant, just by having a computer where for the first time we can do something that no amount of simulation can emulate on a classical system means that we are in this new uncharted realm.”
Today, the early experimentation may be focused on running problems that have been crafted specifically for quantum computers, he says. But the scope will grow and become progressively relevant, leading to “an explosion of applications that can start leveraging a resource that’s just not available through classical computing,” he says.
Despite all the excitement, Fursman is not expecting classical computers to disappear from the scene any time soon. “With traditional computers, there are a lot of cool advances, such as the use of new advanced materials like graphene, that may end up saving or even accelerating Moore’s law,” he says. Yet that may not be enough to satisfy the world’s insatiable appetite for computer power.
“Supercomputers today are able to simulate a quantum machine of around 50 qubits, but there are problems that we’ll need 10,000 qubits to solve. We can’t wait around for thousands of cycles of Moore’s law so we can run that in simulation on a classical machine. That will require a quantum computer. And what we are seeing now is quantum technology evolved and scaling past anything that we’d know how to simulate with a classical machine,” Fursman says.
In fact, one curve is crossing the other. “The exponential scaling we’re seeing for quantum computers seems beyond that of Moore’s law,” he observes. “It’s actually difficult to know where it will end up and what the current limits are for any particular method of building and connecting qubits.”
The two computer models will complement each other for the foreseeable future, Fursman predicts. “We’ll continue to have classical computers, but their capabilities will be augmented by quantum co-processors, allowing us to work at this different level and take advantage of the different strengths and weaknesses of both. It’s always tempting to ask when this particular quantum computer will be faster than this classical computer, but the truth is that classical computers will be necessary for the foreseeable future. We should think about these quantum computers as being co-processors, more like a PC’s graphical processing unit rather than a replacement for your current CPU.”
Hacked by the future
Alongside the huge opportunities and disruptive potential that will accompany the arrival of quantum computing, there is another big issue that CIOs should be considering now, according to Fursman and many others in the field: current approaches to encryption.
Back in 1994, MIT mathematician Peter Shor developed a quantum algorithm capable of cracking all of today’s encryption methods that are based on factoring prime numbers. Before a quantum computer that can run Shor’s algorithm arrives, organizations will need to have quantum-resilient encryption in place.
But there is an even more immediate – and troubling – consideration. Organizations need to recognize that “they are already being hacked by the future,” says Fursman.
“We’ve built traditional encryption methods to take advantage of something that classical computers are really bad at: factoring numbers. It just so happens that this is one of the things that quantum computers will be really good at. But what is scary is that quantum devices will not only be able to crack classical encryption; they will be able to decrypt retrospectively, exposing older information that was meant to stay secret for years. So if someone has access to your encrypted messages today, it means that at some point they will be able to go back and decrypt all the communications you’ve been sending for years.” This factor points to the need for a parallel set of developments designed to deal with potential problems right across the IT stack, with security at the top of the list.
The technology itself might come to the rescue in the form of quantum-safe algorithms that exploit the known weaknesses of quantum computers to develop new encryption methods, and quantum key distribution, which draws on the properties of entanglement and superposition to enable two parties to produce a shared random secret key.
The security discussion emphasizes that the time to embrace this momentous change is now, says Fursman. “IT and business leaders need to understand what these machines are good at and the impact they might have on their industry. The wrong time to start paying attention is at that crossover point when, all of a sudden, a quantum computer is the best way to do something valuable and you don’t understand it at all.”
• Photography: Jens Kristian Balle
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