We are alive in exciting times. Quantum computers are getting ready to overtake traditional, “classical”, binary computers, and when they do our lives will never be the same.
Everything in the universe works according to elementary physics laws known as quantum mechanics. Quantum makes our sun shine, the water blue, dogs slobber, rocks solid, gelatin giggle, and our body and mind active and ever changing. We are all made up of quantum particles (such as electrons) and the things they do follow quantum physics laws. This article is too short to get into the many seemingly strange quantum laws that we have proven exists (such as superposition and entanglement), but just know that as we further our understanding that it will bring us many wonderous future inventions. We are also developing quantum computers which compute using those same quantum properties.
Quantum computers will bring us far more accuracy in modelling nearly everything. This will give us better medicines, better weather predictions, longer-lasting batteries, more accuracy in finding fossil fuels as well as better solar panels, better autonomous driving car traffic management (e.g. no more stop signs or traffic lights), and better encryption. "But as with all computer advancements, it also means getting things not all people support, such as better weapons of war, and the ability to break much of the traditional encryption that makes the world work."
The first quantum computer, using quantum bits (known as qubits) was created in 1998. Since then there has been an international race to get to create one which is good enough to do things which conventional computers cannot do. That moment in time, when it happens, is known as quantum supremacy. And we are either already there or very close.
In September 2019, Google released (and quickly retracted) a research paper announcing that it had the first quantum computer to reach quantum supremacy. In particular, Google’s quantum computer created many “certifiably random” numbers and did so in 200 seconds. What it did would have taken 10,000 years on the world’s most powerful supercomputer. Wow!
With that said, what Google’s computer did was something that quantum computers can do inherently better than traditional computers, and many observers saw it as somewhat of a cheat to claim that Google had reached quantum supremacy first. They saw the quantum leap that Google was claiming to be almost a casino odds trick, with the result guaranteed to favor the house.
Many other observers, including myself, agree that what Google did was a bit self-serving and not applicable to many real world applications, but it was humanity reaching quantum supremacy. There was a before and now an after. There was a time when no computer could beat a Chess champion. Many tried before IBM’s Deep Blue did so in 1996. No computer had beat a Jeopardy game show champion until IBM’s Watson did in 2011. There are before and after events, and this is one of those.
Regardless of whether the world’s experts agree on whether Google’s recent feat was an extraordinary event, it means we either have reached quantum supremacy or are very close. Several other companies and at least one other country, China, are claiming that they are close to quantum supremacy. So, if Google’s announcement doesn’t convince everyone, someone’s quantum supremacy announcement in the next few months probably will.
And this is a big deal. Because quantum supremacy has truly been in the works for at least 50 years. It is a chance to understand at the small, fundamental level, how everything in nature really works. We cannot imagine today what are all the wonderful things quantum computing will bring us. That would be like asking people in the 1930’s sitting around a radio console listening to radio broadcasts to imagine the Internet and cell phones. Same thing is happening right now. Quantum properties and laws are so incredible and so essential to what comes next that finally obtaining quantum supremacy, if only currently in a very limited way, is still earth-shattering. And the more you understand about quantum mechanics and computing and what it means to our future world, the more exciting is the announcement.
One of the big examples of what quantum computing will bring is the ability to break and weaken a majority of today’s traditional encryption (including HTTPS, TLS, RSA, Diffie-Hellman, WiFi protections, smartcards, FIDO authentication devices, and more). After quantum supremacy is reached, the next big quantum leap is the day when a quantum computer becomes so powerful that it can render today’s cryptographic protections far weaker. In many cases, the coming quantum crypto break will utterly make the protections we enjoy today disappear in an instant.
Luckily, we have two huge things going for us. One, the quantum crypto break is probably going to occur at least a few years after quantum supremacy. Assuming some government hasn’t achieved quantum supremacy years ago and didn’t tell us, we still have time to migrate to quantum-resistant cryptography. Do we have quantum-resistant cryptography? Yes, lots of it. The best candidates to replace today’s quantum-susceptible cryptography are being reviewed and within the next few years various government standards bodies around the world will announce what the new quantum-resistant standards are. The United States National Institute of Standards and Technology have said they will select the new standards (at lease one for asymmetric encryption and one for digital signatures) by 2022 to 2024, and move faster if it seems as if someone is getting ready to accomplish the quantum crypto break sooner than expected. Once the standards are selected, we can all move your devices and software to the new standards. It won’t be easy. This will be a massive global migration orders of magnitude harder than the last one (i.e. the Year 2000 dilemma) we faced. But we faced that one and upgraded most of the vulnerable computer systems before the worst damage would happen. We can do it again.
Second, what the quantum computing world takes away it also gives us. Cryptographic algorithms based on quantum-properties will give us significantly harder to hack cryptography. Quantum algorithms are harder to eavesdrop on than traditional encryption. Quantum scientists will tell you that they are impossible to hack. That’s only in a laboratory. Don’t believe the theoretical promises. But they will be harder to hack and compromise, and that’s a good thing.
If you haven’t heard of quantum supremacy before and what that means for our world, consider this article your wake up call. Start paying attention to the growing number of news headlines that have the word quantum in it. Because one day soon it’s going to impact your life. Heck, it may already be impacting your life today and you just don’t know about it.
Roger A. Grimes, knowbe4