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Quantum Computers Spur Race To Break And Save Encryption (#GotBitcoin?)

Quantum computers will be able to break current encryption within a decade. That has security experts scrambling to come up with new ways to protect data before it is too late. Quantum Computers Spur Race To Save Encryption (#GotBitcoin?)

National-security experts and politicians have a message for America: A significant portion of the sensitive data we have today is going to be cracked by foreign powers in the not-too-distant future, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

But we might be able to stop them from decoding the data we produce down the road, if we act quickly enough.

The danger comes from an ultrapowerful and still-experimental technology called quantum computing—which leverages the quantum properties of atoms to quickly compute problems that no conventional computer could crack. China has already launched the equivalent of a Manhattan Project in order to achieve this end, say experts, and companies like Google, Microsoft and IBM are all pushing ahead with their own efforts to create quantum computers.

Quantum computers, which are still in the very early stage, could revolutionize any number of real-world tasks, from researching new materials to picking the best route for delivery drivers. But right now, what many experts worry about is the problem of security.

“Whoever gets to true quantum computing first will be able to negate all the encryption that we’ve ever done to date,” Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, has said.

The Critical Race

This is why China and Russia are hacking every system they can get into, including banking, health care, military and intelligence, and downloading huge troves of data, added Rep. Hurd. The information is currently indecipherable to them, but could become intelligible with quantum computers.

In the future, hackers could also intercept and decrypt new data as it is produced. If we don’t act in time, it is possible that a foreign power with a sufficiently powerful quantum computer could hack into central nodes of the internet, capture the fire hose of traffic passing through them and start decoding much of what we now consider secure.

Researchers and security agencies are trying to beat foreign governments to the punch by coming up with quantum computers and new encryption methods as quickly as possible. But they face technical stumbling blocks, such as coming up with standards for researchers to use and then rolling out new measures in time. There are potential interim solutions, but some experts fear that even those can’t be implemented quickly enough, as quantum projects ramp up overseas.

Quantum computers are so different from conventional computers that, arguably, the only thing the two have in common is that they both compute. Rather than circuits and processors, the new technology uses complex physics to cram large amounts of information into a single subatomic particle.

To completely mathematically describe a caffeine molecule, for example, would require a conventional supercomputer so big that it would occupy 1/10th the volume of the Earth, says Arvind Krishna, IBM’s senior vice president of cloud and cognitive software. A quantum computer that could do the same would be the size of a coffee table.

Today’s data are encrypted using systems that can only be cracked by software that can factor very large numbers, sometimes over 300 digits. This is an extremely difficult problem for a conventional computer but a relatively trivial problem for a quantum computer.

Currently, even if someone obtained a copy of everyone’s bank record in the U.S., good cybersecurity practice means that the information is almost certainly encrypted in a way that has rendered it into incomprehensible gibberish. But once quantum computers can crack the encryption that is typically applied to data as it is transmitted and when it is at rest, all bets are off, says Dr. Krishna.

Thus, if a quantum computer of sufficient power could be built, passwords, financial transactions, emails, text messages, intellectual property, secret communiqués within and between the CIA, NSA, FBI, the rest of the federal government and all of our most important military assets—it would be as if all of it were suddenly being sent in the clear, unencrypted.

Quantum Arms Race

Computer scientists are trying to secure all the internet communications that make our everyday lives possible—from payments to email—against a new threat. It’s a race against other engineers who are creating the quantum computers that can break today’s encryption.

Experts At Work

The good news is that many of the smartest mathematicians and cybersecurity experts in the world, employed by Google, Microsoft, IBM and the federal government, as well as many other tech giants, are well aware of the problem and have been cooking up solutions for years.

They’re working on a completely different scheme of encryption, called quantum-safe encryption. This kind of encoding can be achieved by today’s computers, in about the same amount of time that current encryption requires, but it can’t be cracked by conventional or quantum computers, hence the moniker “quantum safe.”

There are dozens of proposed algorithms for quantum-safe encryption, but the most popular approach, called lattice encryption, works by encoding information in a multidimensional “lattice” of data. Picture a three-dimensional grid of dots, add another hundred or so dimensions, and you get the idea.

But before quantum-safe encryption can get everywhere that it needs to be, it must first become an agreed-upon standard, and then developers, companies and government bodies must translate it into code and insert it into countless services and systems.

A project to create standards at the National Institute of Standards and Technology began in 2016, and probably won’t be completed until around 2022, says Dustin Moody, a mathematician at the institute and the project lead for the institute’s post-quantum cryptography standardization project.

If history is any guide, rolling out this quantum-safe standard will subsequently take five to 10 years, he adds. That transition could be sped up if there were a greater sense of urgency around this problem, and that is exactly what we need, says Dr. Krishna.

“Quantum computers will crack today’s encryption within a decade,” he adds.

IBM’s researchers are working on lattice-encryption algorithms, and some of the ones they have created are under consideration by NIST, which is in the process of narrowing down a list of 26 possible quantum-safe algorithms.

It is important to note that 10 years is on the more aggressive end of predictions for when dangerous quantum computers will come online—“Q2K,” as Rep. Hurd has called it. Others think it could take 15, 20, even 30 years, says Elsa Kania, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who has interviewed dozens of experts on this topic and is a co-author of a report on the threat of quantum technologies.

In a way, it is the Y2K problem all over again, except this time it is about encryption instead of truncated dates. Of course, Y2K wasn’t the disaster everyone thought it might be, in part because we updated critical systems in time; if we can do the same in anticipation of quantum computers, things could continue humming with the only inescapable outcome being a retroactive decoding of decades-old data by foreign governments.

A December 2018 report from the National Academy of Sciences cautions that there are many unknowns about how quickly physicists and engineers will be able to achieve quantum computers powerful enough to be a threat to current encryption schemes. Some of these schemes can be made quantum safe even without complex fixes like lattice encryption, simply by doubling the length of the “key,” or the large numbers used to encipher data, a solution that would be easy to implement on current systems.

The report also allows, however, that the field of quantum-algorithm design is still in its earliest stages. It is possible that there are yet-to-be-discovered algorithms that are much more efficient than the ones that have been proposed, which could move up by years the date by which quantum computers will defeat classical encryption.

The incentive to do so is tremendous, which is why “I think it’s widely believed that any government with a good amount of resources would be actively working on this,” says Dr. Moody.

China’s government is nearing completion on construction of an 880-acre national laboratory for quantum information science and technology in Hefei, and the country’s scientists regularly set world records for the size and power of their quantum computers. China is spending tens of billions on researching quantum computing and related application in communication and sensing, says Ms. Kania, and U.S. spending is low by comparison, on the order of $1.2 billion at the federal level, through the National Quantum Initiative Act. If there is a modern-day equivalent of the Manhattan Project happening anywhere in the world in order to achieve a quantum computer, it is happening in China and not the U.S., she adds.

Yet even if Google, Microsoft, IBM, the NSA or the labs provisioned by other governments revealed tomorrow a quantum computer of sufficient power, “the transition to quantum-safe algorithms won’t happen instantaneously,” Dr. Moody says. “Even when there are urgent threats, it doesn’t happen as easily and quickly as people would like.”

Great Moments In Encryption

People have found all sorts of ways to encrypt their communications over the centuries. Here is a sampling.

Caesar’s Cipher

Romans such as Julius Caesar encrypted sensitive and personal messages with a simple cipher that shifted letters in the alphabet a certain number of places— substituting D for A and E for B, for example. It was a relatively secure encryption method at a time when few people could even read.

World War II Breakthrough

In 1943, the U.S. deployed SIGSALY, a roomsized terminal that encrypted high-level conversations between people such as Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill during World War II. SIGSALY converted their speech to a digital format, an innovation at the time, and scrambled it. The key in this system involved noise recorded onto identical records that were distributed to both parties and played on turntables at the same time, and then destroyed.

Modern Standards

In modern encryption, algorithms are used to encrypt and decrypt data, with the help of a secret key—often a randomly generated series of bits. In 1976, the Data Encryption Standard, an algorithm based on a design by IBM, became the federal standard for securing sensitive data. It has since been superseded by AES, which uses multiple, larger key sizes and is more secure

The Public Key

One weakness of DES and AES is that both parties need to have the same secret key— which means the key must be exchanged securely. RSA, introduced in 1977, was the first widely adopted encryption that uses both a public key and a private key that doesn’t have to be shared. Keys are generated by mathematical problems that current computers can’t easily crack, such as factoring the product of two large prime numbers.

Updated: 12-2-2019

Amazon Rolls Out Quantum-Computing Service

Select customers will be able to test quantum algorithms, hardware.

Amazon. com Inc.’s cloud-services division is offering select enterprise customers the ability to experiment with early-stage quantum-computing services over the cloud, following other companies racing to commercialize the emerging technology.

Amazon Web Services Inc. said the new service, Amazon Braket, is “in preview” as of Monday. The platform lets enterprise customers explore how they could benefit from quantum computers by developing and testing quantum algorithms in simulations. Clients will also have access to different early-stage quantum-computing hardware from providers including D-Wave Systems Inc., IonQ Inc. and Rigetti Computing.

“Customers are asking for ways to experiment with quantum computers and explore the technology’s potential,” Charlie Bell, a senior vice president at AWS, said in a statement.

Braket refers to “bra-ket,” a standard notation for describing quantum states. The service is expected to launch to all customers in 2020.

The tech giant joins Microsoft Corp. , Alphabet Inc. ’s Google and International Business Machines Corp. in announcing quantum-computing efforts. Microsoft and IBM are also allowing companies to experiment with quantum-computing hardware over their respective clouds. Amazon and Microsoft dominate in cloud computing. Together, the companies held 60% of the cloud market last year.

Boeing Co. said it plans to collaborate with AWS in exploring potential applications for quantum computing, including how the technology could potentially speed up materials-science research and how it could secure communications.

Amazon Web Services also said in a blog post Monday that as part of its quantum push, it is establishing the AWS Center for Quantum Computing near the California Institute of Technology campus in Pasadena, Calif., bringing together experts from the company, Caltech and other institutions. The goal is to research technology that might enable quantum computers to be mass-produced and to identify applications that are best solved on quantum computers, according to the AWS blog post.

By harnessing the properties of quantum physics, quantum computers have the potential to sort through a vast number of possibilities in nearly real time and come up with a probable solution. While traditional computers store information as either zeros or ones, quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, which represent and store information as both zeros and ones simultaneously.

No commercial-grade quantum computer has been built yet. IBM has offered customers access to early-stage quantum-computing machines over its cloud since 2016. Google in October announced a quantum-computing experiment that generated about 1 million random strings of numbers in roughly three minutes, a task the company said would have taken the world’s fastest conventional supercomputer 10,000 years—though scientists at IBM disagreed, saying the task could be handled by a traditional computer in 2½ days.

Microsoft in November unveiled cloud-based quantum-computing tools that companies can use to speed up calculations on classical computers, among other things.

Updated: 4-10-2020

Merck Venture Arm Invests in Quantum Computing Startup Seeqc

German drugmaker bets that quantum technology could speed up pharmaceutical development.

Quantum Computers Spur Race To Save Encryption (#GotBitcoin?)

Seeqc Is Building A Quantum Computing System Using A So-Called Hybrid Architecture That Combines Classical And Quantum Computing And Is Meant For Very Specific Use Cases.Above, The Chip That Goes Into The Quantum System.

Quantum computing startup Seeqc Inc. has raised more than $11 million in venture capital funding from investors including a subsidiary of German company Merck KGaA, which is interested in using the technology for materials science and pharmaceutical development.

M Ventures, the corporate venture arm of Merck, has invested $5 million in Elmsford, N.Y.-based Seeqc, betting that in several years, the startup’s technology could save Merck time and money related to simulating drugs and chemicals. The Series A is expected to close later this spring, according to a Seeqc spokesperson.

“We think this technology will change the world of simulations for us if it proves to be scalable,” said Philipp Harbach, head of in silico research at Merck.

Over the past two years, Merck has formed a quantum-computing task force of about 50 experts who are exploring use cases for a technology that could one day prove to be more powerful than traditional computers, including supercomputers.

Some experts say quantum computing could possibly be used by researchers combating the coronavirus pandemic to speed up certain calculations related to drug discovery and hospital logistics. However, neither Merck nor Seeqc have plans to use the technology for purposes related to the new coronavirus.

Instead, Merck is interested in experimenting with technology from Seeqc and other quantum computing-related vendors including Germany-based HQS Quantum Simulations to benefit materials science and drug discovery over the next several years, Mr. Harbach said.

Simulations of chemicals and pharmaceuticals, which Merck manufactures, are costly and time-consuming to complete using standard computers, even supercomputers. Validating the drugs in labs adds more time to a process that can take years. Predicting positive and negative effects of specific drugs, for example, is a computationally complex problem because it requires simulating the structure of molecules and their chemical features.

Quantum computing could potentially speed up drug and materials development, therefore cutting costs, Mr. Harbach said, because the technology has the potential to sort through a vast number of possibilities nearly instantaneously and come up with a probable solution. “If you can mimic a real-life experiment on a quantum computer, that could basically make things much faster in development, and of course much cheaper,” Mr. Harbach said.

By 2023, about 20% of organizations, including businesses and governments, are expected to budget for quantum-computing projects, up from less than 1% in 2018, according to research and advisory firm Gartner Inc.

Founded in 2019, Seeqc is a spinout of Elmsford-based Hypres Inc., a developer of superconductor electronics. Aside from M Ventures, the startup’s other investors include BlueYard Capital, Cambium, New Lab and the Partnership Fund for New York City.

There is currently no commercial-grade quantum computer on the market, but many companies are building quantum-computing systems using different technologies and architectures. They face engineering challenges that are making the road to market longer than planned.

Seeqc is building a quantum computing system using a so-called hybrid architecture that combines classical and quantum computing and is meant for very specific use cases, said John Levy, Seeqc’s co-chief executive.

One of the benefits of the system is that it could reduce decoherence and therefore run an algorithm more reliably, Mr. Levy said. Decoherence refers to changes in temperature, noise, frequency and motion that can jostle quantum particles and hurt the accuracy of a calculation or prevent it from being completed.

The company is currently raising more money from investors and will use the funding to build a “toy-level” version of its quantum computer. “The idea is to deliver, within a three-year time horizon, an architecture that’s built around a real-world problem and has the potential to scale,” Mr. Levy said.

Updated: 5-19-2020

Microsoft’s Quantum-Computing Services Attract New Customers

Toyota Tsusho is using Azure Quantum for traffic optimization and other mobility-service experiments.

Japanese companies Toyota Tsusho Corp. and Jij Inc. are using Microsoft Corp. quantum computing services over the Azure cloud to experiment with ways to solve problems related to traffic congestion.

Microsoft, at its virtual developer conference this week, is expected to announce recent partnerships such as the one with Toyota Tsusho as part of an update on its quantum computing services division, Azure Quantum.

Toyota Tsusho’s goal over the next several years is to see how quantum computers could help speed up solutions to problems related to mobility services, including route planning, fleet management and traffic jam analysis, said Toru Awashima, project general manager at the affiliate of Toyota Motor Corp.

Toyota Tsusho, which counts the car maker as its top shareholder, has been working with other quantum computing companies including D-Wave Systems Inc. since 2016 to determine how the technology could eventually solve mobility problems.

“We need to find a very fast and good solution for those kinds of complex optimization problems,” Mr. Awashima said. “Quantum computing is one of the promising candidates for that.”

To that end, Toyota Tsusho and quantum computing firm Jij conducted a traffic optimization experiment ending this month using Azure Quantum. The companies found that quantum algorithms running on traditional computers could reduce waiting time for drivers stopped at red lights by about 20%, saving an average of about 5 seconds for each car, according to Jij.

Jij, founded in late 2018 by theoretical physicists, helps business customers such as Toyota Tsusho experiment with quantum computing services from vendors including Microsoft.

By harnessing quantum physics, quantum computers have the potential to sort through a vast number of possibilities in nearly real time and come up with a probable solution.

While traditional computers store information as either zeros or ones, quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, which represent and store information as both zeros and ones simultaneously. A commercial-grade quantum computer hasn’t been built yet.

Microsoft announced its foray into quantum computing services aimed at software developers last November. The tech giant joins Alphabet Inc.’s Google and International Business Machines Corp. in a race to commercialize the emerging technology.

Azure Quantum’s competitive advantage lies in preparing developers for commercial-grade quantum computers, said Matthew Brisse, an analyst at research firm Gartner Inc.

“This is truly their leg up,” said Mr. Brisse, research vice president of infrastructure strategies at Gartner. Developers capable of using commercial-grade quantum computers when they launch in the next few years will be in high demand, and businesses are finding that they should start preparing now, Mr. Brisse said.

Companies in the financial services, automotive and pharmaceutical sectors have already started experimenting with quantum computing.

Azure Quantum provides developers with an online platform to develop algorithms and applications for quantum computers without having to rewrite their code when hardware and algorithms get more advanced. Developers can also experiment with quantum algorithms on traditional machines, as the Toyota Tsusho project did, and customers also have access to early-stage quantum-computing hardware from other vendors.

Azure Quantum is currently available to a select number of undisclosed customers, said Julie Love, principal group program manager at Microsoft Quantum Systems. She didn’t say whether any of the customers were paying for its services, however the services are expected to be available to all Azure cloud customers later this year.

Microsoft has eight quantum computing labs around the world, including one at its headquarters in Redmond, Wash., which has 29 open positions on its website. The company is also developing its own quantum computer that relies on topology, a branch of mathematics that studies geometric objects that experience physical changes, but it isn’t accessible to the company’s clients.

Microsoft says the topological approach can help a quantum computer run algorithms more reliably, with fewer risks of temperature or noise hurting the accuracy of a calculation or preventing it from being completed.

Updated: 11-18-2020

Post-Quantum’s Algorithm Is Finalist In NIST’s Post-Quantum Cryptography Competition

UK deep tech start-up Post-Quantum is the only remaining candidate in the ‘code-based’ category

Rapid advances mean a sufficiently developed quantum computer will soon break today’s public-key cryptography, placing virtually all the world’s data at risk. Combined with the threat of nation states such as China and Russia harvesting data today, for decryption in the future, the need to move the world to modern ‘quantum-safe’ public key cryptography has never been more urgent.

That’s why the National Institute for Science and Technology’s (NIST) global competition to identify the strongest cryptographic algorithms that can withstand attack by quantum computers has been running for four years already, with the objective of creating a new global standard by 2022.

Today, UK deep tech start-up Post-Quantum announces it has merged its own NIST submission, known as ‘NTS-KEM’, with the submission led by Professor Daniel Bernstein. The joint candidate, known as ‘Classic McEliece’, has been selected as one of seven ‘finalists’ in NIST’s third round selection process for public-key cryptography and key establishment. Selection follows a gruelling multi-year period where the world’s preeminent cryptographers and hackers have been attempting to crack the algorithm, without success.

NIST’s post-quantum standard is necessary because it has been shown that quantum computers can easily factorise large numbers and it is now a matter of time before today’s public-key cryptography standards (RSA and Elliptic Curve) are broken. These standards currently protect virtually all the world’s data both at rest and in transit across the internet, as well as crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin.

All technical products (browsers, applications, email and communication protocols) will need to transition to NIST’s new post-quantum encryption standard as it becomes available from 2022. Post-Quantum is launching its own range of quantum-safe products having recently unveiled its biometric identity authentication service ‘Nomidio’.

Importantly, Classic McEliece is the only finalist within the ‘code-based’ category of the competition, which is significant given NIST intends for the final standard to include a range of cryptographic techniques, widely expected to include code-based. Classic McEliece is ultra-secure whilst offering enhanced performance that even outperforms today’s standards.

Andersen Cheng, CEO and Co-Founder at Post-Quantum commented: “We are pleased to have combined our cryptographic innovations with those of Professor Daniel Bernstein’s team to create a single NIST submission. Dan is one of the top cryptographers in the world and together with Professor Kenny Paterson from ETH Zurich, Professors Martin Albrecht and Carlos Cid from Royal Holloway University of London, we are confident our joint efforts will ensure Classic McEliece remains a tour de force for many years to come.

He Continued: “The entire world needs to upgrade its encryption and we last did that in 1978, when RSA came in. The stakes couldn’t be higher with record levels of cyber-attack and heightened nation state activity – if China or Russia is the first to crack RSA then cyber Armageddon will begin.”

“This isn’t an academic exercise for us, we are already several years down the commercialisation path with real-world quantum-safe products for identity authentication and VPN. If you work for an organisation with intellectual property or critical data with a long shelf life, and you’re working from home during lockdown, you should already be using a quantum-safe VPN.” Added Cheng.

Post-Quantum’s Classic McEliece algorithm deliberately introduces errors into the encryption process and the outputs are ‘never the same’, which in effect means quantum computers have ‘nowhere to start’ when trying to brute-force break the encryption.

This work was pioneered by Post-Quantum Co-Founder Professor Martin Tomlinson of Plymouth University whose background in correcting errors in satellite communications (e.g. removing pixilation from satellite TV) has been transferred into the field of cryptography. Also essential to Post-Quantum’s algorithm is third Co-Founder and CTO, CJ Tjhai, a former student of Professor Tomlinson and a specialist in optimising and creating commercially robust software for real world implementations.

“We have already launched our quantum-ready identity solutions under the ‘Nomidio’ brand for partners and clients such as Amazon, Avaya and Hitachi. We are also bringing to market a quantum-safe Virtual Private Network (VPN) that companies can buy off-the-shelf to ensure their data crossing the internet is protected from quantum attack. The great risk is that adversaries may steal data today and then, in years to come, use a quantum machine to decrypt it.” Added Tjhai. “Whichever way NIST formalises the eventual standard, our products are engineered for ‘crypto agility’, so we can simply drop the NIST finalist algorithms in.”

NIST’s Post-Quantum Cryptography competition has already been running for almost four years and the original 82 submissions, including multiple submissions from Microsoft, IBM and Intel, have now been whittled down to the seven ‘finalists’, deemed to be widely applicable algorithms that will be ‘ready to go’ after the final selection round. Eight ‘alternate’ algorithms are also still being assessed that may need more time to mature or are tailored for more specific applications.

After this final round concludes NIST expects to standardise one or two algorithms for Encryption and Key Establishment, and another for Digital Signatures.

* Public-key Encryption: an encryption scheme based on widely distributed public-keys and private keys known only to the owner. In such a system, any person can encrypt a message using the receiver’s public key, but that encrypted message can only be decrypted with the receiver’s private key.

* Key Establishment: the process of securely providing encryption keys to two parties that wish to encrypt and decrypt messages exchanged between one another.

* Digital Signatures: a technique for verifying the authenticity of digital messages helping a receiver to be sure the message originated from a specific sender.

Updated: 1-31-2021

A Desktop Quantum Computer For Just $5,000

A cheap, portable quantum computer, aimed at schools and colleges will be launched later this year.

A Chinese start-up has unveiled plans to sell a desktop quantum computer costing less than $5,000. The new portable device is one of a range called SpinQ, aimed at schools and colleges. It is made by the Shenzhen SpinQ Technology, based in Shenzhen, China.

This is not the company’s first quantum computer. Last year, it started selling a desktop quantum computer for around $50,000. The desk in question would need to be sturdy given that the device weighs a hefty 55kg (121 lbs)—about the weight of a small adult.

But the new machine will be simpler, more portable and cheaper. “This simplified version is expected to be released in the fourth quarter of 2021, such that it can be more affordable for most K-12 schools around the world,” say the team behind the device.

The price of the machine is in stark contrast to other quantum computers supplied by companies such as D-Wave, which cost in the region of $10 million and can process more than 50 qubits.

By contrast, the SpinQ machine is much less powerful, able to process just 2 qubits, and relies on an entirely different technology called nuclear magnetic resonance. This works by trapping specially selected molecules in a powerful magnetic field and then zapping them with radio frequency pulses to manipulate the spins of the atoms they contain.

After each set of radio pulses, the atoms relax and emit their own radio frequency signals, which reveal their new state. In this way, it is possible to flip the spin of atoms—equivalent to changing a 0 into 1 – and make the spins of neighboring atoms interact, which can simulate mathematical operations, and finally to record the result.

The compound at the heart of the SpinQ machine is dimethylphosphite, a tetrahedral molecule consisting of one phosphorous atom, one hydrogen atom, an oxygen and two CH3O groups. This takes the form of colorless liquid at room temperature.

Dimethylphosphite is ideal because the phosphorous and hydrogen atoms are bonded to each other and close enough to interact while also capable of being manipulated independently.

To ensure that the radio signals from the hydrogen and phosphorus atoms are strong enough to pick up, a huge number of molecules must be used, about 10^15 of them. That requires a few drops of liquid, which sit in a small vial in the middle of the powerful magnetic field.

The technique is well understood and has long been used to make medical images of the body. Indeed, the first quantum computers built in the 1990s used exactly the same approach.

Superconducting Magnets

Back then, this approach was expensive because magnetic fields strong enough to do the job could only be created by powerful superconducting magnets. These must be cooled to the temperature of liquid helium, a difficult task requiring expensive, bulky equipment.

But the SpinQ team use permanent magnets instead. These can now produce fields of up to a Tesla in strength, tens of thousands of times stronger than the Earth’s field.

For quantum computing, the field must also be highly regular. So the team employs a technique called shimming that generates another magnetic field capable of cancelling out any irregularities in the stronger field. The result is a hugely powerful, regular magnetic field.

And that’s it. The machine just needs to be connected to an ordinary computer with a software package capable of controlling it.

Although it processes only 2 qubits, the SpinQ device is capable of a number of quintessential quantum calculations. For example, it can implement a version of Grover’s algorithm, which can search through a database more quickly than a classical algorithm.

With only 2 qubits, none of these algorithms will be any more powerful than is possible with a conventional computer. Indeed, they don’t come close. But the point is to demonstrate quantum computation and allow students to try it themselves.

The SpinQ team say they have shipped their earlier design—called SpinQ Gemini — to institutions in Canada, Taiwan and China. But at $50,000 a piece, these places need to be well resourced.

Which is why the company is launching the cheaper version later this year based on the same platform. It is also working on a more powerful device that can process 3 or 4 qubits.

However, these devices will never match the power of the quantum computers that Google, IBM, Microsoft and others are toying with. One of the drawbacks of quantum computation based on nuclear magnetic resonance is that the machines cannot handle more than a dozen or so qubits. Indeed, there is some debate over whether these kinds of calculations are truly quantum at all.

But the makers of SpinQ devices are unlikely to be phased by this. Their goal is education. “We believe that low-cost portable quantum computer products will facilitate hands-on experience for teaching quantum computing at all levels,” they say.

Updated: 2-1-2021

Quantum Computing Scientists Call For Ethical Guidelines

Among the potential dangers of misuse: harmful manipulation of the human genome

A group of quantum computing experts, including scientists and company executives, want to raise ethical concerns about the technology’s potential to create new materials for war and accelerate human DNA manipulation.

Six experts are featured in a 13-minute video titled “Quantum Ethics: A Call to Action,” which goes live Monday on YouTube and the Quantum Daily, a free online source for quantum computing news.

The goal of the video, which features a former quantum chief at Alphabet Inc.’s Google, is to kick off conversations with other quantum computing industry leaders about the ethical implications of the technology.

“Whenever we have a new computing power, there is potential for benefit of humanity, [but] you can imagine ways that it would also hurt people,” said John Martinis, professor of physics at University of California, Santa Barbara, and former chief scientist of quantum hardware at Google.

While quantum computers are still in their early stages, it is important to begin discussing the potential benefits and drawbacks of the technology and find a way to balance the two, he said. “You want to think ahead,” he said.

Dr. Martinis and others such as Ilana Wisby, chief executive of quantum computing company Oxford Quantum Circuits, and Nick Farina, founder and chief executive of quantum computing hardware company EeroQ Corp., are also featured in the short video.

Quantum computers have the potential to dramatically speed up drug and materials discovery as well as complex calculations related to finance. Companies such as Visa Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., Roche Holding AG and Volkswagen AG are all experimenting with early-stage quantum technology.

By harnessing quantum physics, quantum computers have the potential to sort through a vast number of possibilities in nearly real time and come up with a probable solution. While traditional computers store information as either zeros or ones, quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, which represent and store information as both zeros and ones simultaneously.

A commercial-grade quantum computer hasn’t been built yet, but startups and tech giants including Google, Microsoft Corp. and International Business Machines Corp. are racing to commercialize the technology.

“This is the equivalent of a whole new industrial revolution,” said llyas Khan, founder and chief executive of Cambridge Quantum Computing, which develops cybersecurity products, software and algorithms that companies can use when experimenting on early-stage quantum computers.

That power, in the wrong hands, could also be used to create harmful materials or to manipulate the human genome in a harmful way, he said. “We ought to have those conversations today,” said Mr. Khan, who was also featured in the video.

Though it will likely take years to come up with ethical guidelines for quantum computers, Mr. Khan said he is beginning to speak with government officials in the U.K. about those ethical issues now.

There may have been certain ethical controls on technologies such as social media and data privacy if conversations about ethics were had in the mid-1990s, he said. “We were asleep at the wheel,” said Mr. Khan.

Experts are already bracing themselves for some of quantum computing’s potential challenges. For example, financial services companies are preparing for a time when a powerful quantum computer could break some of the most widespread cryptographic methods currently used in cybersecurity.

Hundreds of the world’s top cryptographers are involved in a competition to develop new encryption standards for the U.S. that would guard against both classical and quantum-computing cyberattacks.

Matt Swayne, an editor at the Quantum Daily who co-produced the short video along with Publisher and co-founder Evan Kubes, said he aims to create an advisory group of experts to discuss the topic of quantum ethics. The video is the first step, he said. “We want to raise concern but we don’t want to cause fear,” he said.

Updated: 2-7-2021

Quantum Computer Company Discovers Weakness That Reveals Encryption Hash Function

Security experts have long worried that advances in quantum computing could eventually make it easier to break encryption that protects the privacy of people’s data. That’s because these sophisticated machines can perform calculations at speeds impossible for conventional computers, potentially enabling them to crack codes previously thought indecipherable.

Now, a Swiss technology company says it has made a breakthrough by using quantum computers to uncover vulnerabilities in commonly used encryption. The company believes it’s found a security weakness that could jeopardize the confidentiality of the world’s internet data, banking transactions and emails.

Terra Quantum AG said its discovery “upends the current understanding of what constitutes unbreakable” encryption and could have major implications for the world’s leading technology companies, such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Microsoft Corp., and International Business Machines Corp.

But some other security experts said they aren’t nearly ready to declare a major breakthrough, at least not until the company publishes the full details of its research. “If true, this would be a huge result,” said Brent Waters, a computer science professor who specializes in cryptography at the University of Texas at Austin. “It seems somewhat unlikely on the face of it. However, it is pretty hard for experts to weigh in on something without it being published.”

IBM spokesman Christopher Sciacca said his company has known the risks for 20 years and is working on its own solutions to address the issue of post-quantum security. “This is why the National Institute of Science & Technology (NIST) has been hosting a challenge to develop a new quantum safe crypto standard,” he said in an email. “IBM has several proposals for this new standard in the final round, which is expected in a few years.”

Brian LaMacchia, distinguished engineer at Microsoft, said company cryptographers are collaborating with the global cryptographic community to prepare customers and data centers for a quantum future. “Preparing for security in a post-quantum world is important not only to protect and secure data in the future but also to ensure that future quantum computers are not a threat to the long-term security of today’s information.”

Google didn’t reply to a message seeking comment.

Terra Quantum AG has a team of about 80 quantum physicists, cryptographers and mathematicians, who are based in Switzerland, Russia, Finland and the U.S.

“What currently is viewed as being post-quantum secure is not post-quantum secure,” said Markus Pflitsch, chief executive officer and founder of Terra Quantum, in an interview. “We can show and have proven that it isn’t secure and is hackable.”

Pflitsch founded the company in 2019. He’s a former finance executive who began his career as a research scientist at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Terra Quantum’s research is led by two chief technology officers – Gordey Lesovik, head of the Laboratory of Quantum Information Technology at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and Valerii Vinokur, a Chicago-based physicist who in 2020 won the Fritz London Memorial Prize for his work in condensed matter and theoretical physics.

The company said that its research found vulnerabilities that affect symmetric encryption ciphers, including the Advanced Encryption Standard, or AES, which is widely used to secure data transmitted over the internet and to encrypt files. Using a method known as quantum annealing, the company said its research found that even the strongest versions of AES encryption may be decipherable by quantum computers that could be available in a few years from now.

Vinokur said in an interview that Terra Quantum’s team made the discovery after figuring out how to invert what’s called a “hash function,” a mathematical algorithm that converts a message or portion of data into a numerical value. The research will show that “what was once believed unbreakable doesn’t exist anymore,” Vinokur said, adding that the finding “means a thousand other ways can be found soon.”

The company, which is backed by the Zurich-based venture capital firm Lakestar LP, has developed a new encryption protocol that it says can’t be broken by quantum computers. Vinokur said the new protocol utilizes a method known as quantum key distribution.

Terra Quantum is currently pursuing a patent for the new protocol. But the company will make it available for free, according to Pflitsch. “We will open up access to our protocol to make sure we have a safe and secure environment,” said Pflitsch. “We feel obliged to share it with the world and the quantum community.”

The U.S. government, like China, has made research in quantum computing research an economic and national security priority, saying that the world is on the cusp of what it calls a new “quantum revolution.” In addition, technology companies including Google, Microsoft, and IBM have made large investments in quantum computing in recent years.

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