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.
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.
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.
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.
Merck Venture Arm Invests in Quantum Computing Startup Seeqc
German drugmaker bets that quantum technology could speed up pharmaceutical development.
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.
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.
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