Quantum computers likened to ‘digital atomic bomb’

quantum computing cyber security

The RSA Conference closed last week with delegates fretting about all manner of cyber security issues, not least of which is the possibly-underestimated advances in quantum computing. 

Held in San Francisco annually, RSA is “where the world talks security”, according to its organisers.

And since most of the attendees are involved in the cyber security business, it is probably no surprise that more than one of the speakers tried to terrify their audiences with warnings of humanity’s impending doom at the keyboards of computers.

One particularly paranoid speaker – who, to be fair to him, is paid to be paranoid – was Michael McCaul, the Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security in the US.

Silicon.co.uk reports that McCaul spoke of the ongoing cyber war with largely unknown forces online, and said America was losing the digital battle. “We are in the fight of our digital lives and we are not winning.”

He listed five reasons why the US was not winning, and they were:

  1. scale – there are too many cyber attacks and they are too big for governments to adequately deal with them all;
  2. speed – the development of hacking tools outpaces the development of tools to defend against them;
  3. lack of information sharing – the reluctance of of governments and organisations to share methods and techniques to fight cyber crime:
  4. it’s difficult – mainly because it’s new and there is no reference manual for cyber crimes that happen because they’ve often never happened before; and
  5. the conflict between digital and national security – one consequence of this is that the more secure a network, the more likely it is that cyber criminals may go undetected within that network.
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McCaul also said the quantum computing era would pave the way for a “digital atomic bomb”, which he believes is not far away.

“The first hostile country to gain such capability will pose a serious threat to the rest of the world,” he said.

Quantum computers use a different system for calculation. Instead of being based on a binary system, wherein a transistor can be either on or off, a “qubit” transistor – if one can call it that – can be on, off, or many points in-between, all at the same time or at various times, which means it can theoretically make a larger number of calculations much faster than a binary-based computer.

Quantum computers are already claimed to be 100 million times faster than today’s conventional computers, but they’re a long way from becoming ubiquitous.

D-Wave recently launched its new 2000Q computer, and wants buyers to pony up $15 million for each one.

CEO Vern Bernwell claims D-Wave is “the only company selling quantum computers”, but there are a couple of criticisms of that comment: first, some people claim the D-Wave is not true quantum computing, a technically difficult argument to prove and understand; and second, there are a number of other companies developing quantum computing technology, although probably not complete machines yet.

Rigetti Computing, for example, says it is “on a mission to build the world’s most powerful computer”, meaning a quantum computer.

As its starting point, of course, is the plan to develop a “fault-tolerant gate-based solid state quantum processor”, which the company says is “highly scalable and low cost, capable of reaching the large memory sizes needed to run real-world quantum algorithms”.

Another company developing quantum computing hardware is Optalsys, which Nanalyze reports as developing optical processors that will outperform traditional silicon technologies for a fraction of the price and power consumption. And because optical systems use light instead of electricity, Nanalyze says the technology is “a promising approach to quantum computation”.

Numerous other companies are developing software for quantum computing and the whole sector is likely to develop at an increasingly alarming rate, although alarmed is probably a permanent state of mind in cyber security.

One last project worth mentioning in this context is the one started by Henry Weller, an investor based in Maryland, US.

The Washington Post reports that Weller died suddenly in his sleep in November, but not before he had started IonQ, a startup which claims it could be offering quantum capabilities to tech giants within a few years.