Quantum Computers: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
‘Just as with threats from climate change, the unfixed time horizon of this potential quantum nightmare makes it easier to drag our feet instead of running toward a solution.’ (source)
When sitting down to write this, I thought to myself: Who will be reading this and what brought them here? Are you working in the encryption space and reading up on where the industry is headed? Are you a partner success manager looking to find post-quantum solutions for your existing clients? Maybe you have a wallet full of bitcoin and pride yourself on being an educated consumer. Either way, we at Qrypt applaud you for taking the time to learn a little more about quantum computers and how their arrival will affect you. Many of the articles out there are either very technical or seem a little too doomsday to be taken seriously. To give us all a little (plain language) context, I’d like to talk about the ‘good’ along with the ‘bad and ‘ugly’. We in the post-quantum industry sometimes forget that, though we understand the concept and all that it implies; Quantum anything isn’t exactly common knowledge.
It is still a mystery to the experts, after all…
Let me begin by clarifying; I am not a physicist. I am not a developer. I am not even a software engineer. That’s kind of the point though. This is for those like me. Those who are completely fascinated (and love their job, in my case) but not an expert. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s establish an understanding of how quantum computers process information differently than the traditional ones we all use today. Computers, as we know them today, use linear processing. Meaning you can only ask it to determine the answer to one question at a time. Let’s say you’re trying to solve a long maze. If you’re a traditional computer, you can try one route at a time… until you hit a wall and then must start again at the beginning.
Quantum computers (QC) can perform parallel processing. They can try every route at the same time. Google’s quantum computer needed 200 seconds to complete a task that would have taken a traditional machine . If a hacker with a traditional computer wanted to figure out the key to your encrypted data, they would start guessing large prime numbers and then iterate from there repeatedly until they either get lucky or run out of time. That’s the foundation of current encryption. It’s not that it’s unbreakable. It’s just that it would take an extremely long time to figure out the key without getting lucky.
Ok, now let’s talk about how this type of information processing has potential for ‘good’. Some of the positive use cases for QCs involve being able to test how particles interact with each other to discover new materials – without the risk of a potentially dangerous reaction or even having to create stable conditions. It’s called the
[We] could model the behavior of atoms and particles at unusual conditions (for example, very high energies that can be only created in the Large Hadron Collider) without actually creating those unusual conditions. Or we could model chemical reactions—because interactions among atoms in a chemical reaction is a quantum process. ()
Another is using Grover’s quantum search algorithm to find the location of a random value in unstructured and unsorted data. A classical algorithm is limited to using a budget of a million operations to search a million possibilities (again having to try one at a time). Grover’s algorithm, on the other hand, can use those million operations to search through hundreds of billions of possibilities. (If you’d like to learn how you can watchvideo from the University of Chicago).
Using these two algorithms, it’s entirely possible that quantum computers could find new medicines (including vaccines) and other new materials with properties that we can’t even imagine yet. My imagination takes me to: new types of combustion (clean energy, perhaps?), a plastic alternative that won’t ruin our planet would be nice, and(you know… the important things).
All that to say: quantum computers could unlock some new and pretty cool abilities. It’s not all doom and gloom. There are plenty of fantastic potential discoveries on the horizon. It’s just that the potential for harm has had more attention so far. And for good reason.
Check back in a few weeks to read more about ‘the bad’ and the ‘ugly,’ in Part 2 of this blog series.