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GCN : June and July 2016
THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF STANDARDS AND TECH- NOLOGY is getting nervous about quantum comput- ers and what they might mean for the cryptographic systems that protect public and private data. Once seen as far off — if not borderline science fic- tion — quantum computing now seems a much closer reality. IBM recently announced that students, researchers and “general science enthu- siasts” can use a cloud- based, 5-qubit quantum computing platform called the IBM Quantum Experi- ence to see how algorithms and various experiments work with a quantum processor. Company officials see their approach as a first draft of how a universal quantum computer, which could be programmed to perform any computing task, will eventually be built. IBM said it envisions a medium-sized quantum processor of 50 to 100 qubits being possible in the next decade. Putting early access to a quantum processor in the hands of anybody with a desktop, laptop or even mo- bile device represents, IBM said grandly, “the birth of quantum cloud computing.” There’s been a raft of re- cent announcements about quantum computing. Intel, for example, said it would put as much as $50 million over the next 10 years into QuTech, a research unit at the Delft University of Tech- nology in the Netherlands, to explore ways to combine the university’s quantum computing work with Intel’s expertise in making chips. NASA has hooked up with Canadian quantum computing company D- Wave to see how its systems can be used to solve diffi- cult problems and advance artificial intelligence and machine learning. Google is a partner in the venture. No one is saying quan- tum computing will be a major industry any time soon. However, from NIST’s perspective, that 10-year horizon is still frighteningly close when it comes to developing encryption that can resist hackers who use quantum computing. Current encryption meth- ods depend on the difficulty of factoring the very large numbers that enable RSA public-key and other forms of encryption. Even with the current generation of supercomputers, it takes a very long time. For all intents and purposes, there- fore, existing encryption schemes are considered very sound. Quantum computing throws that confidence to the wind. By manipulating qubits — units of quantum information analogous to classical computing bits — computers can take advantage of quantum entanglement to do certain calculations very quickly, including those needed to break encryption schemes. Earlier this year, re- searchers at the Massachu- setts Institute of Technology and the University of Inns- bruck in Austria said they had assembled a quantum computer that could even- tually break RSA public- key encryption, the most popular form of encryption in the world. NIST officials believe pulling together any kind of quantum-resistant cryptog- raphy might take too long because scores of people would be involved in test- ing and scrutinizing such cryptosystems. Things have to start happening now if those trusted systems are to be developed in time. In April, NIST kicked off an effort to develop quantum-resistant cryptog- raphy with an initial report detailing the status of quan- tum computing research. “While in the past it was less clear that large quantum computers are a physical possibility, many scientists now believe it to be merely a significant engineering challenge,” the report states. Quantum computers might not arrive for another 20 years, but it took almost that long to deploy the public-key cryptographic infrastructure we have now, the report states. It will take a significant effort to ensure a smooth path to “post- quantum cryptography.” As recent events have shown, the era of full- blown quantum computing looks as though it will ar- rive far sooner than people thought. If other areas of computing are any guide, that timeframe will likely only get shorter. • Preparations for next-generation encryption should start yesterday BY BRIAN ROBINSON CYBEREYE A 10-year horizon is frighteningly close when it comes to developing encryption that can resist quantum computing. 12 GCN JUNE/JULY 2016 • GCN.COM 0716gcn_012.indd 12 5/31/16 9:44 AM
August and September 2016