Two recent articles caught my eye.
The first was in Financemagnates.com with the headline, “Quantum Computing Could Become a Major Threat to Blockchain Networks.” It was an interview with Michael Bancroft of Bloomberg TV, in which he spoke of the spreading popularity of blockchain technology, not just for protecting cryptocurrencies but for a growing number of uses including cybersecurity. He said that before too long, “what we’re likely to see is blockchain being employed for cybersecurity… [in] governments who are looking to secure important files and records safe from hackers.” In fact, our Pentagon is working hard to do that right now.
Bancroft added, “But that also gives me a little bit of concern because people believe…that blockchain is the ‘be all and end all’, that it’s super safe and secure, and I don’t think that’s fully accurate.”
For example, “if quantum computing is able to scale up…in theory, what took an average, normal computer [thousands of years] to do,” including cracking the cryptography that protects blockchain networks, “could take a quantum computer under a minute.” That means instead of being the lock on the door, blockchain becomes just another easy target for future quantum hackers.
Since I wrote an entire column here on this subject here at forbes; and have been highlighting this blockchain vulnerability for more than a year now; it’s gratifying to see someone who covers the financial industry finally doing the same.
But Bancroft still doesn’t know the half of it. It’s not just blockchain but every technology, from cyber and space satellites to driverless cars, the smart grid, 5G (check out my recent column on quantum’s potential impact on advanced wireless), and the entire Internet of Things, that will have to be ready to deal with the quantum factor, which is built on a radically different science than conventional computers—and poses radically different opportunities and challenges.
But how soon is the change coming? That’s the subject of the second article that got my attention, at ZDNet. It came with the headline, “IBM hits quantum computing milestone, may see ‘Quantum Advantage’ in 2020.” It explained how IBM has doubled the power of its quantum computers annually since 2017, and how its Q System One, which has a 20-qubit processor, produced a Quantum Volume of 16, double the current IBM Q (Quantum Volume measures the useful amount of quantum computing done by a device in a given space and time). This is IBM’s highest Quantum Volume to date , which leads the company to predict that “practical uses or so called Quantum Advantage may be a decade away.”
So there it is. Large-scale quantum computers, which seemed like a fantasy only a couple years ago, now loom ahead in the 2020’s. Quantum Advantage, by the way, is when a quantum computer is able to perform certain designed tasks faster and more efficiently than a conventional computer, even a super computer. It’s a giant step toward Q-Day: i.e. when a quantum computer can do what Mike Bancroft worries about, i.e. crack those mega-algorithms that protect our most important public encryption systems.
The bottom line is, the quantum revolution is coming, and if our financial industry and companies who do cybersecurity insurance have been slow in getting the message, the federal government isn’t, at least not any more.
For example, you’ve got Dr. Jacob Taylor leading the White House’s efforts, at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. What Taylor doesn’t know about quantum technology isn’t knowledge, and he’s just been appointed director of the National Quantum Coordination Office.
Congress has passed, and President Trump has signed, the National Quantum Initiative Act, which will mobilize the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy to foster more innovation in quantum technology, especially at our leading federal labs. Certainly the current Secretary of Energy Rick Perry gets it; he recently told employees at one of those labs, Los Alamos, that one of the most urgent tasks DoE faces is making sure the United States wins the quantum race.
The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) hasn’t been slow getting into the act, either. It’s been working a new standard for quantum-resistant algorithms that can protect data and networks from quantum attack, and last year helped to set up the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C) under acting director Dr. Joseph Broz. Its mission is to foster the growth of a U.S.-led quantum industry supply chain. Joe told me his goal is to cut the time it takes to set up and prepare a quantum research facility from an average of three years today, to just six months.
It’s true China still outspending us in the quantum sector, by a factor of more than 20-to-1. But with a technology like quantum money isn’t everything. As Jake Taylor or Joe Broz or Paul Stimers from the Quantum Industry Coalition will tell you, the key sources of quantum innovation are right here in America, and not just at IBM or Google. It’s only a matter of mobilizing and incentivizing them in the right ways.
That includes making the non-quantum public aware of what the risks and opportunities that come with the quantum revolution. That’s why we at the Quantum Alliance Initiative are doing our part, by issuing this month our “Executive’s Guide to Quantum Computing and Quantum-Secure Cybersecurity,” so that every CEO, CFO, and CIO knows what the coming threat from quantum hackers looks like, and how to deal with it starting now.
Because the fact is, as Mike Bancroft will tell you, there’s a lot here to worry about—but also a lot to look forward to, from quantum’s contribution to medicine and space science, to quantum sensors as well as quantum computers that will solve some of nature’s most inexplicable mysteries.
The Greek philosopher Cleanthes said it best: fate leads the willing and drags the unwilling. Which will you and your company or agency or university be? That’s the question that will increasingly consume all of us over the next decade.