If you think you understand quantum mechanics,
you don’t understand quantum mechanics
Tens of billions of public and private capital are being invested in Quantum technologies. Countries across the world have realized that quantum technologies can be a major disruptor of existing businesses and change the balance of military power. So much so, that they have collectively invested ~$24 billion in in quantum research and applications.
At the same time, a week doesn’t go by without another story about a quantum technology milestone or another quantum company getting funded. Quantum has moved out of the lab and is now the focus of commercial companies and investors. In 2021 venture capital funds invested over $2 billion in 90+ Quantum technology companies. Over a $1 billion of it going to Quantum computing companies. In the last six months quantum computing companies IonQ, D-Wave and Rigetti went public at valuations close to a billion and half dollars. Pretty amazing for computers that won’t be any better than existing systems for at least another decade – or more. So why the excitement about quantum?
The Quantum Market Opportunity
While most of the IPOs have been in Quantum Computing, Quantum technologies are used in three very different and distinct markets: Quantum Computing, Quantum Communications and Quantum Sensing and Metrology.
All of three of these markets have the potential for being disruptive. In time Quantum computing could obsolete existing cryptography systems, but viable commercial applications are still speculative. Quantum communications could allow secure networking but are not a viable near-term business. Quantum sensors could create new types of medical devices, as well as new classes of military applications, but are still far from a scalable business.
It’s a pretty safe bet that 1) the largest commercial applications of quantum technologies won’t be the ones these companies currently think they’re going to be, and 2) defense applications using quantum technologies will come first. 3) if and when they do show up they’ll destroy existing businesses and create new ones.
We’ll describe each of these market segments in detail. But first a description of some quantum concepts.
Key Quantum Concepts
Skip this section if all you want to know is that 1) quantum works, 2) yes, it is magic.
Quantum – The word “Quantum” refers to quantum mechanics which explains the behavior and properties of atomic or subatomic particles, such as electrons, neutrinos, and photons.
Quantum Computers – Background
Quantum computers are a really cool idea. They harness the unique behavior of quantum physics—such as superposition, entanglement, and quantum interference—and apply it to computing.
In a classical computer transistors can represent two states – either a 0 or 1. Instead of transistors Quantum computers use quantum bits (called qubits.) Qubits exist in superposition – both in 0 and 1 state simultaneously.
Classic computers use transistors as the physical building blocks of logic. In quantum computers they may use trapped ions, superconducting loops, quantum dots or vacancies in a diamond. The jury is still out.
In a classic computer 2-14 transistors make up the seven basic logic gates (AND, OR, NAND, etc.) In a quantum computer building a single logical Qubit require a minimum of 9 but more likely 100’s or thousands of physical Qubits (to make up for error correction, stability, decoherence and fault tolerance.)
In a classical computer compute-power increases linearly with the number of transistors and clock speed. In a Quantum computer compute-power increases exponentially with the addition of each logical qubit.
But qubits have high error rates and need to be ultracold. In contrast classical computers have very low error rates and operate at room temperature.
Finally, classical computers are great for general purpose computing. But quantum computers can theoretically solve some complex algorithms/ problems exponentially faster than a classical computer. And with a sufficient number of logical Qubits they can become a Cryptographically Relevant Quantum Computer (CRQC). And this is where Quantum computers become very interesting and relevant for both commercial and national security. (More below.)
Types of Quantum Computers
Quantum computers could potentially do things at speeds current computers cannot. Think of the difference of how fast you can count on your fingers versus how fast today’s computers can count. That’s the same order of magnitude speed-up a quantum computer could have over today’s computers for certain applications.
- Quantum Emulator/Simulator
- Quantum Annealer
- NISQ – Noisy Intermediate Scale Quantum
- Universal Quantum Computer – which can be a Cryptographically Relevant Quantum Computer (CRQC)
When you remove all the marketing hype, the only type that matters is #4 – a Universal Quantum Computer. And we’re at least a decade or more away from having those.
These are classical computers that you can buy today that simulate quantum algorithms. They make it easy to test and debug a quantum algorithm that someday may be able to run on a Universal Quantum Computer. Since they don’t use any quantum hardware they are no faster than standard computers.
Quantum Annealer is a special purpose quantum computer designed to only run combinatorial optimization problems, not general-purpose computing, or cryptography problems. D-Wave has defined and owned this space. While they have more physical Qubits than any other current system they are not organized as gate-based logical qubits. Currently this is a nascent commercial technology in search of a future viable market.
Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum (NISQ) computers. Think of these as prototypes of a Universal Quantum Computer – with several orders of magnitude fewer bits. (They currently have 50-100 qubits, limited gate depths, and short coherence times.) As they are short several orders of magnitude of Qubits, NISQ computers cannot perform any useful computation, however they are a necessary phase in the learning, especially to drive total system and software learning in parallel to the hardware development. Think of them as the training wheels for future universal quantum computers.
Universal Quantum Computers / Cryptographically Relevant Quantum Computers (CRQC)
This is the ultimate goal. If you could build a universal quantum computer with fault tolerance (i.e. millions of error corrected physical qubits resulting in thousands of logical Qubits), you could run quantum algorithms in cryptography, search and optimization, quantum systems simulations, and linear equations solvers. (See here for a list of hundreds quantum algorithms.) These all would dramatically outperform classical computation on large complex problems that grow exponentially as more variables are considered. Classical computers can’t attack these problems in reasonable times without so many approximations that the result is useless. We simply run out of time and transistors with classical computing on these problems. These special algorithms are what make quantum computers potentially valuable. For example, Grover’s algorithm solves the problem for the unstructured search of data. Further, quantum computers are very good at minimization / optimizations…think optimizing complex supply chains, energy states to form complex molecules, financial models, etc.
However, while all of these algorithms might have commercial potential one day, no one has yet to come up with a use for them that would radically transform any business or military application. Except for one – and that one keeps people awake at night.
It’s Shor’s algorithm for integer factorization – an algorithm that underlies much of existing public cryptography systems.
The security of today’s public key cryptography systems rests on the assumption that breaking into those with a thousand or more digits is practically impossible. It requires factoring into large prime numbers (e.g., RSA) or elliptic curve (e.g., ECDSA, ECDH) or finite fields (DSA) that can’t be done with any type of classic computer regardless of how large. Shor’s factorization algorithm can crack these codes if run on a Universal Quantum Computer. Uh-oh!
Impact of a Cryptographically Relevant Quantum Computer (CRQC) Skip this section if you don’t care about cryptography.
Not only would a Universal Quantum Computer running Shor’s algorithm make today’s public key algorithms (used for asymmetric key exchanges and digital signatures) useless, someone can implement a “harvest-now-and-decrypt-later” attack to record encrypted documents now with intent to decrypt them in the future. That means everything you send encrypted today will be able to be read retrospectively. Many applications – from ATMs to emails – would be vulnerable—unless we replace those algorithms with those that are “quantum-safe”.
When Will Current Cryptographic Systems Be Vulnerable?
The good news is that we’re nowhere near having any viable Cryptographically Relevant Quantum Computer, now or in the next few years. However, you can estimate when this will happen by calculating how many logical Qubits are needed to run Shor’s Algorthim and how long it will it take to break these crypto systems. There are lots of people tracking these numbers (see here and here). Their estimate is that using 8,194 logical qubits using 22.27 million physical qubits, it would take a quantum computer 20 minutes to break RSA-2048. The best estimate is that this might be possible in 8 to 20 years.
Post-Quantum / Quantum-Resistant Codes
That means if you want to protect the content you’re sending now, you need to migrate to new Post-Quantum /Quantum-Resistant Codes. But there are three things to consider in doing so:
shelf-life time: the number of years the information must be protected by cyber-systems
- migration time: the number of years needed to properly and safely migrate the system to a quantum-safe solution
- threat timeline: the number of years before threat actors will be able to break the quantum-vulnerable systems
These new cryptographic systems would secure against both quantum and conventional computers and can interoperate with existing communication protocols and networks. The symmetric key algorithms of the Commercial National Security Algorithm (CNSA) Suite were selected to be secure for national security systems usage even if a CRQC is developed.
Cryptographic schemes that commercial industry believes are quantum-safe include lattice-based cryptography, hash trees, multivariate equations, and super-singular isogeny elliptic curves.
Estimates of when you can actually buy a fully error-corrected quantum computers vary from “never” to somewhere between 8 to 20 years from now. (Some optimists believe even earlier.)
Quantum communications ≠ quantum computers. A quantum network’s value comes from its ability to distribute entanglement. These communication devices manipulate the quantum properties of photons/particles of light to build Quantum Networks.
Quantum Cryptography/Quantum Key Distribution
Quantum Cryptography/Quantum Key Distribution can distribute keys between authorized partners connected by a quantum channel and a classical authenticated channel. It can be implemented via fiber optics or free space transmission. China transmitted entangled photons (at one pair of entangled particles per second) over 1,200 km in a satellite link, using the Micius satellite.
The view from the National Security Agency (NSA) is that quantum-resistant (or post-quantum) cryptography is a more cost effective and easily maintained solution than quantum key distribution. NSA does not support the usage of QKD or QC to protect communications in National Security Systems. (See here.) They do not anticipate certifying or approving any Quantum Cryptography/Quantum Key Distribution security products for usage by National Security System customers unless these limitations are overcome. However, if you’re a commercial company these systems may be worth exploring.
Quantum Random Number Generators (GRGs)
Commercial Quantum Random Number Generators that use quantum effects (entanglement) to generate nondeterministic randomness are available today. (Government agencies can already make quality random numbers and don’t need these devices.)
Random number generators will remain secure even when a Cryptographically Relevant Quantum Computer is built.
Quantum Sensing and Metrology
Quantum sensors ≠ Quantum computers.
First-generation quantum timing devices already exist as microwave atomic clocks. They are used in GPS satellites to triangulate accurate positioning. The Internet and computer networks use network time servers and the NTP protocol to receive the atomic clock time from either the GPS system or a radio transmission.
The next generation of quantum clocks are even more accurate and use laser-cooled single ions confined together in an electromagnetic ion trap. This increased accuracy is not only important for scientists attempting to measure dark matter and gravitational waves, but miniaturized/ more accurate atomic clocks will allow precision navigation in GPS- degraded/denied areas, e.g. in commercial and military aircraft, in tunnels and caves, etc.
Quantum imaging is one of the most interesting and near-term applications. First generation magnetometers such as superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs) already exist. New quantum sensor types of imaging devices use entangled light, accelerometers, magnetometers, electrometers, gravity sensors. These allow measurements of frequency, acceleration, rotation rates, electric and magnetic fields, photons, or temperature with levels of extreme sensitivity and accuracy.
These new sensors use a variety of quantum effects: electronic, magnetic, or vibrational states or spin qubits, neutral atoms, or trapped ions. Or they use quantum coherence to measure a physical quantity. Or use quantum entanglement to improve the sensitivity or precision of a measurement, beyond what is possible classically.
Gravimeters or quantum magnetometers could also detect concealed tunnels, bunkers, and nuclear materials. Magnetic resonance imaging could remotely ID chemical and biological agents. Quantum radar or LIDAR would enable extreme detection of electromagnetic emissions, enhancing ELINT and electronic warfare capabilities. It can use fewer emissions to get the same detection result, for better detection accuracy at the same power levels – even detecting stealth aircraft.
National and Commercial Efforts
Countries across the world are making major investments ~$24 billion in 2021 – in quantum research and applications.
- Quantum technologies are emerging and disruptive to companies and defense
- Quantum technologies cover Quantum Computing, Quantum Communications and Quantum Sensing and Metrology
- Quantum computing could obsolete existing cryptography systems
- Quantum communication could allow secure cryptography key distribution and networking of quantum sensors and computers
- Quantum sensors could make the ocean transparent for Anti-submarine warfare, create unjammable A2/AD, detect stealth aircraft, find hidden tunnels and weapons of mass destruction, etc.
- A few of these technologies are available now, some in the next 5 years and a few are a decade or more out
- Tens of billions of public and private capital dollars are being invested in them
- Defense applications will come first
- The largest commercial applications won’t be the ones we currently think they’re going to be
- when they do show up they’ll destroy existing businesses and create new ones