Quantum Computing: “doubly exponential” progress
In July 2017, we explored the future of quantum computing. At the time, the prevailing view was that it was like fusion: always decades away, on the horizon. We took a different view: that it would arrive much sooner.
Skip forward to June 2019, we see the emergence of ‘Neven’s Law’, which states that quantum machines are improving at “doubly exponential” rates. This adds momentum and substance to the narrative that quantum machines will overtake conventional computers within a few years, not decades.
Hartmut Neven, director of Google’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence lab, was quoted in May 2019 saying that “it looks like nothing is happening, nothing is happening, and then whoops, suddenly you are in a different world. That’s what we are experiencing here.”
Quantum computing will deliver shocks in everything from cryptography and cyber risk, to politics, insurance and the legal landscape.
Here is the original July 2017 briefing, exploring quantum computing and Tim Berners-Lee’s long heralded ‘Web of Trust’.
From the Archive: July 2017
Web of Trust
Quantum computing and fusion power have long shared one characteristic: they are constantly on the horizon. Twenty or more years ahead.
This is about to change. Quantum computing, with the promise of exponential increases in power and performance, has been demonstrated at small scales. Quantum cryptography, which brings the promise of unbreakable security, according to some experts, is now inevitable.
Quantum computing – within a decade?
The first of many recent announcements about progress towards a quantum computer emerged from the Ion Quantum Technology Group at the University of Sussex. They published the ‘nuts and bolts construction plan for a large-scale quantum computer’. In other words, the transition from academic research to real-world engineering has been mapped out in practical detail. Until recently, quantum computers have only worked at small scale.
In the abstract, published in ‘Science Advances’, the team makes the understated claim that ‘a universal quantum computer may have a fundamental impact on a vast number of research fields and on society as a whole’. More upbeat assessments have emerged from Google, Microsoft, IBM and Intel. Google places commercialisation within five years. IBM already offers researchers access to a small-scale prototype. Start-ups like Rigetti offer a similar cloud platform and envision ‘a very large industry – every major organisation in the world will have to have a strategy for how to use this technology’.
If quantum computing has seemed ever-distant, the vision of a secure internet based on quantum principles has long appeared to recede into the far future. That is until Chinese researchers made the theory work in practice over a satellite link.
The principle was first established in the 1980s. Quantum encryption hides the key that enables say a buyer and a seller to communicate over a secure channel. In conventional systems, the key can be intercepted and decoded. Not so in the quantum world: the intruder would destroy the connection. The Chinese breakthrough is in the use of satellites, which can work over long distances, in contrast to earlier experiments with fibre networks, which have limited range.
The so-called ‘Micius’ project is soon to extend to a collaboration to build a secure optical system connecting major cities in Europe from a base in Vienna. One of the leaders of the Vienna based project, Anton Zeilinger, envisions a future quantum internet made up of ‘fibre optics on the ground that will be connected to other fibre networks by satellites overhead’.
To put this in context, the costs of cybercrime continues to rise. Some forecasts put the figure at US $ 6 trillion by 2021, up from US $ 3 trillion in 2016. Meantime, spending on security is expected to reach US $ 1 trillion by 2021.
High profile events, such as the Wannacry and Petya ransomware attacks that spread around the world and hit both core infrastructure systems and major businesses, are focusing attention and investment decisions. The full scale and implications of cyberwar intervention in the 2016 US election are only now becoming clear, as The Washington Post reported June 22.
In an otherwise bleak security atmosphere, quantum computing and quantum cryptography may offer hope that Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of a ‘web of trust’ may be finally realised, possibly within a decade. Or two.
In the meantime, ransomware may be here to stay.
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