Dangers of quantum computing: from new-style warfare to breaking encryption

Of all the emerging technologies, quantum computing is the one that excites, frustrates, and makes techies nervous in equal measure. In 2019, Google's quantum computer completed a calculation in under four minutes. It's a task that would have taken the world's most powerful computer 10,000 years to achieve, making it around 158 million times faster than the fastest supercomputer.

The potential of these advances in technology encouraged brands from Samsung to BMW to explore the art of the possible by embracing quantum computing. As a result, some scientists are thinking even bigger about how quantum could tackle climate change and transform the planet where we all reside. However, many also warned about the hype surrounding an emerging technology built on future promises.

Although the full potential of quantum computers might still be decades away, we need to identify the dangers and the opportunities waiting on the horizon. For example, while much of the world is discussing how the Ukrainian war might kickstart a new nuclear weapon threat, academics are becoming more concerned with the possibility of a quantum arms race that will transform warfare rather than our world.

Russia, India, Japan, the European Union, and Australia are all carrying out significant quantum research and running development programs. But the US and China have the most skin in this quantum arms race, with the prize being protecting or decrypting their opponent's emails, financial records, and state secrets. Ultimatley, whoever has the most processing power will secure an advantange over their rivals, whether it be unhackable communications or sophisticated cyberweapons.

Quantum-safe cryptography

One of the biggest fears is that quantum cryptography could break classical encryption that underpins financial stability and the global economy. Cryptography is something that we all take for granted in everything from messaging apps to online banking. But if quantum lives up to its future promises, we could have the genuine problem of it breaking cryptography within the next decade.

For example, if intelligence services were equipped with quantum computers, in theory, they would be able to break 2048-bit RSA encryption in under 8 hours. In comparison, the same task would take the world's fastest supercomputers around 300 trillion years to overcome with traditional brute-force methods.

Many are warning of a modern Y2Q moment waiting on the horizon that businesses need to prepare for now. With everything from toasters to smart cities connected to the internet, the logistics of transitioning the whole world to new post-quantum algorithms that are resistant to quantum computing cyberattacks is no small feat.

As end-to-end systems become more deeply interconnected, businesses must secure and safeguard their entire critical cyberinfrastructure. Unfortunately, traditional threat detection software will be incapable of going toe to toe or even identifying malicious attacks by quantum computers. But rather than compare today's defenses with future attack methods, it's time to prepare by building new solutions.

Planning for a quantum future is already underway

For a quantum future to live up to its hype, we will need to see significant leaps forward in quantum physics, systems engineering, and computational science. In addition to technology, the road ahead will be built with human skills and knowledge united in writing the future roadmaps for quantum computing.

Banking and the entire financial landscape are already preparing for a future where quantum computers will inevitably break many of today's encryptions. Household names such as J.P. Morgan, Wells Fargo, Barclays, and Goldman Sachs are already preparing to bolster their defenses to protect against future quantum threats while also unlocking opportunities at the same time. Elsewhere, HSBC is on a three-year collaboration with IBM as it prepares to make a quantum leap of its own.

Sure, businesses of all sizes will need to prepare for the overhaul of their entire information security to ensure systems are quantum-safe. But much like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, we all find ourselves waiting for quantum computing, not knowing if it will actually arrive. Behind the scary headlines is the reality that preparing for the migration to new cryptographic standards is inevitable and already underway.

The saddest part of this modern digital tale is how little the human race has progressed as we get dragged back to our primitive roots. We have an opportunity for industries such as manufacturing to revolutionize their processes and leverage new opportunities. We should also be focussing on using tech to achieve goals such as providing clean water or building sustainable cities and communities. But we have sadly retreated to an old-fashioned game of defense and attack.

Assuming quantum computing delivers on its future promises, rather than hitting the panic button, we will need to brace ourselves for a flurry of software updates and upgrades while frustratingly muttering, same as it ever was.

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