A jump towards quantum supremacy?

A quantum computer at Google’s lab spent 200 seconds completing a series of calculations that would have taken the world’s most powerful supercomputer an estimated 10,000 years to work out, the company said in October 2019.

“Our experiment achieves quantum supremacy, a milestone on the path to full-scale quantum computing,” wrote the people involved in the initiative in the scientific journal Nature. “As a result of these developments, quantum computing is transitioning from a research topic to a technology that unlocks new computational capabilities. We are only one creative algorithm away from valuable near-term applications.”

Groundbreaking

The achievement by the computer – called Sycamore – was likened to the Wright brother’s first flights by MIT’s William Oliver in a commentary on the paper published in the same issue of Nature.

“Their aeroplane, the Wright Flyer, wasn’t the first airborne vehicle to fly, and it didn’t solve any pressing transport problem,” he wrote. “Instead, the event is remembered for having shown a new operational regime — the self-propelled flight of an aircraft that was heavier than air. It is what the event represented, rather than what it practically accomplished, that was paramount.”

IBM countered that their own Summit supercomputer, which is built on classical lines, could have done the same job in two-and-a-half days. While the company hailed Google’s work as a formidable achievement, it poured cold water on the term quantum supremacy – first coined by the scientist John Preskill in 2012.

“Fundamentally … quantum computers will never reign ‘supreme’ over classical computers, but will rather work in concert with them, since each have their unique strengths,” IBM concluded.

Threats

Quantum computing is a threat to traditional cryptosystems, which rely on very long strings of characters to make them difficult to decode. The speed at which quantum computers can carry out calculations make those systems vulnerable to attack because the machines can crunch through huge calculations in seconds. IBM’s classical computer shows that this threat could come from supercomputers too.

Given that most online security is based on such public-key cryptosystems, the threat to the world’s use of web-based financial, health, utility and other critical infrastructure is potentially profound. Such computers could make online services fundamentally unsecure.

Timeline

Some experts believe that the risk to businesses will start to become concrete within the next 10 years and will be inevitable within the next 30 years, according to a recent study by the Global Risk Institute.

“When built, quantum computers will break some of the pillars of our cybersecurity infrastructure,” the report said, which was published before Google’s announcement.

The risk could be mitigated by deploying a mixture of both conventional and quantum cryptographic tools that are resistant to quantum attacks. “Nonetheless, the transition to quantum- safe cryptography is a challenge itself, as it requires the development and deployment of hardware and software solutions, the establishment of standards, the migration of legacy systems, and more,” it said.

Given the potentially rapid development of quantum computers, building appropriate defences against its potential misuse should be on risk managers’ watchlist.

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