IBM: Governments and enterprises need to migrate to quantum safe cryptography today

SEP 01, 2021

As more and more practical applications of quantum computing emerge, we sat down with IBM researcher, Waheeda Saib to understand how this technology can help address difficult optimisation problems in finance and supply chains and boost the power of machine learning

Investors and corporations are betting heavily on quantum computing as this industry is set to create up to $850 billion in annual value by 2040, according to a recent BCG report.

Advances in quantum computing technology and predictions of massive performance and profit improvements are driving these investments with major hardware companies looking to leverage this technology to tackle important business and society problems.

IBM has a long history in the quantum computing domain, in both the research and development of quantum computers.

In 2016, IBM was the first company to make a universal quantum computer accessible via the cloud, and now has an active global community of more than 325,000 users, who have run hundreds of billions of quantum circuits on the world’s largest fleet of more than 20 quantum computers deployed since 2016.

We sat down with Waheeda Saib who is a researcher at IBM Research-Africa in Johannesburg, South Africa to understand the impetus behind the surge in investment and opportunities that advances in quantum computing will present.

What are the reasons for the surge in institutional and corporate investment in quantum technology?

There is a surge in investments in quantum computing because at IBM we believe, within a few years, the industry will have discovered the first applications where quantum computers together with classical computers will solve practical problems intractable today for classical systems, alone. The IBM quantum roadmap additionally provides a clear timeline for scaling noisy quantum devices of today to the million qubit devices of the future that may demonstrate quantum advantage.

Exploring practical applications and future use cases for quantum computing requires the partnership of businesses and organisations from a variety of industries and disciplines. In 2017, IBM was the first company to have commercial clients via the IBM Quantum Network. We now work with more than 150 organisations, businesses, research labs, government labs, and educational institutions to assist with use case development and education.

What are the challenges that quantum computing aims to address? Can you also elaborate on this technology's potential to solve the challenges facing humanity?

Using quantum computers as the simulation platform will enable comprehensive analysis of chemical systems, its properties and reaction rates, which may yield advancements on currently intractable problems such as designing new drugs and catalysts to aid the biological process of nitrogen fixation.

In addition, quantum computing is expected to address difficult optimisation problems in finance and supply chains and boost the power of machine learning. Advances like these could open the door to new scientific discoveries, life-saving drugs, new materials, and improvements in logistics and the modelling of financial data.

Which industries stand to benefit the most from the advances in quantum computing? Will early adopters have any advantages?

Initial applications for quantum computers span from accelerating the discovery of new materials in chemistry and optimisation problems in finance and supply chains.

It takes time to build deep expertise in quantum computing and understand the impact of quantum computing within a business. Early adopters will have the benefit of developing in house quantum expertise, identify impactful quantum use cases and be in a position to take advantage of the latest quantum computing devices.

How can businesses identify the problems that quantum computers can tackle? What role does IBM play here?

Most industries have their own big, intractable challenges. And quantum computers offer potential solutions. So it's important, now, for businesses in finance, energy, chemistry, AI, and other fields to get familiar with quantum computing, today.

As the IBM Quantum Development Roadmap progresses, developers with domain expertise in these fields and others will find quantum computing more accessible, and more relevant.

In addition, IBM Quantum Consulting brings together consultants, scientists, and industry experts to help clients realise new business value through the application of quantum computing technology and deliver customised roadmaps to help them become quantum ready.

The team offers strategic consulting engagements featuring an interactive workshop to help clients chart their path to quantum computing adoption. Understand what quantum computing is and how your business can benefit from this radically new approach to computing.

The experts can also help Identify business challenges where quantum computing can offer strategic advantages. Quantify potential value when applying IBM Quantum systems and technology. Develop forward thinking roadmaps, including strategic and actionable next steps.

What kind of hardware is required to run quantum programs? Are there any challenges in developing lower cost and more reliable quantum computing hardware?

Quantum computing is a fundamentally different way to process information, compared to today’s ‘classical’ compute systems.

All computing systems rely on a fundamental ability to store and manipulate information. Today’s classical computers manipulate individual bits, which store information as binary 0 and 1 states. Millions of bits work together to process and display information – the ‘speed’ everyone is familiar with on smartphones, laptops and the servers in the cloud.

Alternatively, quantum computers tap into quantum mechanical phenomena to manipulate information. To do this, they rely on quantum bits, or qubits, which are very fragile. Unlike a bit that has to be a 0 or a 1, a qubit can be in a combination of states. To put that in perspective: 50 qubits can represent over one quadrillion data values – available for potential computation. And 300 qubits could represent more values to explore than there are atoms in the observable universe.

The qubits are placed on superconducting chips in cryostats, which resemble golden chandeliers which are kept at temperatures near absolute zero. This is why for many clients it makes sense to tap quantum computers as a service via the cloud, since maintaining these fragile systems requires deep technical expertise.

Quantum computers are not a replacement for classical ones. They complement our classical systems by possibly being able to solve some forms of intractable problems that become extremely large or time-consuming during computation.

To realise fault-tolerant quantum computers, the research challenges that need to be achieved are error-corrected quantum circuits, quantum interconnects and hardware efficient applications.

How has this technology impacted the cybersecurity market?

It hasn’t yet, other than speeding up the development of standards for quantum safe cryptography. This cryptography technique already protects against the threat of the kind of “code breaking” that only a fault tolerant quantum computing system would be capable of, which is many years from being developed. IBM believes that practical applications with a quantum advantage will emerge much sooner.

How can companies protect data in the age of quantum computing? What will the effect of quantum computing be on blockchain?

If we look at IBM’s quantum hardware roadmap we expect to reach 1,121 qubits by 2023, which is a factor 10 higher than we have today. When it comes to breaking some types of encryption, such as ECC/RSA, we expect that millions of error-free qubits will be required, which takes us beyond our roadmap.

While the exact timing isn’t known, a recent survey by the Global Risk Institute cites that slightly more than half of the experts interviewed believe it’s likely in the next 15 years.

To prepare for this eventuality governments and enterprises can already begin to migrate to quantum safe cryptography today. Quantum safe cryptography, for example based on lattices, can be run in parallel with current encryption schemes adding only a few extra kilobytes to the transaction, meaning users will not notice it.

The rule of thumb is that if you have secrets which need to remain secret 10-30 years from now you should begin this migration sooner than later because your data can be stored while encrypted, only to be cracked in the future. Also, the migration for large complex IT systems will take time.

To get started, it’s important to understand your risk profile and to take an inventory of your current cryptography.

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