Quantum 101: Part One: Evolution to Quantum Computing

July 6, 2010

Curious about quantum computing’s potential to transform computing and IT security for good? Read Part One of Countdown’s two-part Quantum 101 series by Steve Gold, technology and business journalist for over 20 years

When PCs as we know them today first burst upon the computing scene in the mid-1980s, they were hailed for the breakthrough they represented: a productivity enhancement allowing the collation, storage, processing and dissemination of large volumes of information.

And as PCs developed in power in the 1990s, they really started to enhance productivity, largely through the development of advanced software that tapped this amazing processing power to achieve much more than its human owners could achieve without computers in the same timeframe.

Then along came passwords, encryption and data protection, all driven by the Great God that is liability. You are legally liable for your actions on computers, whether personally or in a corporate sense.

As a result of this computing evolution, we now have a variety of laws designed to protect our interests, privacy and data. And we have technology – encryption – to protect the data held on PCs and how it is manipulated.

But today’s encryption technology is based on the principle that data processing  is carried out on a linear basis.

For example, many of us use online bank accounts, which are protected using an ID plus a passphrase known only to ourselves. We also have payment cards protected by a four-digit PIN, also known only to ourselves.

The irony is that many technology users are wary of online banking for security reasons, yet they willingly use a PIN authentication system for their debit and credit cards using a four-digit numeric passphrase that is unique to them – as well as around four thousand other people in the UK today.

Whoa – 4,000 other people? This is because there are only 10,000 possible PIN permutations and around 40 million adults and teenagers in the UK. Just do the maths if you don’t believe me.

Online banking, of course, is protected by secure passphrases – typically an eight to 12 digit mix of numbers and figures. So you’re safe – right?

Today, possibly. Tomorrow, unlikely.

The reason is a technology called quantum computing that supports data analysis and interpolation on a totally different plane to the way PCs work today.

Quantum computing uses abstract mathematical principles and the unusual behavioural patterns found in the world of quantum physics to create a computer model that has the potential to rapidly crack the strongest encryption codes known today.

The good news, however, is that the technology also provides an environment to send confidential information over today’s networks.

The power of quantum computers stems from a phenomenon known as superposition. Whilst the binary digits in the memory of a PC exist as either 0 or 1, quantum bits (aka qubits) can exist as 1 or 0 – or some state in between.

Put simply, the technology supports a greater amount of data transmission and processing power with a much smaller number of qubits than when compared to classical bits.

As a result, a highly complex problem can be divided into many smaller problems, and those smaller problems can be processed simultaneously with a fewer number of qubits—resulting in a massively parallel computing architecture similar to that which gives some of the world’s fastest computers their enormous power.

This is quantum computing. Instead of one (or a cluster of) PCs processing data in many threads, we can have a quantum computing platform running large numbers of computer models, all of which break down into their own equivalent PC environments, also processing data in multiple threads.

If you think of the M1 motorway and how the speed limit and the three lanes of traffic limit traffic flow, you can see why gridlocks occur.

Now, ignoring the physical totemics involved, let’s presume that the M1 is 100 lanes wide and has 100 layers of tarmac stacked vertically.

Your traffic problems are solved! You can move almost as many people in cars and coaches as you want in a very short time frame. You could empty London in under an hour and send everyone to Leeds (if they wanted to go there, of course).

This analogy is quantum computing in traffic terms. Phenomenal power and processing abilities can interpolate incredible amounts of data in relatively short periods of time.

Don’t take my word for it. Peter Shor of AT&T’s Research Labs (http://bit.ly/9XUK4m) has researched the concept extensively and proven that quantum computers can solve data computational problems much more rapidly than conventional computing devices.

This development has extraordinarily profound implications for today’s encryption technology. It’s an issue that has research teams working at the US National Security Agency, the Pentagon and other specialist agencies around the world.

As I mentioned earlier, the good news is that the processing power of quantum computing also leads to greatly enhanced security, owing to an atomic behaviour known as entanglement.

This atomic behaviour means that a pair of entangled photons are linked in a rather strange way, no matter how far apart they are separated. If, for example, the spin of one of these photons changes, the spin in the other entangled photon changes—simultaneously and in an identical manner.

If the sender of a message has one of the entangled photons and the recipient has the other, then if a photon-encrypted message is sent and, when it arrives at the other end of the link, the sending party verifies it has arrived safely— without tampering—then it opens the message using the first entangled photon.

At the distant end of the link, the entangled second photon mimics the behaviour of the first and triggers the opening and decryption of the message.

The main point? Because public and private keys are not used in quantum computing, they cannot be stolen by a third party. And therefore the security of the data is significantly enhanced.

In part 2 of this blog we’ll be looking at how and why quantum computing will change your views of encryption technology.


One comment

  1. Many thanks for this very insightful post. I’m actually currently conducting a web based survey on Quantum Information Technology aiming at assessing the general public and field experts knowledge and perception of the technology. I would like to invite readers of this blog to participate in this study. The questionnaire is available at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/qitsurvey and takes about 15 minutes to complete. The data collection will be running from March to September 2010 and you can participate at any time. Final results will become available in the spring of 2011.

    This effort is being conducted in the context of a Master thesis aiming at better understanding the challenges facing Quantum Information Technology (QIT) in order to successfully integrate into the existing “classic” Information Technology (IT) framework. For further information or if you have any question, visit http://pascalheus.name/research/thesis or contact qitissues@gmail.com.

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