I just got a feed from one of those high-level, fly-over type, tech sites. You know, the ones that do reviews on the best smartphone screen, how fast they do social media, best camera, Wi-Fi performance, features, etc. The headline was, “Quantum computing will break your encryption in a few years.”
Really? You will see why I am calling nonsense on this shortly.
First of all, to me, a few years means two, maybe three. An informal poll of a few friends seems to agree with that number. The longest definition, from one of them, was five years, maximum. Using the term, “Few” is a convenient way to dodge a bullet if the prediction is wrong, or if one does not have enough knowledge to understand what they are talking about.
I guess it must have been a slow day for this journalist. Perhaps they read something or overheard it in a bar, or on some news program, somewhere. Perhaps they even talked to someone about it. However, if it were me, I would be embarrassed. Because to claim that quantum computing is a few years out is a sure sign the writer has no clue about physics. It is like me saying something about DNA engineering or gene splicing that someone threw out there as a one-off theory.
It does not take any specialized knowledge to talk about, say, robocalls. All one has to do is know what a robocall is and then they can screen sources and come up with a pretty good, and reasonably accurate, piece about them. Same with high-level flyovers of technical products. However, quantum computers and, particularly, quantum cryptograph is a whole ‘nother Oprah show!
Unfortunately, there are still some huge problems with the reality of quantum computing, hence quantum cryptography, in spite of their 20 year-long existence (starting with the first experimental two qubit model). Today, there are a number of “functional” quantum computers, in various configurations, hanging out in labs around the world (IBM has a 50 qubit model and just revealed a 20 qubit model available for public use).
However, let us define functional. qubits are notoriously unstable. The problem is that qubits have to be kept contained in a very precise environment. This is because, if they get so much as an eyeball on them, they lose the state of superposition, the state in which they can take multiple values. Therefore, it is very difficult to use them outside of a very tightly controlled environment. This “quantum decoherence” is one of the main challenges preventing the development of quantum computers outside of controlled environments. There are a variety of other problems, as well, but too complex to delve into in this dialog.
Quantum physics is an area of much supposition. Interestingly, just the other day I had lunch with a friend, who just happens to be a physicist and we were talking about quantum computing and its place in security. His take was that we are years away from even the simplest practical quantum technology in computing, much less workable quantum encryption.
The reality of it is that, while quantum computers can be used in very limited ways, as IBM uses its Q System One, it is not practical. Having to access a sterile, glass-enclosed, ridiculously low-temperature fragile machine to do computations only appeals to those that need to solve unfathomably complex problems that would take electronic computers interminably long times. And, presently via the internet, no less.
Now, let us circle back to quantum cryptography. It is true that the superposition principle is the perfect solution to data security. It is a 100 percent, indisputable, way to tell if the data has been compromised. Unfortunately, nearly all of the encryption needed exists in the real world, not in a glass bubble. Therefore, to make the statement that quantum cryptography is a “few” years out is ridiculous. In addition, to apply quantum cryptography to wireless is not even a blip on the wireless radar screen.
It is only a matter of time before quantum computing comes into its own. To me, coming into its own means that it is practical, economical and transparent. By that definition, it will be a long, long time before quantum computing, and quantum cryptography will reach that standing.