How realistic is the prospect of a ‘quantum apocalypse’?
A new generation of fear entrepreneurs in the IT industry are promoting anxieties and fatalism about the threat quantum computing poses to the future of encrypted data, cyber-security and our way of life.
You can’t make this stuff up. Just when we can breathe a sigh of relief as we appear to have overcome the Covid pandemic, ‘the quantum apocalypse‘ draws us back into new anxiety about life on Earth – just like Al Pacino in ‘The Godfather‘ aiming to escape his criminal past, but being pulled back in.
However, this is not a Hollywood movie. It is a real fact. And just like the doomsday predictions of environmentalists, ‘the quantum apocalypse‘ is being presented as a real existential threat to life as we know it.
So, what is this ‘quantum apocalypse‘? Well, to put it simply, it is the imagined outcome of a world where encrypted, secret files are suddenly cracked open by quantum computers. It is essential to understand that quantum computers are not just ‘more powerful supercomputers‘. They represent a new paradigm in computing. They use properties of quantum mechanics to compute in a fundamentally different way to today’s digital, ‘classical‘ computers. Instead of the traditional bits made of ones and zeros, they use quantum bits that can represent different values simultaneously. The complexity of quantum computers could make them much faster at certain tasks, allowing them to solve problems that remain practically impossible for modern machines – including breaking many of the encryption algorithms currently used to protect sensitive data such as personal, trade and state secrets.
At this point, these possibilities remain theoretical. But that does not mean that this is pure speculation. Several countries, including the US, China, Russia and the UK, are working hard and investing vast sums of money in developing these super-fast quantum computers to gain a strategic advantage in the cyber-sphere. Tech giants like Google, Microsoft, Intel, and IBM are working on solutions, along with more specialised companies like Quantinuum and Post-Quantum.
In reality, quantum computing is extremely difficult to achieve. Last year, Google famously boasted it had achieved “quantum supremacy” by finding a task a quantum computer could do that was essentially impossible for a classical computer. The company announced that it had used its 53-bit quantum computer Sycamore to solve a maths problem in 200 seconds that would take a classical computer 10,000 years.
Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, compared it to the launch of Sputnik or the first flight by the Wright brothers – the threshold of a new era of machines that would make today’s mightiest computer look like an abacus. While this was an important milestone, it is far from ushering in a new era of quantum computing. Experts from industry and academia were quick to criticise it for various reasons.
In reality, we’re at least a decade or more away from a quantum computer that can solve valuable problems. However, this does not mean there are no grounds to manufacture a new existential threat to life on Earth in the here and now.
Enter the new fear entrepreneurs like Harri Owen, chief strategy officer at PostQuantum, and Ilyas Khan, chief executive of the Cambridge- and Colorado-based company Quantinuum. The fear they raise is that quantum computers will render useless most existing encryption methods. Whoever develops such a capacity will instantly have the ability to shut down government defence systems and gain access to private data and banking details. As Ilyas Khan puts it, in no uncertain terms, “they are a threat to our way of life.”
Yes, if such a scenario were to come to pass, if the current fear of the hacking of data today, the “harvest now and decrypt later” strategy, became a reality, this would, indeed, pose a threat to our way of life.
But this is so unlikely for numerous reasons. It’s not just that quantum computing is complicated and hugely expensive and still decades away from realisation. Also, it is unclear why harvesting data today which can only be decrypted in 30 years constitutes such a huge risk.
However, the real point is that governments are acutely aware of this potential risk. Mitigation efforts are already in train and have been for some years.In the US, for example, through its National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a contest has been in play since 2016 which aims to produce the first quantum-computer-proof algorithms by 2024. In the UK, all government data classified as “top secret” is already “post-quantum” – that is, using new forms of encryption that researchers hope will be quantum-proof. The National Cyber Security Center, which leads this research, is advising government and businesses about their long-term encryption and security needs.
This is an important counter to the fatalism being peddled by “the quantum apocalypse” fear mongers. Overhauling and updating computer systems is a technical problem within humanity’s capacity to solve.
This doomsday scenario is reminiscent of the “millennium bug” exaggeration, which was regarded as the harbinger of a major disaster at the start of the new century but proved to be manageable. The scale of this major internationally coordinated effort and the massive expenditure of billions of dollars to deal with the possible technologically induced crisis is unprecedented. However, the precedent this set was the proliferation of the culture and politics of fear we have come to accept as inevitable.
The “quantum apocalypse” is the latest fear being used to stoke the fatalism that now underpins the public imagination. This is the real threat to our way of life, not some theoretical possibility posited as beyond human control or action.
The real danger is that we succumb to the self-serving fatalism underpinning the exaggerated threat this poses to the future. This will stop us from grasping what a remarkable thing quantum computing will be for humanity and what a boost it will mean for our problem-solving capacities in the 21st century.
June 9, 2022