The smaller computers get, the more powerful they become. Today’s smartphones are more powerful than military computers created 50 years ago. Regardless of this, there are still many problems ordinary computers can’t solve. Luckily for us, quantum computers aren’t so far away although with this next level technology, our cybersecurity may be seriously threatened.
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Quantum computers are next level classical computers. According to NASA, quantum computers will take days to solve problems an ordinary computer would take millions of years to do. Before we get into some mental mountain climbing of how they work, it’s important to understand what exactly quantum means. Quantum mechanics is the study of the universe around us at the smallest scale (like electrons). Quantum computers consist of subatomic particles called quantum bits-very small particles that store information.
Ordinary Computers (OC) store data in the form of bits- whether its Netflix stream or an excel worksheet, every piece of information on your computer is stored in the form of a sequence of 1s or 0s. A bit is the smallest storage unit of information in an ordinary computer. Quantum Computers (QC) are made up of qubits (quantum bits) which can store information as sequences of either 1 or 0 or both at the same time. This is called superposition.
Imagine a coin lying flat on a table. It can only face heads or tails at a time- not both. So, a bit can only be either a 1 or a 0 at a time-it can only do one calculation at a time. If you spin the coin vertically, it is either heads or tails or any phase in between. This means the qubit can be in multiple states at the same time, so they can store ridiculous amounts more of information than a bit can, perform many calculations simultaneously and hence operate millions of times faster.
Because of this, quantum computers promise to have a variety of disruptive applications such as new drug discoveries and medical treatments. However, we fear that it will cause havoc on IT security. A quantum computer with exponential speed will have the power to hack the codes used to make online cryptocurrency transactions such as bitcoin, leaving all currency accounts vulnerable.
Our online data is kept secure by an encryption system you give everyone a public key to encode messages only you can decode. The problem is that your private key can be calculated using the public key. A conventional computer would take years to do so because it needs to do trial and error-go through each possibility one at a time, but because qubits can store countless configurations of 0s and 1s, a quantum computer can explore all possible solutions at the same time. A QC with exponential speed up could do it in the square root of the time a conventional computer does it in.
The vision for quantum computers is very broad and difficult to simplify however the aim is to yield as many benefits as possible in all industries from artificial intelligence (AI) to finance. One of Google’s aims is to use QC as a research tool to study climate change in greater depth and end world hunger due to their incredibly high processing speed but in the wrong hands, cyberwarfare/cyberattacks could possibly be launched. They may not just be used to steal our financial and medical data but could enhance government surveillance of citizens. They could also be used to decrypt communication of criminals and disrupt criminal planning.
As of now, massive companies including Google, IBM and D-Wave are competing for supremacy. They are investing millions of dollars in finding materials to make QC last and discover more ways as to how they can be applied. This technological leap has still a long way to go. It is estimated that they’ll be in mass use by the government around 2025-2030, but they’ll only be available for consumer use around 2040.
Until then, these pioneering companies are working on overcoming certain technical problems which include coming up with a suitable design, so they can be made smaller and cheaper for consumer use. Due to our online security threat, research is currently going on in order to create a quantum secure future.
One possible way is to create new algorithms to delay a quantum attack. Organizations such as NSIT have already started doing this. The problem with this however is that algorithms are essentially patterns. Quantum computers are capable of solving these algorithms, so this method is not as useful as initially thought. An alternative is to use QC to protect us from the same threat they cause. QC are capable of producing random numbers with no patterns therefore they are incapable of hacking other QC.
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In conclusion, quantum computers are going to radically reshape the world and improve many people’s lives and opportunities however it will also threaten our online financial and medical security. Pioneering companies are paving the way to absolute domination of quantum mechanics although it is imperative that more research is done in order to protect ourselves from this possible disaster.
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