Quantum computing is starting to look very real

IBM quantum processor

We sat down with IBM and Vodafone to find out about the current state of quantum computing, what the superior number-crunching will be able to provide, and the potentially catastrophic risks it presents to networks.

Quantum computing as a term has been banded around for years now as something between bleeding edge tech and theoretical academia. It’s often sprinkled in when futurologists vaguely sketch out what the future might look like, along with neural lace brain attachments and nano-robots.

But while it might be in its initial phase, quantum computing is here already and the possible benefits it could usher in for societies and industries, and the catastrophic threats that could come with that, are all starting to look a bit more real.

Quantum computing gets in name from quantum mechanics, the mind-bending laws of which are used to crunch problems that standard computers don’t have the grunt for, and as such it is regarded as at the very least the next big leap forward in computing. Quantum chips – housed in cooling units which create temperatures colder than outer space so that electrons can move through the superconductors with no resistance – exceed the processing power of even the most powerful current supercomputers.

Today’s computers are basically adding machines using bits of binary code (1 or 0) in various forms of complexity to solve problems. Rather than bits, quantum chips use qubits, which can simultaneously be a 1 or a 0. According to IBM’s definition: “A qubit itself isn’t very useful. But it can perform an important trick: placing the quantum information it holds into a state of superposition, which represents a combination of all possible configurations of the qubit. Groups of qubits in superposition can create complex, multidimensional computational spaces. Complex problems can be represented in new ways in these spaces.”

So it’s more than just providing an incrementally more powerful version of classical supercomputers, but a different type of technology that will be able to crunch much more complex problems very quickly when it is deployed at a sufficient scale. Much like at the dawn of first computing age, what its arrival might mean for the future isn’t clear exactly – but it has been suggested that it might lend itself nicely to revolutionising biological engineering, financial services and AI.

But with the benefits come threats. Again, with such nascent technology we don’t have very high resolution ideas on what all of these will be exactly yet, but one area that has been identified early is the ability for quantum powered systems to roll over standard security protections and encryption as if it wasn’t there. The GSMA Post-Quantum Telco Network Taskforce was set up late last year with this in mind, with IBM and Vodafone having signed up as initial members.

We sat down with Luke Ibbetson, Head of group R&D at Vodafone Group (below left), and Lory Thorpe, IBM Telecoms consultant and Chair of the GSMA PQTN Taskforce (below right) to dig deeper .

Luke Ibbetson, Head of group R&D at Vodafone Group, and Lory Thorpe, IBM Telecoms consultant and Chair of the GSMA PQTN Taskforce

The pros and cons of quantum computing 

“There’s two lenses to look through,” says Ibbetson. “One is looking at the positive benefits that quantum computers can bring, because they’re able to solve far more complex mathematical problems than today’s classical computers – but you have to find the right type of problem to apply that new capability to. From a telco perspective, we’re looking to understand where the possible applications of quantum computing might be, such as network optimization or adding a boost to our AI or machine learning capabilities when it comes to chatbots, or even trying to derive value from customer data. The other half is around protecting our networks and our customer data from the threat that quantum computers pose.”

Thorpe adds: “What we’re doing is at an industry level looking at what does quantum safe mean for telcos and how do we enable the journey to post quantum cryptography from a telco perspective? And this is not just looking at what the operators need to do, but also how do you enable that from a supply chain perspective? What is needed from a standards perspective to be able to do that? That’s the focus of the of the taskforce.”

The aforementioned taskforce is there to look specifically at threats of this change in computing dynamics, and in one way it’s good the industry seems to be taking it seriously. Juxtaposed this with the development of generative AI, the architects of which certainly couldn’t be accused of being overly absorbed with the potentially negative consequences of launching systems out into the wild as quickly as possible.

In terms of the security problems associated with quantum computing Ibbetson says: “It’s not a question of a potential threat being something that may or may not happen, it will happen. The reason why it’s important to do it now instead of waiting until a quantum computer of the right scale is available to crack something like RSA is that whilst we’ve got an understanding of the roadmap of people like IBM and others that are very transparent about the development, there are the parts of the world where we’re not sure what the state of the art is in terms of the development of quantum computing.

“But we do know that people are already harvesting encrypted data in anticipation of being able to decrypt it at a point in time, where the point in time is we don’t know. But given that we now have a set of algorithms that are resistant to quantum attack, there’s no reason not to start the process towards migrating to have those in place.”

IBM quantum computing cooling unit

How will quantum computing be used?

In terms of classical computing, to start with the machines took up a room and there are some famously bad quotes out there from tech leaders of years gone by asserting that no one would ever want one in the home, and that perhaps the entire global market will be 5 computers. But the technology got smaller, more powerful, and cheaper, and now you are walking around with one in your pocket. But Thorpe doesn’t think the same dynamic applies here, partly because of the ability to access compute on the cloud:

“There isn’t a scenario at the moment where your laptop is going to be powered by quantum computing. I don’t think we should even be thinking about that. Quantum computing is it’s a paradigm shift in in computing capabilities, how we access quantum computing, I think there’s a big question around that. What IBM has been doing is, because a quantum computer needs to live in a very specific environment – very, very cold – this isn’t something you can drag around with you.

“IBM have put a lot of effort into putting IBM Quantum on the cloud, so that you can access the quantum computing capabilities without actually buying a quantum computer. What it comes down to is that there is this is a new technology that I think everybody recognises has huge potential, and the next phase is experimentation around how do you leverage that potential? And eventually, how do you leverage that potential at scale?”

The doomsday scenarios of quantum computing 

Drilling down into the negative consequences of what would happen if a bad actor got hold of quantum level capabilities in order to hack networks as they currently are, Thorpe says: “They can harvest data, they can eavesdrop, they can compromise the network… we’re looking at the telco aspect, but if you look at where cryptography is used, and if you think of how it impacts our everyday lives, it’s literally everywhere….”

Ibbetson adds: “You could rewrite history as well, it can redact digital signature signatures, so people who had signed off something, you could un-sign it and sign it in a different way… it’s the same with every other facet of digital life. And that’s all protected by crypto that is potentially vulnerable. This isn’t a new thing, people do routinely harvest data, but now that we know that it’s only a question of time before that data could be decrypted… because the primitive mathematical and underpinnings that protect data we know could be unravelled by quantum device once it reaches a certain scale. And we don’t know when that point is going to be. So it’s like a Y2K but not knowing when its coming.”

Obviously not all data is equal in terms of its importance and lifespan, and some of it will be less sensitive after a few years. But Ibbetson points out: “The blueprints for one of our new aircraft carriers, that’s got a lifespan of 50 years.”

In terms of where we are in the life cycle of quantum computing, while it’s still very much in the experimental phase but it can be accessed by businesses as a service now, and it is perhaps reaching its inflection point.

“This all comes from research and they’ve been working on this for many, many years,” says Thorpe. “But I think now it has come to a point where first of all people are more aware of it, but also it starts to become a little bit more real, rather than something in a lab somewhere. The work that IBM has done around not just raising awareness, but also making some of the capabilities available, that’s really critical because you start to democratise it, you start to make it real for different industries. So what is this going to be for telecoms? What is this going to do for financial services?

“That’s where it becomes exciting not just for the physicists, but for people that are potentially going to be using it. And I think that’s where we are at the moment. It’s a maturity discussion. So today, you can get access to any number of the different quantum systems that IBM makes available. The ones that will be fault tolerant, and that we’ll be able to provide sort of more mature, reliable answers – they are still a way away. But it is evolutionary.”

Ibbetson concludes: “The increase in the number of stable qubits to be made available via various platforms gives you cause to believe that this is coming relatively soon. Which is good because we’ve got some real knotty problems we want to try and solve and actually, the mitigation is relatively straightforward. If you plan for it, there’s not a cause to panic.


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  1. Avatar Anthony Lowes 03/04/2023 @ 5:14 pm

    Not wanting to sound like an evangelist I have though for many years been warning of the threat of all of us sleepwalking into a digital financial disaster. I have personally been researching and investing in lattice-based algorithms for quantum encryption to counter the genuine threat of QC. A cashless society only makes that potential disaster that much worse.

  2. Avatar Joseph McCarron 05/04/2023 @ 5:26 pm

    Leaves more questions open than answered. I fear not the cyborg cometh it will but in what guise ?.

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