Is Viable Quantum Computing Closer Than We Think?
While major cryptosystems are likely safe for now, "Q-Day" is drawing closer, and it's impossible to know when it will take place.
The joke used to be that AI was, like nuclear fusion, always 30 years away.
That changed dramatically last year, with OpenAI's launch of ChatGPT. Almost overnight, AI became a mainstream technology, something that we were told would—for good or bad—automate almost every knowledge industry, driving productivity or taking millions of jobs, depending on who you asked.
Is quantum computing, previously always a technology of the distant future, headed for the same kind of breakthrough?
Quantum computing may not be in the spotlight like AI, but that doesn't mean progress is not being made. Just like AI, in fact, a period of relative quiet as the media spotlight has fallen elsewhere has seen rapid developments in the space. (Blockchain technology provides another example of how progress is best made out of the limelight.)
Quantum computers operate on a different principle to classical machines, using the bizarre properties of subatomic particles to conduct huge numbers of simultaneous calculations. While small-scale proof-of-concept quantum computers have existed for some time, building a viable commercial device entails considerable practical challenges.
Back in 1994, mathematician Peter Shor created an algorithm designed to run on a quantum computer, which could crack RSA, one of the most widely-used cryptosystems for secure data transmission. While the quantum machine necessary to execute his algorithm didn't exist 30 years ago, and still does not exist now, we're getting closer. It might be another decade or even longer before the right hardware is built; on the other hand, no one can say when "Q-Day"—the day when a quantum computer will break RSA and render vast amounts of data insecure—will actually occur.
Recently, research scientist Ed Gerck announced a forthcoming paper on LinkedIn, claiming to have broken RSA-2048 using quantum technology. His claims were met by skepticism. However, it's not the first claim of its kind. Last year, Chinese researchers claimed to have developed a method that could be scaled to crack RSA 2048 with current quantum devices (again, meeting with skepticism).
Both of these methods, if valid, cannot use Shor's algorithm, which would require a quantum device with millions of gates. The largest ones today have only a few hundred gates, and it will likely be decades before a large enough machine is developed. Nonetheless, businesses are already using hybrid computers that leverage quantum capabilities. Alan Baratz, CEO of Canadian quantum company D-Wave, remarks, "Quantum is real today."
As Kaspersky's blog states, "Judging by the combination of required parameters, even the most promising computers of 2023-2024 are probably not suitable for running the Chinese algorithm on the needed scale." It's the "probably" that should give cause for concern. While RSA is almost certainly safe this year, there's growing awareness that the time to start preparing for a post-quantum world is now.
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