Cybersecurity in the quantum era: Preparing for Q Day

The concept of 'Q Day' refers to a hypothetical scenario where quantum computers become advanced enough to break most of the encryption that currently secures digital communications and data

By Aditya Sinha

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Published: Sun 26 Nov 2023, 4:02 PM

Last updated: Sun 26 Nov 2023, 9:07 PM

Computers, in their earliest forms, were met with a blend of awe and scepticism. A humorous anecdote that captures this sentiment involves a 1940s computer called ENIAC. When it was first unveiled, people were astounded by its size and complexity. Some joked that this massive machine, which required an entire room, would eventually evolve to become so advanced that every home in America would have one. The idea seemed ludicrous at the time; after all, who would need such a colossal, complex machine at home? This prediction, once a source of amusement, now underpins our reality.

Fast forward to the present, and computers are not only a staple in homes but have become integral to our daily lives. They power our work, entertainment, communication, and much more. This evolution from room-sized behemoths to compact, powerful devices exemplifies technological progress. Now, we stand at the cusp of another revolutionary leap: quantum computing. Unlike classical computers, which use bits (0s and 1s), quantum computers use quantum bits or qubits. This allows them to perform complex calculations at speeds unattainable by traditional computers. Quantum computing (QC) has shown potential in fields like cryptography, drug discovery, and climate modelling.

QC, though still in its nascent stages, is already revolutionising various fields by offering new perspectives and capabilities. For instance, companies like IBM are exploring QC to discover new drugs, a process which traditionally takes years and significant investment. IBM's collaboration with biotech company Pepscan for peptide drug discovery is a notable example. In finance, JPMorgan Chase is experimenting with quantum algorithms for fraud detection, portfolio optimisation, and option pricing, potentially transforming financial modelling and risk management. Additionally, Volkswagen has used QC for traffic optimisation in cities, demonstrating its potential in urban planning and logistics. These applications underscore the paradigm shift brought about by QC, offering innovative solutions to complex problems that were previously intractable or highly resource-intensive.

A study by Google in 2019 demonstrated quantum supremacy, where their QC solved a problem in 200 seconds that would take the most powerful supercomputer 10,000 years. Similarly, in 2022, the 66-qubit quantum computer ‘Zuchongzhi 2.1’ showcased its remarkable speed by solving a complex problem in just four hours, a task that would have taken a state-of-the-art supercomputer an estimated 48,000 years. This achievement underlines the exponential acceleration in processing power that quantum computers offer over classical computers.

IBM, a major player in this field, successfully introduced the 433-qubit Osprey processor in 2022, merely a year after unveiling their 127-qubit Eagle chip. This rapid progress demonstrates the accelerating pace of QC technology. Moreover, IBM is on track to deliver the 1,121-qubit Condor processor in 2023, pushing the boundaries of what is achievable with single-chip processors and the control of large systems.

The current state of QC in 2023 is characterised by a transition from university research labs to industrial R&D facilities, supported by significant investments from multinational corporations and venture capitalists. However, contemporary QCs, developed by companies like IBM, Google, IonQ, and Rigetti, are still in the "noisy intermediate-scale quantum" development phase. They are relatively modest in size and prone to errors, with error correction being a major technical challenge.

Diverse technological approaches are being pursued in quantum computing. Superconducting circuits, trapped ion technology, silicon-based systems, and photon manipulation are some of the leading methods, each with its unique strengths and challenges. As of now, there is no clear frontrunner among these technologies, and a hybrid approach might emerge as the most effective solution.

However, QC when combined with artificial intelligence (AI), has the potential to be an incredibly powerful tool, but it also raises significant concerns, especially regarding cybersecurity and strategic military applications. The concept of "Q Day" refers to a hypothetical scenario where quantum computers become advanced enough to break most of the encryption that currently secures digital communications and data. This day marks a potential turning point in cybersecurity, as it would render traditional encryption methods obsolete, posing a serious threat to global security.

In the context of AI, QC could dramatically accelerate AI's learning and problem-solving capabilities. However, it also poses significant risks, particularly in the realm of autonomous weapons systems.

Autonomous weapons, or "killer robots", which are AI systems capable of selecting and engaging targets without human intervention, could become far more effective and deadly with quantum computing. The speed and efficiency of quantum-powered AI could lead to weapons systems that can outthink and outmanoeuvre human-controlled systems, potentially leading to new forms of warfare that are faster and more unpredictable than ever before. That is precisely why the world needs a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty style pact on lethal autonomous weapon systems.

Moreover, the combination of QC and AI could lead to new forms of cyber warfare. With the ability to crack current encryption methods, malicious actors could carry out cyber-attacks with unprecedented efficiency, potentially leading to significant disruptions in critical infrastructure, financial systems, and personal privacy.

The concept of Q Day underscores the urgent need for the development of quantum-resistant encryption methods and a thoughtful approach to the integration of AI and quantum technology, particularly in military applications. It's a reminder of the dual-use nature of technology: while offering vast potential for positive impact, it also requires careful consideration of the risks and ethical implications associated with its use.

Regulators globally should prepare for a post-quantum world by focusing on transitioning to quantum-resistant cryptographic algorithms, a process known as post-quantum cryptography (PQC). This involves standardising new, secure algorithms, as demonstrated by the US-based National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) selection of initial algorithms for the PQC standard. Efforts are also underway to develop communication protocols and technical standards for implementing quantum-resistant security in hardware and software. This comprehensive approach, requiring coordination across government agencies, addresses the significant national security risks associated with the advent of QC, particularly the threat it poses to current public key cryptography systems.

Aditya Sinha is Officer on Special Duty, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India. Views Personal.

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