IBM Q System One (2019), the first circuit-based commercial quantum computer. Photo: Wikipedia

Quantum computers as conceived are radically different from the familiar digital machines in use today. They operate by leveraging  unique phenomena in quantum physics of materials (based on the behavior of sub-atomic particles) to enable computations to be performed that can enable the rapid solution of certain problems in minutes that could take years with conventional high-performance computers.

They don’t exist yet and formidable engineering problems have to be overcome for their potential to be realized. In particular, achieving reliable computation is known to be a major challenge. But enough research progress has been made to suggest that such computers could be built eventually.

Major resources are being devoted to this task in the US, China and elsewhere, with researchers at Google in the US among the leaders striving to solve the formidable engineering problems. 

What is unusual about this endeavor to achieve new computing capabilities is the public-policy interest. The ongoing research on quantum computing is generating enormous government-agency interest at a time when its practical value has not been demonstrated.

This level of interest is unusual at such an early technology stage and is unprecedented in digital history. But the reason is clear. If successful, such computers will threaten to render obsolete strategically critical cryptographic software that protects much of the most sensitive information in the world.

Hence the interest in developing cryptographic software that will not be able to be broken by quantum computers as currently conceived. In fact, in 2015, the US National Security Agency called for a transition to new algorithms that would be safe from quantum computers. 

I can’t think of an emerging electronic technology that has generated as much dread and anticipation, because different and more powerful computers not only promise to change cryptograph software technology – a negative – but on the positive side allow simulation of complex physical and chemical systems too challenging for current supercomputers.

Such simulation opens the door to new drugs and chemical products. But not surprisingly, it is the challenge to existing data security that prompts the most immediate concerns and will trigger the most investment in countermeasure solutions both in the private and public sector.  

Here are some examples of government activity to develop protective software resources.

In Canada, a report titled “Canadian National Quantum – Readiness” was issued on July 7, 2021, to describe best practices and guidelines for developing new software to overcome the quantum-computing threat.

The report states:”The encryption technologies that are securing Canada’s financial systems today will one day become obsolete. If we do nothing, the financial data that underpins Canada’s economy will inevitably become more vulnerable to cyber criminals.” 

In the US, as noted above, the National Security Agency took an early lead in identifying the perceived threat.

On January 19, 2022, an action from the US president came public. The White House issued a “Memorandum on Improving the Cybersecurity of National Security, Department of Defense and Intelligence Community Systems.”

The document shows the urgency needed to address perceived major threats. It outlines major actions to avoid security lapses that would be created by quantum computers targeting critical secret data and related infrastructure. It also identifies the management responsibilities in the various agencies to implement these measure within a matter of months. 

This perceived threat to existing cybersecurity will generate a great deal of private industry and bring well-funded new companies into the business of transition to new security solutions.

It is clear that well-informed experts believe that powerful new quantum computers will emerge and that the risks are so great of their ability to overcome existing security barriers that an all-out effort is needed to build safeguards now.

Henry Kressel is a technologist, inventor and long-term Warburg Pincus private equity investor. Among his technological achievements is the pioneering of the modern semiconductor laser device that enables modern communications systems.