It’s the next big thing in tech no one wants to talk about. Not because it is a secret, but rather because it is a mystery.
Quantum computing promises exactly what its name implies: a massive leap in computing capabilities that could render existing technology obsolete. While researchers have theorised and talked about it for many years, its mainstream deployment is still as much as five to ten years away.
As a result, much as with the early days of artificial intelligence (AI), it is difficult to predict what it will make possible. The only consensus seems to be that it will result in a cybersecurity crisis, as it is expected to make short work of any encryption currently in use in the digital world.
For that very reason, however, it is occupying the minds of many forward-thinking decision makers in the tech world.
“We are probably seven to 10 years away from that happening at scale,” says Jeetu Patel, executive vice president and general manager of security and collaboration at Cisco.
“The biggest challenge in society right now is that the ‘here and now’ is so painful that, thinking about what’s going be in seven years, most people are going to say, let me just focus on the ‘right now’. But that is a recipe for disaster if you don’t focus on the things that are long term for a decent percentage of your time. Eventually companies are going to have to figure out a way to do both.”
Patel was talking on the sidelines of the Cisco Live conference in Amsterdam, where 14,000 information technology professionals gathered to hear about the latest products, services and visions delivered by the global networking equipment leader. Most of what they heard revolved around AI and security, with an occasional nod to the role of quantum computing in both.
However, Patel raised a fascinating and disturbing side-effect of quantum that combines the challenges of the ‘here and now’ with those of the future.
“People are already starting to redirect encrypted traffic that they can store on their side so that, when the quantum computing side evolves to the right level, that you can crack the encryption key.”
That means that valuable data, documents and records stolen today may still be shielded by encryption but, if still in the hands of cybercriminals five or ten years from now, could be cracked wide open. This could reveal treasure trove of company and personal records – and secrets – in the future.
“Right now what’s happening in the industry is that bad folks are collecting as much data as they can so that they can unencrypt it later. We have to come back with mechanisms that allow you to say, here’s how I’m going to protect the data that’s encrypted.
“There’s enough work being done in the community to solve problems of the post quantum era, but it’s definitely something that shouldn’t be ignored and it will be a big risk if not addressed effectively.”
As with AI however, the fears surrounding quantum criminals are countered by the benefits of the technology – and the way it is most likely to be deployed.
“When the technology gets mainstream, the good news is quantum doesn’t get utilised for every single compute use case. There’s some things that the old CPU is going to be better at than Quantum. There’s some things that GPUs are going to be better at than qubits (the building blocks of quantum systems).
“No one’s going to buy a quantum laptop. It’s going to be large server farms and data centres. So it gets easier to regulate. It is going to be easier to create guardrails when there’s a very defined use case.”
• Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee.