It may be hard to conceive, but America’s successful launch of Apollo 8, the first manned orbital flight around another celestial body, was done with computing power roughly analogous to an early flip phone. The flip phone was a dramatic improvement over the first cell phones. You may remember the ‘bricks’, those hulking ‘mobile’ devices that looked like the baby a steamer trunk and an anvil might produce. They worked if you were in the right locations, but the right locations were problematic in that that could be anywhere. Phone booths were far more practical than late 20th Century technology.
We now find ourselves once again at the precipice of another great technological leap in computing that in just a few short years may have people drawing a similar comparison between 2019’s fastest desktop or laptop and quantum computers. Since we already think we understand the things a standard computer does, let’s define what quantum computing is.
Standard computers---we all have or are prisoners of our favorite brands---are essentially what tech writer Bernard Marr calls “a calculator that uses a sequence of bits.” These bits operate on the binary system, that is 0 and 1. Think of it as ‘on and off’ switches, said Marr. Quantum computers, though, are different as well as being still a few years away. They’ll use subatomic particles to move data in volumes our current models could never do. Apples, HPs, Dells and the rest, well, they’ll be 21st Century bricks. QC is the future and China is leading the pack.
“Nobody has the answer on how fast this is moving,” said Steve Beaty, Professor of Computer Science at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “Quantum is so new that nobody has come up the answer.”
It’s believed that China is investing heavily in this new science. The Chinese government is building a new $10 billion laboratory in Hefei, Anhui province that is expected to open in 2020. The U.S. government along with private industry is said to be spending a mere $200 million annually, according to a 2016 government report.
If China wins this technological race, it will mean a huge military leg up over the U.S. and any other country. QC is thought to be impenetrable as well as being able to enter any current state of the art computer, including any governmental computers. This would mean a huge military and economic advantage for China. It is a huge stealth capability and advantage, said Beaty. Also hugely dangerous.
“There is a large concern if quantum computers are rolled out,” said the MSUD computer scientist. Everything on computers---all layers including personal, business and governmental---will be accessible. “Everybody’s privacy is at stake. We will have to find other ways to maintain our privacy.” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“With one algorithm, all that goes out the window,” he said. Passwords, personal privacy, credit card information, banking; all would be at risk. Looming much larger, military information, including nuclear launch codes could be accessed and compromised. “It’s a never-ending battle,” said Beaty. “Clearly, it’s been a chess game. Problem is, it’s no longer chess.”
For years, banks have been targets of sophisticated computer heists. Financial institutions in Europe, Japan, Russia and the U.S. have been robbed in sums described only as ‘hundreds of millions of dollars.’ Part of the problem is poorly defended bank firewalls, the other is the ever-improving skills and tools from these cyber thieves. According to Finance Monthly, “on average, an attacker able to reach a bank’s internal network would need only four steps to obtain access to key banking systems.” QC conceivably could make even faster work of a system.
With China seemingly in the lead in advancing this new form of computer science, the heat is on for everyone to match or just get closer in narrowing this technological gap. Everything and everyone, from aerospace to zoology is a potential target in this coming era. Quantum computing has the ability to change the world in both good and bad ways, as well as ways not yet imagined.
QC will be able to solve problems at lightning speed. But it will also be able to create them at the same velocity. It will be able to construct essentially impenetrable security and at the same time perform the skeleton key functions to that very security. It will be a boon to science and medicine. But it will also be the wormhole insecurity to every electronic transaction or entry point to every bit of personal information not to be shared.
Just like the tagline in the Star Trek television series, QC will go ‘where no man has gone before…whether we like it or not.’