Quantum computing is getting closer
3 Aug 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Captain Pancakes

Electronic computer technology has moved from valves to transistors to progressively more complex integrated circuits and processor designs, with each change bringing higher levels of performance. Now the advent of quantum computers promises a huge step increase in processor performance to solve certain types of problems.

Quantum computers are much faster than the world’s fastest supercomputers for some applications. In 1994 Peter Shor, an applied mathematician at Bell Laboratories, gave the encryption world a shock when he demonstrated an algorithm showing that quantum computers could threaten conventional prime number based encryption methods.

If an adversary conducts successful espionage raids on encrypted information stored in present technology computer installations, possibly through a compromised or issue-motivated individual who transfers it to portable media, it could become vulnerable to decryption by that rival’s quantum computers.

Apart from the usual cyber security defences, including increased oversight and monitoring of individuals’ access to secured information, the time is coming when we need to develop encryption technology which cannot be broken by quantum computers, and we will have to use data diodes more widely and ‘air gap’ vital computer installations, greatly increasing the difficulty of authorised access to their stored information and lengthening the response time for urgent defence purposes.

It is reasonable to ask when we might see quantum computers in everyday use. Although the first such machines exist now, they are not suitable for most tasks. They are being directed towards optimisation problems that can be defined in quantum mechanical form, and for which a range of solutions can co-exist, with the challenge being to reveal the most relevant and optimal.

World-wide, defence and intelligence agencies, and large commercial organisations are taking quantum computing seriously. There are some significant Australian connections as well. A laboratory at Sydney University has been awarded a multimillion dollar grant by the US office of the Director of National Intelligence to pursue quantum computing research. The Quantum Control Laboratory in the university’s new Nanoscience Hub is the only facility in Australia chosen for the US funding.

The Quantum Computation Laboratory at UTS, Sydney, stated:

‘As with all pioneering efforts, this field presents many challenges. How to employ the laws of physics that apply to the sub-atomic world given our existence is macroscopic; determining the fundamental physical limits of our ability to process and transmit information; and where quantum technology might be applied beyond traditional concepts of computing are perhaps the three most notable.’

Another research group, at UNSW, already has a great track record under Professor Michelle Simmons, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology. Recent technology breakthroughs at UNSW included researchers building the first quantum logic gate in silicon in 2015. This clears one of the critical hurdles to making silicon-based quantum computers a reality, and gives the team a two to three-year lead over the rest of the world, enabling them to stay ahead of the competition according to Professor Simmons.

UNSW collaborating and partnering organisations include five other Australian universities, DSTG, ASD, IBM Research and ten overseas universities.

There’s also an interest from Defence. In soliciting proposals for this year’s Capability and Technology Demonstrator Program, DSTG noted capability interest in ‘quantum systems and technologies’—previously identified as a priority work area in the 2016 Defence Integrated Investment Program.

In the United States, NASA and Google’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory hosts a 1,097-qubit D-Wave 2X™ quantum computer to explore its potential to tackle optimisation problems that are difficult or impossible for traditional supercomputers to handle.

Google is planning preemptive steps to meet the potential future challenge to today’s internet encryption from quantum computers. To future-proof today’s messaging and content, Google is testing and will deploy what it’s calling ‘post-quantum cryptography’ in its browser Chrome Canary,  using their New Hope algorithm, layered on top of current encryption methods.

Lockheed Martin has partnered with the University of Southern California, to produce a D-Wave 2X™ quantum computer ‘to advance the state of the art in software verification and validation, cryptography, drug discovery, machine learning, cyber security, finance and many other areas where innovation is bounded by the limits of high-performance computing.’ The machine has demonstrated high performance in some optimisation problems.

The problem in creating large scale quantum computers is that their building blocks are unstable, and can give false results. The major challenge is to stabilise these chips and figure out how to automatically find and fix errors. Their actual installation must be in a vibration free environment and current devices must be kept near Absolute Zero (-273 degrees Celsius).

While current quantum chips consume a fraction of a microwatt in power, the refrigeration system requires fifteen kilowatts! That’s not all bad, as an increase in computing power as the technology advances will be easily accommodated by the existing power supply.

There’s still much to do, but Australia is conducting world class research into quantum computing and communications and is fully involved internationally with intelligence and security applications.