Why Quantum Computers Are So Exciting – And Also A Bit Frightening
Much more powerful than traditional computers using bits and bytes, but also a little esoteric: What can quantum computers do, when will we see them in everyday life – and why are security experts concerned that their time may come sooner rather than later? DLD spoke with renowned computer scientist Gabi Dreo Rodosek ahead of DLD20 in Munich.
“Quantum computing is coming. Companies need to act now and prepare.”
A professor of computer science at Bundeswehr University in Munich, Gabi Dreo Rodosek specializes in keeping IT systems safe from intruders. Since 2017, she’s been the director of the research institute for Cyber Defence (CODE) – which was the first to create a quantum computing hub in Germany, in collaboration with IBM.
How will the availability of quantum computers impact the lives of regular people?
Quantum computing is an entirely new paradigm of computation that promises to solve some of the most difficult problems in science and business – such as advanced research in material sciences, drug discovery, finance, transportation, cryptography and other areas. Today, however, quantum computing is still in an experimental, laboratory status, so for the next 5 to 10 years only specialists will use these systems.
What is the challenge in making this technology ready for every-day use?
One crucial aspect is that quantum computers need to be cooled to near absolute zero, which costs a lot of energy and money. Considering the big investments that are required, quantum computers will initially be operated like supercomputers: They will be used mostly via cloud services or hubs like the IBM Q Hub at the Research Institute CODE, where interested institutions can request access.
Ice box for Qbits: Quantum computers need to be cooled down to near absolute zero. This makes them as big and unwieldy as early mainframes. Here: Researchers at an IBM Q computation center in the U.S. (Photo: Connie Zhou/IBM)
What’s already possible with today’s systems?
Airbus showed that quantum computing could help to calculate the most fuel-efficient ascent and descent paths for aircraft. Volkswagen, as a proof-of-concept, calculated the optimal routes for buses and taxis to minimize congestion. The real potential and influence of quantum computing will be revealed in the near future.
How does quantum computing compare to the advent of binary computers?
In a way, it’s similar to the 1960s – a time when we still used punched cards and mainframes. It took around 40 years for this technology to mature to the point where we are now: a world full of interconnected devices, from laptops and smartphones to the Internet of Things.
Scientific research dominates the realm of potential applications for quantum computers, according to the PwC report “Quantum Leap” (PDF).
Do you expect a similar paradigm shift in the near future?
We are at the beginning of an exciting era, no doubt. As quantum computers become more powerful, new programming languages and new applications will emerge, similar to what we’ve seen in mobile app innovations. But arguably, developments in the area of quantum computing will have even a greater impact on our world. We already see many job opportunities in this field, and accordingly, we’ve introduced quantum computing as a field of study at the Bundeswehr University Munich.
Which implications do quantum computers have for cybersecurity?
The enormous computing power of these new systems could break what’s known as “asymmetric encryption”, which is the basis of today’s approach for securing much of the data online – for example in online banking. Consequently, we need to develop new, quantum-resistant solutions for securing data in tomorrow’s digital world.
How urgent is this problem?
Breaking today’s encryption model requires a huge number of Qbits, the quantum computing equivalent of transistors. Qbits are a rough measure of computing power. We do not expect the risk to encryption materialize in the next 5 to 10 years – but we do need to increase efforts in the development of post-quantum cryptography approaches now. Data that is being encrypted and stored today will certainly be at risk as large-scale quantum computers enter the market before that data reaches the end of its valuable life.
What should companies and organizations do in order to be safe from unwelcome surprises?
Quantum computing is coming. Companies need to act now and prepare. That means, for example, analyzing how these new systems could affect their business models – positively, by allowing them to develop new products and services, or negatively, by questioning things that are currently working. In general, business leaders should keep an eye on the development in this field if they want to avoid the risk of falling behind.
“We need to have a security-first approach in all areas of business, but also in our private lives.”
Beyond quantum computers, where do you see the biggest digital security threats?
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is the key technology of our digital society. Nothing works without it. The enormous number of devices, the complexity and interconnection allow us to develop completely new functionalities, like autonomous driving. On the other hand, the increasing quality and quantity of cyberattacks show again and again how vulnerable our society is becoming to such threats. That means, for example, that we cannot afford to use cheap IoT devices which come without adequate security built in. We need to have a security-first approach in all areas of business, but also in our private lives.
Do you see political implications?
Yes, this is also a matter of national security: Countries do not talk much about cyber warfare. But given that everything depends on ICT these days, it is natural to attack an opponent’s IT. Identifying the attacker is very difficult in many cases. Social networks also make it possible to manipulate people’s opinions on a large scale. In such cases IT can become a threat to democracy.
What can each of us do to better protect ourselves?
There are some golden rules, such as making sure that your IT systems always run the most current software. For companies, firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems, vulnerability scanners – such measures are must these days. On a personal level, I highly recommend using a password manager and creating a separate account for each service. Using Google or Facebook as an online ID may seem more convenient but it also makes you more vulnerable: If your login data is compromised the attackers immediately gain access to various services. Using 2-factor authentication, meaning your e-mail address and password alone won’t be enough for anyone to take over your account, is nearly a must. And of course, never ever use passwords like “12345” or “QWERTY”, which can easily be guessed.
What are you adding with the CODE institute to address an important issue for society?
With its more than 15 chairs in cybersecurity, our research institute is becoming one the largest of its kind in Europe. By leading the EU project CONCORDIA, with currently 55 partners and growing, CODE is building a unique European cybersecurity ecosystem with a number of stakeholders in research, industry, public bodies, SMEs, and startups to develop IT products and services. Europe has to find its way to achieve European leadership through building ecosystems where various stakeholders need to work together by combining resources and funds. Europe has excellent research but lacks to successfully turn innovative R&D products into IT deployable products and services and fails to scale start-ups or SMEs into global player. In addition, as one of the eight IBM-Q-Hubs, we are exploring and building experience in quantum resistant algorithms. We expect to have a physical quantum computer in our new building by the end of 2024.