We can’t have our quantum cake and eat it, too

Quantum computers might have been the stuff of sci-fi novels at one point in time, but not anymore. Google has recently revealed that their quantum computer has reached quantum supremacy (a point at which a quantum computer outperforms all known supercomputers), launching us towards the quantum age. This may seem like a good thing—and it is, for the most part. But in terms of cybersecurity, it’s also one of the most terrifying.

How do you make a quantum computer?

A quantum computer, rather than using traditional computing processes, relies on quantum mechanics to complete calculations and solve problems. But how do scientists create quantum computers? They can’t just use any old materials. The secret is to isolate qubits in a quantum state—but let’s back up a minute.

“Bits” are streams of electric pulses, represented by either 1 or 0, that traditional computers use to store information. Videos and songs and texts are all just strings of 1s and 0s, of bits of electrical or optical pulses. “Qubits,” on the other hand, are usually subatomic particles, like electrons or photons. If scientists can isolate them and keep them in a quantum state, quantum computers can use them for their calculations and information-storing.

IBM Research / Flickr

Some people make qubits “go quantum” by cooling superconducting circuits to temperatures colder than deep space (that’s somewhere around -454 degrees Fahrenheit). Others trap atoms, one at a time, in an electromagnetic field.

Let’s talk quantum

Thanks to some funky quantum mechanics, qubits aren’t restricted to a mere 1 or 0; they can exist as both at the same time. This phenomenon is called superposition and allows for a lot of weird things to happen with quantum particles that we couldn’t do with our standard particles. There’s also this phenomenon where particles that interacted once (yes, just once) can still influence each other’s state, as though they got all mixed up and stuck together.

Particles experiencing this may be distant from each other, but if you measure one, you can know the state of the other. If you think that sounds crazy, don’t worry: Einstein did too. He called it “spooky action from a distance”; today’s scientists call it ‘entanglement.’

Since qubits can exist as multiple combinations of 1s and 0s at once, they’re able to calculate things a lot faster (a traditional 2-bit pairing can only exist as 00, 01, 10, or 11, while a group of qubits can exist as and process a much higher number of combinations). Scientists can also take advantage of the entanglement phenomenon to help quantum computers process data faster.

With quantum computers, we’ll be able to input our problems and have it spit out a solution in record time.

Qubits: furiously fast

How much faster are we talking here? Well, according to Google, a lot. Google’s quantum computer, which is called Sycamore, was recently able to solve a computation that would take current supercomputers about 10,000 years to compute. They asked the computer to create a long list of random numbers and then double-check their value a million times. Not the most exciting equation, but it shows a lot of processing power for the computer that can do it.

Sycamore didn’t take 10,000 years to complete the calculation. It did it in 200 seconds. According to a Google researcher, Sycamore is about 1.5 trillion times faster than any current supercomputer.

If you think that sounds crazy, don’t worry: Einstein did too.

With such amazing processing speed and power, quantum computers will launch us into a whole new era. Companies will be able to use them to calculate the most efficient ways to build things like cars and airplanes and be able to use quantum computing to optimize a lot of our technology. With quantum computers, we’ll be able to input our problems and have it spit out a solution in record time.

Cyber security’s worst nightmare

Such tremendous technological leaps aren’t all sunshine and wildflowers, though. Many experts are worried that, should a quantum computer like Sycamore get hacked, the hackers would have access to an incredibly large and dangerous amount of computer power. From mining Bitcoins at crazy speeds to stealing identities, hackers would be able to use quantum computers for nearly anything they could imagine.

We don’t have to worry about the dangers of quantum computers quite yet, however. One expert estimates that, at the very earliest, quantum computers won’t make it out of the labs of experimenters for another ten years. While that’s still pretty fast as far as technological developments go, that also gives us time to figure out how to protect ourselves from potential security risks posed by these fantastic computers.

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