Are we on the verge of an internet meltdown – a ‘quantum apocalypse’, as some have called it? It sounds like a scene from of a science fiction movie, with a supercomputer rendering current encryption methods – that underpin much of the internet – completely void. One can only imagine the chaos this would cause in our increasingly connected and digital world.

For now, at least, our online systems appear relatively safe. Whether it’s banking and payments or government databases, data is protected via encryption – a vital tool that protects our digital lives. And cracking today’s encryption, which scrambles data into an unreadable format called ‘cipher text’, would take virtually forever, experts say.1

But all this could change with the rise of quantum computers. Whereas traditional computers store data in binary ‘bits’ (like ones and zeroes) and function by creating and then storing long strings of these bits, quantum computers ‘qubits’ (quantum bits) can do both simultaneously. This enables them to do millions of trial-and-error calculations at once; what might have taken an ordinary computer weeks, or even years, a quantum computer could do in seconds.

How to think of this non-linear, exponential shift? If you imagine conventional computers being a horse and cart, one specialist recently explained, then a quantum computer is “more like a sports car – a huge leap forward.”2

The nightmare scenario is a quantum supercomputer falling into the hands of a rogue state or bad actor. If powerful enough, it could be used to hack government systems, shut down power grids, clear bank accounts, erase bitcoin wallets, and spark financial chaos. The internet as we know it now may simply cease to exist.

Looming catastrophe

We aren’t there yet thankfully. Current quantum computers, which look more like futuristic chandeliers draped in gold rather than our trusty portable laptops, are still years away from being able to ‘break’ the internet. Still, huge strides are being made.

In 2019, for instance, Google announced it had achieved so-called ‘quantum supremacy’, when its Sycamore machine performed a task in two minutes that would have taken the world’s fastest supercomputer over 10,000 hours. The internet giant recently spun off its quantum enterprise unit, called Sandbox, with notable financial backing from former Google CEO, Erik Schmidt, and Salesforce CEO, Marc Benioff. Other firms like AI pioneer, IBM, are hot on its heels.

Meanwhile, both the US and China are locked into a 21st century quantum arms race of sorts, too. The first to create a true quantum supercomputer will wield a huge, if not overwhelming, cyber advantage, military analysts warn. In a worrying sign for Washington, it’s Beijing that’s said to have the edge so far.3

With a quantum leap drawing nearer, security experts are scrambling to stay one step ahead. Several options are reportedly showing promise. First, researchers are working on new ‘quantum-safe’ encryption methods, with the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), evaluating 69 potential methods of ‘post-quantum cryptography’, or PQC. Then there is a potential Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), which uses quantum physics to securely transfer a key between two end points.4

Both methods show promise, though neither has proven a panacea yet. Meanwhile, the sheer number of top government agencies, tech giants and even banks looking into quantum security highlights just how high the stakes have become of late.

“This isn’t something that is some futurist, sci-fi kind of thing that I don’t have to worry about for 20 years,” stressed Tony Uttley, president of quantum technology firm Quantinuum. “It is something that needs to be thought about today.”5

A quantum leap for humankind

The quantum future is not all doom and gloom, though. For many technologists, in fact, it’s aroused more awe than angst – with the potential to unlock new insights and possibilities.

What might these new possibilities look like? Quantum computing proponents like IBM and Google point to an array of potential benefits, in fields as diverse as artificial intelligence, data analytics, medical research, weather and pandemic forecasting, and even logistics and supply chain modelling. With the world awash with data, they say, quantum computing offers one way to cut through the noise and make sense of it all.

Healthcare revolution

Take healthcare as an example. Globally, healthcare data – such as information from clinical trials, disease registries, and electronic healthcare records – will reach an annual growth rate of 36% by 2025, a staggering pace.6

But harnessing the true potential of this data remains impossible today. The information is often too sparse or sprawling to reveal any real signal. And when it can be done, such as in drug development, it can take years or even decades and cost billions – two major barriers that mean very few true ground-breaking drugs come to market each year, despite the potential for more.

With quantum computing, however, pharmaceutical companies like Roche are hopeful that so-called quantum simulations can speed up the development of drugs and vaccines, and perhaps even find a cure for Alzheimer’s.7

That’s because quantum simulations could drastically reduce the time and money needed for research, with the supercomputers performing millions of complex chemical and biological calculations per second. Eventually, drug companies hope, such simulations may even replace human and animal testing, further saving costs and time.

And it doesn’t stop there. Breakthroughs might be seen in other areas of forecasting and modelling, such as weather, pandemic predictions, or supply chains. Weather forecasting, for instance, is notoriously unreliable; five- and seven-day forecasts are generally dependable, but all that goes out the window when looking out weeks or months. There are simply too many variables to crunch without the help of a supercomputer.

With natural disasters becoming more frequent and costly, global food security a major worry, and global warming one of the most pressing issues today, being able to better understand and predict weather patterns and crop yields will be crucial in the future.

Exponential investing

Finally, the implications for investors could be similarly game-changing. Drug companies investing heavily in quantum computing could soon enjoy an outsized advantage over rivals when it comes to new treatments or vaccines. Not only could they unlock novel drugs for hard-to-treat diseases like Alzheimer’s, but their research and development capabilities could experience a huge boost. This, in turn, could force rival firms to embrace quantum solutions as well, levelling the playing field.

With the barriers to drug discovery falling, a golden age for biotech could be just around the corner – a timely advancement with the number of people aged over 50 or older around the world set to double by 2050.8 Other industries may also be on the cusp of similar shifts, including cyber security and logistics.

It’s no surprise that Softbank and Vodafone have recently partnered with Google’s Sandbox to explore its potential, while industry heavyweights Exxon and Daimler have joined forces with IBM’s Quantum Services Team. Will this give them an early edge against their competitors? And will Google and IBM dominate the space in similar fashion to Microsoft and Amazon ruling cloud services now?

No one knows for sure, of course, not even the all-powerful quantum computers that promise to radically upend our lives. But one thing is certain: a quantum leap is nearly upon us, and the risks and opportunities loom large. Security experts and investors alike must brace for what’s coming.
Glossary

  • Quantum Apocalypse  - A point in time when quantum computers become so powerful that they can break modern day encryption. This has the potential to jeopardize government, communications, banking, transport, energy and toher critical systems that use cryptography to store information and data.
  • Quantum Computing  - Quantum computing is a type of computation that harnesses the collective properties of quantum states (based on quantum mechanics), such as superposition, interference, and entanglement, to perform calculations. The devices that perform quantum computations are known as quantum computers – sometimes referred to as supercomputers.
  • Quantum Leap - a huge, often sudden, increase or advance in something.